Remote working trend to stick beyond COVID-19

Read time 3min 20sec

The concept of remote working is likely to continue beyond the COVID-19-induced lockdowns that saw more people working from home.

This is according to the McKinsey Global Institute, “The future of work after COVID-19” report, which notes that among some workers, COVID‑19 will be forever remembered as the virus that turned their homes into office spaces.

According to the consultancy firm, when the pandemic started, employees working remotely even part-time were few and limited largely to advanced Western economies.

“Working from home was primarily something done when a child was sick or a household repair person was at work,” says McKinsey.

That changed almost overnight as governments issued stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic, it notes.

“Legions of workers cleared off their kitchen counters and dining room tables to make room for laptops, screens and keyboards, while their employers scrambled to deploy digital tools to help them maintain the productivity they had in the office.”

According to McKinsey, the transformation caused a behavioural change that is likely to stick. The forced experiment proved a success for many workers and offered businesses a tutorial in the limitations and benefits of remote work, it adds.

As offices reopen when the pandemic ebbs, the consultancy firm says many companies plan to allow some employees to work away from the office at least part-time.

It points out that the virus has overcome cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past and triggered a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.

To determine the overall potential for remote work for jobs and sectors, McKinsey analysed the time spent on different activities within occupations and found that remote work potential is concentrated in a few sectors.

It notes the finance and insurance sector has the highest potential, with three-quarters of time spent on activities that can be done remotely without a loss of productivity.

Management, business services and information technology have the next highest potential, with more than half of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely, says the firm, adding that a high share of employees in these sectors hold a college degree or higher.

The firm also believes that a hybrid model with some remote work is likely to persist for many jobs.

For many workers, it says, some activities during a typical workday can be done remotely, while the rest of their tasks require their on-site physical presence.

In a McKinsey survey of 278 executives in August 2020, 72% said they had already started adopting permanent remote working models for some employees.

“But companies must be intentional in crafting these programmes to avoid the pitfalls of past telecommuting efforts. According to our analysis, a chemical technician could work remotely only a quarter of the time because much of her work must be done in a lab housing the equipment she needs.

“Among healthcare occupations, general practitioners who can use digital technologies to communicate with patients have a much greater potential for remote work than surgeons and X-ray technicians, who need advanced equipment and tools to do their work. Thus, among health professionals overall, the effective remote work potential is 20%.

“As a result of more people spending part of their time working remotely, companies are reconfiguring office spaces and reducing the floor space they need.”

McKinsey points out that in the survey of 278 executives, two-thirds said their companies have plans to reconfigure their office space away from desks and private offices towards more team spaces and conference rooms. On average, they planned to reduce office space by 30%.

See also