Most businesses that can support remote working have done it or are still doing it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those that have been able to support remote working have often been surprised by how well it has worked for them. Many companies that were initially very averse to the idea of having employees work at home by themselves with no oversight as well as their company and client information going outside of a carefully controlled environment. Now that they have been forced into it, even firms that are traditionally very office and physical asset based (e.g. law firms) are finding that their business operations are actually running much as before, even for those who have children off school.
This has been an unexpected relief for many businesses as they have found that contrary to their expectations, they are still able to operate effectively with all staff remote working. Many have therefore decided that for the foreseeable future, their organisations will retain a level of remote working. Either all employees who do not need to be in the office will continue working at home, or there will be at least some working from home for a proportion of employees. The return to the office will be gradual.
While many have seen this as an unexpected boon, it is important to consider how this may affect processes that may not be immediately obvious, potentially saving up problems for later. These lagging indicators may only cause problems several years down the line, essentially storing up a serious productivity problem for the future.
If you have been in your job for a few years, you probably know enough about it to be able to work disconnected from others on your own tasks at least for some time. This is not true for all employees though. Senior staff may be fine to continue on with their own knowledge and skills, but what about those who need to access the knowledge and skills of others? This is a particular problem for junior staff, for whom being around their seniors is very important for both active and passive knowledge transfer. These employees will be missing out on crucial development from overheard conversations, having quick questions answered and ad hoc technical conversations with their colleagues.
Another way that more junior employees will be disadvantaged is through lack of training and development. Most companies are doing their best to continue with these, remote delivery fundamentally lacks things that face to face delivery have. It is much harder to tell if people are following something or are engaged over video calls as many of the non-verbal cues associated with attention and understanding are subtle. You cannot even know if someone is watching what you are showing as they may have something else on their computer screen. For some topics it can also be harder to engage without more dimensions of content delivery such as whiteboarding and physical props.
By going too far in embracing remote working, we may simply be storing up systemic problems for the future. If majority remote working continues for several years, companies may find that they reach a point at which they either have senior staff who are less skilled than their forebears or no staff they can elevate to a senior level. When considering whether to extend remote working and who to extend it to, it is important to manage this in a way that does not create an even worse problem in the future.