The Bull Case for Remote Work

July 19, 2021

The Bull Case for Remote Work

On March 12th 2020 the world changed.

In the 15 months since remote work has accelerated 15 years into the future. Where prior to the pandemic only 3% of the US workforce worked remotely full-time, after the pandemic 10X that number will.

In number terms the change is enormous. 3-4M full-time workers operated remotely full-time in 2018. By 2030 that number looks set to grow to at least 80M workers. This should be considered the base case scenario. I expect that number to increase dramatically as millions of workers experience normal, healthy remote working for the first time.

What people have worked through in the last 15 months has been the worst possible version of remote work. Lockdown, homeschooling, unable to travel, can’t see friends, little freedom to do the things that make us happiest. As a result, workers have not been able to experience the intangible benefits of remote. The things that make it 10X better than working in an office full-time. These things obviously won’t return immediately, but eventually they will.

The rush of investment in solving problems remote workers have always faced will lead to many of them being better addressed than in the past. This investment will lead to the core infrastructure needed to enable remote work more easily to emerge rapidly. The thing standing in the way of companies going remote or becoming more remote friendly is typically the ease in which it can happen. As these barriers to entry get removed, remote becoming exponentially more widespread becomes almost inevitable. It ties back to the age old question of disruption.

What happened to companies that didn’t adopt computers in the 1990’s?

What happened to companies that didn’t implement software in the 2000’s?

What happened to companies that didn’t embrace the internet in the 2010’s?

What enabled each of those revolutions to happen was massive investment in each of these areas that led to tremendous innovation. The question today then becomes: what happens to every company that doesn’t become remote?

The data coming out from almost every internal survey by companies of their own people tell the story of how revolutionary this will be. Habits and behaviors that have emerged during the pandemic have calcified and workers now know almost every knowledge-based job can be done remotely. Telling someone who has done an incredible job in the most difficult circumstances imaginable that they must again commute for 2H a day won’t cut it. Who wants to go back to wasting their life sat in a pollution emitting steel box, living in an expensive city with hard any disposable income, leaving behind family and friends in pursuit of opportunity when they no longer need to.

A recent report by Bloomberg stated that 40% of workers would rather quit than go back to the office full-time. For Millenials that number was even higher: 50%. Companies who try will find out whether workers mean it.

Some of the largest tech companies on the planet announced their intentions to go back to the office full-time in the future. What followed internally was entire departments in open revolt telling their leaders that if they went through with the plan they would quit for competitors who would let them work remotely.

The capitulation was inevitable. How quickly it happened was the only surprise. The trends of massive companies changing their approach to remote work suggests they have already realized that many people will follow through on this promise to leave.

Why is this happening now?

Many of us live and work in a knowledge based economy. Sit at a desk and do most of your work on a computer? You are a knowledge worker. Stand a whiteboard and brainstorm ideas regularly? You are a knowledge worker.

In a knowledge economy, companies are the people they employ.

Don’t have the most talented people? You aren’t likely to be the most talented company in your space and more talented companies will crush you. To be the most talented company you need to have access to the most talented people. To have access to the most talented people you have to offer the flexibility to work remotely.

How big could remote work be?

Not every job can be done remotely. The roles we are talking about are typically desk jobs. So the right place to start is with the question: how many desk jobs are there in the world? Today, there are 255M desk jobs globally.

The second question to ask is: how many jobs will be allowed to become remote? This is much more difficult to answer. There will of course be some pullback as companies try to return to the status quo.

What decides how many people work remotely won’t be companies. It will be their people demanding it by rejecting a return to the office or eventually going back.

How do workers feel about the office:

Sceptics remain. Oft-cited issues such as the burden of childcare, downsides of isolation on mental health, and not having enough space in tiny city centre apartments are fair questions asked of remote. Those things are challenges of pandemic-enforced work from home and not issues with remote working in normal times.

As lockdowns ease, childcare returns. As things start to unlock your ability to spend time working in coworking spaces around other people, grab coffee with friends, or work from a coffee shop a few hours a day becomes a possibility.

Young people living in shared apartments is more an implication of the high cost of living in cities, and needing to be close enough to commute daily rather than an issue with remote work. Which talks of the reality of many of the perceived challenges of remote work. Many of the biggest issues with remote working are caused by pandemic remote work rather than normal remote work.

There is also the fact remote work is not necessarily what some people think it is.

Remote work does not mean you never see your teammates.

Remote work does not mean you work from home every day.

The trope around humans being “social animals” is a particularly odd reason to trumpet a need to return to the office. Remote work can be more social. You get to choose who you spend the most time with, typically the people you care about most, and you have greater opportunity to do the things that make you happiest due to having no commute.

That doesn’t mean you never see your team. Rather, it enables you to be more purposeful about when you do and more focussed on increasing the quality of communication and collaboration when you do come together in person. Many remote teams have closer relationships with their colleagues as a result. Rather than the inane daily musings of current affairs that lead to shallow superficial relationships that typically lack depth, breadth or meaning, remote teams dig deeper when they have the chance to talk about more important things. If you doubt this, I’d ask how many people you still talk to regularly from your last job.

True remote work means working from wherever you do your best work. This is about evolving from the situation we have faced since the industrial revolution of work being designed for the collective. Remote work is about empowering every individual to design work around their own requirements in order to do the best work they have ever done.

That’s the real remote work revolution and what we should be striving for.

The way to get there is to reframe what remote work is about.

Remote work isn’t just the future of work. Most people really don’t care about that.

Remote work is the future of living. That is something everyone can get behind.

The bull case for remote work

Applying those statistics to the overall number of remote work provides a compelling argument towards the belief that a majority of the desk jobs globally will be done remotely a majority of the time by 2030. An astonishing 97% of want to work remotely after Covid. 50%+ want to work remotely a majority of the time.

At that scale, 128M+ jobs will be done remotely at least 3 days a week by 2030.

If we hit the higher end of that spectrum 247M+ jobs will be done remotely.

Of course, this assumes the number of desk jobs remains stagnant which won’t be the case so that number is likely to grow significantly over the next decade.

Remote work promises to be the biggest workplace revolution in history. Companies that don’t embrace remote work will be replaced by companies that do. The tale is as long as time and has many recent examples.

The Remote Work Dilemma

Every company will be forced to go remote and become increasingly remote in order to remain competitive. Inevitably, more people will become remote as a result.

Any company that is less remote than it’s biggest competitor will be:

  1. Less Talented: because they can only hire the best person they can afford in a 30-mile raidus of their office vs. remote companies who will hire the best talent they can afford globally

  2. Less Cost-Efficient: because they will have to pay $10K-$50K per worker every year on office space vs. remote companies who will provide the best remote work experience on the planet for $2K per worker each year.

Office-first companies will bleed talent while their costs remain flat, while their biggest competitors become more talented with lower overheads.

Amazon crushed JC Penney

eCommerce crushed physical stores because it has better:

  1. Cost
  2. Choice
  3. Convenience

Remote companies crush office-first companies for the same reason.

This is only obvious with hindsight. It took the best part of 20 years for this to happen. Now when you walk down your local high street it has become a ghost town as shopping went virtual. Offices likely won’t have the same grace. Where initially the internet grew slowly, hardly anyone bought anything online.

Soon, some people bought some things online.

Eventually, most people bought some things online.

Today, almost everyone buys a lot of things online.

The same thing will happen with remote and lead to the death of the full-time office. The only difference is that a global pandemic has been the catalyst to enact 15 years of change in 15 months. The habits and behaviours that have calcified since make it almost impossible for anyone to go back to the office full-time.

And the longer it lasts the more people who want to go to the office less.

That doesn’t mean that physical location won’t still exist or be used. But they will become more experiential and be used far less frequently.

Full-time office work is dead.

Long live remote work.