COVID-19: A Global Test Case for Remote Working Arrangements?

Colleen Thornton

Is COVID-19 influencing remote working arrangements?

Most of us already know that the short answer is yes, either from experience or because we’re watching the world unravel in the wake of this deadly virus. But, like with any controversial issue receiving global attention, there are several ways of looking at it. Let’s start with the facts.  

According to Forbes, remote working has become the standard operating mode for at least 50% of the US population (1). But in the past several weeks, that number has bled through international borders and exploded in response to attempts to contain COVID-19.

What started as mere whispers of another SARS-like virus, became aggressive shouts dominating the news and social media platforms within a few days of its onset. The numbers are real - and scary. The respiratory disease is now approaching pandemic status. More than 139,000 people have been affected, and 63,000 are still active cases. Worldwide deaths total over 5,100 (2).

There are a vast number of opinions and theories about how COVID-19 will affect the global economy. Indeed it already is, in myriad ways, particularly workforce operation. One need only open up their laptop to be inundated with climbing stats and new stories everyday. But as with any bad news, there is a silver lining if one looks for it. While it may seem strange to look at the bright side of tragedy, it’s also helpful. In more ways than one, the COVID-19 outbreak is going to have some positive, if not unusual, consequences.  

US company and video conferencing provider Zoom has seen a rise in its stocks, a contrast to overall trends as world markets tank (3). Why? More people are working from home, and not just a few, but millions​, as governments and companies attempt to contain the virus.

Although it’s posing a major challenge to business and global economy, it’s also offering companies the chance to test out remote working arrangements. Indeed, Time Magazine is calling this mass workplace exodus the world’s largest work-from-home experiment (4). When push comes to shove comes to terrifying pandemic, remote working may become a more accepted and prominent working arrangement. We may also experience what research has already discovered: that remote working is more productive and profitable, and it contributes to a better work-life balance.  

No commuting.

Less sick days.

No flying across the world for meetings than can be accomplished with video conferencing.

The benefits are endless - but is now the right time to go remote?

If you’re planning to transition to a remote working arrangement, there are a few things you want to consider in light of COVID-19. Depending on how you look at it, 2020 is either the prime-time or the worse time to go remote.


Being pushed into situations by way of events beyond our control is often the catalyst for positive change. Many companies are hesitant to implement flexible work arrangements, such as remote working, fearing that productivity will plummet. But with the steady rise in such arrangements, change may be critical for staying competitive and recruiting expert talent from a more diverse and demanding pool of candidates. Between 2017 and 2018, remote working in the US increased by 22% (5). A broader perspective shows that it has more than tripled over the past 30 years (6).

In 2018, 16% of global companies were fully remote and 40% were hybrid, numbers that are almost certain to rise over the next decade (7). More and more people want to work remotely for several reasons, the top three being increased focus, higher productivity, and to avoid commuting (7).

Studies show that concerns about productivity aren’t necessarily warranted. Back in 2015, researchers at Stanford University conducted a study that supports a growing belief that many companies no longer need traditional office spaces. They examined the work experiences and processes of 16,000 employees working in a call centre for a NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency (no comment on the irony). Their results showed that working from home led to a 13% increase in productivity, greater job satisfaction, and fewer breaks and sick days (6).  

With the influx of productivity tools and expert advice for succeeding in remote working situations, we can expect that productivity will only improve.

While it has the potential to cause havoc, COVID-19 may be what ultimately delivers us a greater work-life balance, lowers our risk of spreading contagious diseases, solves traffic problems, and influences greater efficiency in - and out of - the workplace.

Remote Working May Pose a Different Kind of Threat

Unless companies have a security infrastructure and personnel in place, remote working may put them at high risk of breaches to security. While large organisations likely have such measures in place, smaller start-ups may not. Forbes recommends the following:  

“A good start is to develop unified security policies for both in-house and remote employees; restrict access to sensitive data to those who try to access it from public Wi-Fi networks and explore new-gen security tools, especially those powered by the blockchain technology” (1).

That’s no easy task, and it takes time and expertise to execute. Companies that aren’t set up for remote working yet are having to implement ad-hoc remote working protocols without a proper plan in place.  

In addition to the gross security risk, many unofficial remote workers are left feeling isolated and unsupported. The most significant reported struggle of remote work is lack of community. In one study, 21% of remote workers expressed that “loneliness” was the primary drawback of remote working (1). Of course, at a time when we’re worried about spreading a deadly virus, loneliness hardly seems worthy of attention. But they do say that loneliness can kill, but probably not as aggressively as COVID-19.

How is Covid Affecting Nomadic Remote Workers RightNow?

Although there is a massive global push to implement immediate remote work arrangements to reduce the spread of the virus, that may also pose a risk. If you’re a remote worker and you’re used to setting up in co-working spaces or cafes, you may want to re-think your arrangement.

Many nomadic remote workers rely heavily on co-working spaces for fast secure internet. What was once regarded as a space that offered solidarity and a professional community may now be perceived as a rather threatening space. It means spending all day in close quarters with strangers, and likely those who are avid travellers. And, as previously mentioned, security risks are higher now so additional precautions are necessary.

If You’re Considering Going Remote, Read This:

Many people view working from home as a luxurious lifestyle arrangement, but there’s a lot more to it. For starters, remote​ is not synonymous with flexible​​. In a lot of cases, remote workers are still expected to work traditional 9-5 hours; the difference is they can sit in their PJ's and leave their teeth unbrushed if they want.

Freelance contractors, on the other hand, typically set their own hours. But discipline is a major, hairy factor without a boss rap-tap-tapping out your deadlines and handing you a pay cheque. You also have to be your own tech guy, which these days, requires more specific digital skills than ever before.

Whatever your current work arrangement is, make sure you’re safe both digitally and health-wise. If you can work from home, do so. If hitting up a co-working space is your only option, choose wisely, especially if you’re in a higher-risk country.  

And although the reminder probably isn’t necessary, it’s certainly warranted: wash your hands - well​      ​.










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Colleen Thornton

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