By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP, and Dr. Shelley Pumphrey
Faculty Members, School of Business, American Public University
Between 2005 to 2017, there was a 159% increase in remote workers. In 2015 alone, for example, 3.9 million U.S. workers were working remotely.
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Prior to the COVID-19 quarantine, the number of remote workers jumped to 4.7 million, representing 3.4% of the U.S. population. The typical remote worker was considered to be a knowledge worker such as software engineer or accountant.
In 2019, Condeco Software reported that 41% of global businesses surveyed offered some level of remote working and predicted remote working to become the norm and not the exception. Upwork’s “Future Workforce Report” supported this prediction, finding that today’s younger managers, who are shaping the future of the workforce, are more likely to utilize remote workers and believe that two out of five full-time employees will work remotely within the next three years. According to Peter B. Burke, president and co-founder of Best Companies Group, managers are transitioning from the notion that if an employee is not in the office, he or she is not working.
Similarly, USA Today reports that major companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Apple and Google are seizing on the COVID-19 global pandemic and considering permanently moving their workforce to 100% teleworking. This strategy saves the company money, could potentially benefit the environment and opens up the pool of qualified applicants to include remote workers who were previously limited in where they could work because of geographic location.
Businesses Have Had to Switch to Remote Working during the COVID-19 Crisis
Many businesses that did not offer remote work, like many traditional universities, were unprepared for the swift transition to remote working. For some businesses, this transition was critical to their survival. As of March 27, 2020, Slack estimated that 16 million U.S. workers started working remotely due to COVID-19.
According to Slack, the lessons learned from this transition include:
- Remote experience matters. Productivity and communication take a hit when employees are new to working from home.
- About half of newly remote workers struggle with their sense of belonging. This feeling of connectedness improves with experience.
- Newly remote workers are struggling to stay productive.
- Newly remote workers experience diminished productivity that leads to overall professional dissatisfaction, while 72% of experienced remote workers say that they are more satisfied working from home.
Employer Expectations after the COVID-19 Pandemic
What started as a short-term response to the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have long-term employer policy implications. Most employees who were moved to remote work believe that their companies will adopt more policies that are friendlier to remote workers after the coronavirus pandemic. According to Matthew Hollingsworth, the Director of Operations at We Work Remotely, remote working may even become the norm.
COVID-19 Has Deeply Affected Traditional Brick-and-Mortar Education
According to Education Unlimited, there are currently 5,300 colleges and universities across the United States. These higher learning institutes vary from the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions to trade schools offering training in areas such as cosmetology, plumbing and mechanics.
Of the 5,300 schools, the majority of these brick-and-mortar educational institutions had some component of online learning. For example, an orientation course may have been 100% online or there was periodic required training that was 100% online. But as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most universities quickly moved to 100% online learning in an effort to avoid gaps in student education and to stay afloat financially.
For many students, there was a definite learning curve in regard to moving to online learning platforms, chatting online with teaching assistants and professors, and using virtual meeting portals to interact with classmates. Some universities are considering waiving grades for the Spring 2020 semester as students struggle with adapting to the online environment.
For instance, students at these schools have experienced technical issues due to a lack of reliable internet sources. Also, some students do not have the computer literacy and technical prowess to excel in an online environment and face time management issues.
In addition, both universities and employers have reported that enhanced management techniques are needed to lead in a virtual environment. Students and employees need tools to stay motivated while they are learning or working remotely.
Colleges and Universities Need to Prepare Students for the Business World After COVID-19
Business as usual will profoundly change after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. As a result, students who only experience the traditional educational setting will not be prepared for the demands of the future workplace. Traditional universities fall short in many areas, including:
- The traditional university and college settings require students to attend class at a specific time and place. In fact, the motivation for this attendance is often reflected in the student’s grade. Attendance, however, does not reflect productivity.
- Traditional educational settings encourage in-person communication through the class meeting time or office hours with the professor. Students do not have a chance to build the communication skills commonly used in business, such as collaboration tools, chats and video conferencing.
- The traditional setting offers in-person activities and networking events. Transitioning to a remote workplace after graduation, the student does not have the people skills or tools to build a sense of connection with peers and mentors.
- Traditional higher education is task-based. It discourages self-direction by encouraging students to approach the work environment as a structured 50-minute class setting with occasional breaks.
- Students engage with those people who have similar interests, usually ones who are studying the same major. However, the remote workplace of tomorrow requires teams from various disciplines, another reason that empathy, professionalism and communication skills are vital in the workplace.
- While students believe they are technology-savvy, traditional education settings require textbooks or e-text, note taking as a professor lectures, and the occasional simulation. Similarly, these students conduct research through a Google search with the occasional query to a librarian. The remote workforce, however, relies on an organization’s subscription to industry databases and requires workers to conduct more extensive research.
The traditional university and college settings offer much value for students. They acquire specialized knowledge, strengthen their communication skills and are exposed to a variety of cultures. In addition, instructors challenge their students’ critical thinking skills.
But the future workplace requires much more from graduates hoping for a job. The workers of today and tomorrow must have experience working in remote environments and be self-motivated. They must also be able to develop connections with others through remote environments and be flexible to the changing needs of the business.
The Long-Term Impacts of Remote Working and Online Learning
Time will tell if remote working and remote learning are beneficial to both our educational system and the U.S. economy. While initial reports indicate switching to remote learning resulted in a decrease in productivity due to adaptability issues, long-term reports indicate an increase in productivity.
However, this increase is directly related to a worker’s personality (introverts vs. extroverts), a supportive home environment and supportive management. In addition, training for online portals for virtual training, meetings, and consultations are needed to produce sustainable positive effects and a productive future workforce.
About the Authors
Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management.
Dr. Shelley Pumphrey is an academic and business leader with over 20 years teaching experience in technology and business courses at a variety of colleges and universities. She is a former Manager of Communications at Baltimore Gas & Electric and served over 30 years in the energy industry. Dr. Pumphrey earned her Ph.D. in information security and published in the areas of alternative fuels and information security.
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