The more unpredictable our lives feel, the more interested we become in obtaining certainty about the future. It’s only natural. And after a year like 2020, we’re all eager to know what comes next. Case in point: I can’t tell you how many times this year I Googled “when will the pandemic end?” (Spoiler alert: No one knows for sure.)
While no one can promise you what will happen in 2021, using data, my personal experience as a remote worker, and news stories, I’m going to do my best to identify the work-from-home trends you can reasonably expect to see this year.
1. Temporary work-from-home policies will become permanent.
This one should come as no surprise because we’ve already seen this trend take hold this year. In March, when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, 88% of employers were forced or encouraged to go remote for what they thought would be a temporary stent.
But as the pandemic continued into May, June, and July, several companies began to announce that they’d allow their employees to continue to work from home indefinitely. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made headlines in May when he said Twitter employees could work from home forever if they wanted. Soon after, other major companies followed suit, allowing employees to work from home (at least partially) for an indefinite period, including Zillow, Hitachi, and Slack.
Why would businesses do away with or drastically decrease office space permanently? A few reasons:
- Workers remain productive even when working from home. According to a global COVID-19 survey by Mercer, 90% of organizations surveyed said that productivity has stayed the same or increased compared to what it was before the pandemic, even when they let their employees work from home.
Even before the pandemic, some research suggested that remote work increased productivity versus in-office work. The supporting research that is often cited is this 2013 Stanford study by Nicholas Bloom and colleagues. In the experiment, working from home led to a 13% boost in productivity in participants at a call center.
- Employees want it. In Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report, when asked, “Would you like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of your career?” 98% of respondents said yes. This data was collected in November 2019, so it’s unclear whether those same respondents might change their minds after a year of forced remote work.
- It saves money for both employers and employees. Cutting out office rent, commuting, and business clothes can do a lot for the budgets of both companies and workers.
As this pandemic continues, I imagine we’ll see more and more businesses go remote for good. In a June 2020 survey conducted by 451 Research, 67% of respondents said they expect their work-from-home policies to become permanent or at least last for the long-term.
Additionally, a June 2020 survey by The Kung Group found that about 71% of the more than 500 founders surveyed said they’d continue to allow employees to work from home after their office reopens.
2. We’ll start to see more remote/in-person hybrid office models.
Yes, I just listed the many benefits of working from home, but I’d be remiss to gloss over the disadvantages.
Here are just some of the things remote workers miss about office life:
- Their commute. In November 2020, Indeed published results of a survey in which they found that 50% of remote workers miss their commute.
- Their coworkers. Yes, everyone loves to complain about coworkers, but it turns out we really miss them when they’re gone. Indeed’s survey found that 45% of respondents miss in-person meetings with coworkers.
- The clear demarcation between personal and work life. When you’re working from home, your workspace is the same space where you raise your kids, relax, and eat. With everything intermingling, it can be tough to get in the zone when it’s time to work, and wind down when it’s time to relax.
Because of this, I think that when it becomes safe to do so, more companies will have a hybrid model where they keep some office space while also allowing employees to work remotely when they choose. That way, workers can have a healthy balance between the things they love about office life and the things they love about working from home.
3. Coworking spaces will see a boom.
Coworking spaces across the globe took a hard hit in 2020, with its market declining in 2020 compared to 2019 because of closures. According to Business Wire: “The global coworking spaces market is expected to decline from $9.27 billion in 2019 and to $8.24 billion in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -12.9%.”
But I think the coworking space market will bounce back after the pandemic. As we saw above, people miss some aspects of being in an office. I expect that the patrons who frequented coworking spaces before will return, and I expect even more new customers, turned off by the extreme isolation they endured in 2020, will flock to coworking spaces too.
4. We’ll see a more mobile workforce.
If you’re working from home, why not work from anywhere? That’s the mentality many employees took on this year, finding newfound freedom in their company’s shift to remote work.
One place where this is evident is Silicon Valley. According to MYMOVE, which pulled data from the USPS, San Francisco ranks among the top five cities that lost the most movers during this pandemic—with 27,187 people leaving the city this year (compared to just 9,683 in 2019).
And it’s not just employees—it’s employers too. Several major companies are fleeing to less-pricey locales. In a high-profile move, Elon Musk relocated from California (a state with some of the highest taxes in the U.S.) to Texas (a state with no income tax). His company, Tesla, is also building a new facility in Austin. And other Bay Area companies are making moves, too: Hewlett Packard Enterprises and Oracle are relocating their headquarters from California to Texas.
5. Some companies will decrease salaries for remote employees who move to a cheaper location.
If newly remote employees decide they want to take advantage of cheaper locations, companies will soon want to take advantage of it too—by lowering their salaries. Many tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area have already reportedly started doing this.
Location has long been a factor in determining a salary. But now, as more people are working for a company regardless of their location, is it fair for companies to adjust accordingly?
Also, if a remote employee moves to a more expensive location, do they then get a pay raise? Time will tell how this work-from-home trend will play out.
6. More stay-at-home moms and dads will enter the workforce.
This prediction is a little more shakey than the others because I could see it going both ways. Working from home during this pandemic has been extremely challenging for parents, especially when schools were closed and moms and dads were expected by their boss to be productive and by their kids’ schools to help homeschool.
Women, in particular, bore much of the burden. In June 2020, McKinsey surveyed more than 800 employees in the U.S. and found that fathers working from home report a much more positive experience than mothers. For example, 70.5% of work-from-home dads surveyed reported positive well-being, compared to just 41% of work-from-home moms.
On top of that, the AEI COVID-19 and American Life Survey (conducted from May to June 2020) found that moms are more likely to feel frustrated, depressed, or lonely during this pandemic. While 35% of dads said they felt depressed at least a few times a week, 51% of mothers said the same.
Despite these incredible challenges, my thinking here is that for people who were already full-time stay-at-home parents before the pandemic, when schools reopen for in-person learning, a newly remote-friendly work world means these parents will be interested in employment. Because if they can work from home, they can spend more time with their kids than they’d be able to in a traditional office job.
This could easily swing in the other direction, though: We might see more working parents become stay-at-home moms and dads. Burdened by the demands of both employers and schools, they might have to. In the November 2020 Indeed survey, 42% of parents who had to transition to remote work said they may need to quit their job to take care of children at home.
7. Employers will be more accommodating to parents.
If governments enact more school and daycare closures in 2021, then the burden on already-exhausted parents will get heavier. Because of this, employers may become more accommodating to parents.
What might this look like?
- Less strict rules regarding video meetings. People working remotely with kids at home struggle to find a quiet space to take calls. Employers should be mindful of when they schedule video calls and be more accepting of the fact that, yes, sometimes a toddler might decide to scream at an inopportune time or make an appearance in the background—and that’s okay.
- Fewer and/or shorter video meetings. Minimizing the number of video calls that a parent needs to take while their kids are at home might be even better. If something can be communicated via email or phone call, employers should keep it to that.
- Flexible work schedule. Allowing parents to complete work at the time that works best for their child-raising schedule will allow them to perform at their best.
- Time off. Allowing and encouraging time off will be essential to parents’ mental health as remote work and remote schooling continue.
8. Employers will provide more mental health resources to remote employees.
Even before the pandemic, remote workers continually reported loneliness as a top challenge. According to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report (remember, the data for this was collected in November 2019), 20% of respondents said loneliness was their biggest struggle with working remotely. Buffer’s report adds, though: “We don’t think this implies that remote work causes loneliness. Remote workers feeling lonely is also an accurate reflection of a larger-scale societal struggle with loneliness.”
That may be true, but I think the pandemic has amplified feelings of loneliness—with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and working from home atop all of that. Also, symptoms of depression in American adults have tripled since the pandemic began, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open in September 2020.
Because of the extra stressors placed on employees this year, we’re already seeing many employers offering mental health resources to their workforce. According to Business Insider, Starbucks, Target, and Salesforce are among the companies providing extra mental health support to employees, such as access to meditation apps, online mental health resources, and free counseling sessions.
As people continue to do their jobs remotely amid the stress of the pandemic, I hope and expect that more companies will lend support.
9. Remote workers will experience more computer-related overuse injuries.
As a seasoned remote worker who’s at her computer all day, I’ve always had aches and pains related to it—sore wrists and an aching back, for example. But this year, those pains have become intensified and prolonged. I still have shoulder pain that hasn’t gone away despite exercising and stretching regularly and transitioning to a standing desk.
According to the New York Times, chiropractors have reported a surge in work-from-home injuries as people type on their laptops in poor postural positions from bed or on the couch.
Here’s why I believe computer-related overuse injuries will continue to get worse as workforces persist in being remote into 2021:
- Fewer opportunities and reminders to take a break. In an office environment, surrounded by coworkers, you have many reasons to get up and take a break from your computer. You might get up to walk over to a colleague and ask a question. When there’s a meeting, you have to get up and go to a conference room, sit down, and look up at a presenter, instead of slouched over looking down at your laptop.
But when you’re working from home and all of your meetings are virtual, you might not get up for hours. And it’s not like there’s a coworker around who will ask if you want to get lunch with them. You’ll probably end up grabbing leftovers from the fridge and eating them as you look at your laptop.
- Less ergonomic workspaces. Work-from-home setups are typically not as ergonomic as office ones—no more cushy desk chairs or double monitors. You’re often stuck hunched over your laptop at the dinner table.
- Even our social hangouts are on our computers now. Pre-pandemic, after work, we could head to a bar for some drinks with friends. Now? We rely on Zoom pub quizzes and virtual happy hours. The result? Way more time spent at our computer with poor posture.
10. More remote workers will start side hustles.
With the slew of layoffs caused by the pandemic and unemployment hitting a record high this year, many people began to work odd jobs and start side hustles. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7% in April—the highest in the history of its data, which goes back to 1948. And while it fell to 6.7% in November, I think that every worker in 2020 has had a rude awakening of just unstable work can be.
In a survey commissioned by DollarSprout in May 2020, Pollfish found that more than 27% of Americans rely on side hustles to pay their bills. An October survey by Acorns found that about one-third of workers have a side hustle on top of their regular job, and an additional 19% are interested in starting one.
Because of this, I think more people, even those who are currently employed, will start side hustles as a sort of safety net if more layoffs happen in 2021.
Work-From-Home Trends in 2021: Hope for the Future?
As 2020 draws to a close, do we dare to feel hopeful about the future? I do. As I wrote and researched this piece, I realized the vast majority of work-from-home trends for 2021 are positive.
Yes, there will be struggles, just like every year. But regardless of any or all of these trends play out as expected, here’s what I learned from the work-from-home workforce this year: We are incredibly resilient.