Zoe is a manager of Market Positioning at Deloitte, based in Toronto, Canada. A self-professed philomath, Zoe spends her time traveling (when she can!), reading, and consuming copious cups of tea.
The best investment I ever made was turning my briefcase into a backpack.
Pre-COVID my backpack allowed me to move through our agile office environment more easily. Flowing from meeting rooms to high top tables was made easier with my laptop (command central), printouts (if I couldn’t avoid them), and packed lunch (on a good day) in tow.
Now my office in a bag has really hit the road.
With COVID-19, our workplace, like many others around the world, has adapted quickly to become a fully remote workforce. My job is officially location-independent. And I love it. Pre-COVID I was already a huge proponent of remote work. I often worked remotely and would extol its benefits to anyone who crossed paths with me and my backpack in our agile office. And now the world’s biggest remote work experiment is underway, and I’m excited to see the results.
First, let me acknowledge that this experiment is an extraordinary one. COVID-19 has highlighted and deepened many inequalities in our society. It has disproportionally impacted groups such as women and BIPOC communities, to say nothing of those without the privilege of working remotely. And even for those who can merge work and home, that often comes with juggling childcare, caring for loved ones, and the stress of a global pandemic. But even against this dark backdrop, my hope was that remote work might offer a silver lining—and it looks like my millennial peers agree. More than 60% said that when the crisis is over, they’d like the option to work remotely more frequently.
For me, it’s the flexibility that comes with location-independent work. I can flex my day to work when I’m most productive and spend the time I used to spend commuting (or lining up for the office washroom) exercising, and cooking nutritious meals at home. I can turn off all the distractions when I need time for focused work, and schedule video-coffee chats in the afternoon to stay connected with coworkers. I can spend time with family in other cities, or work from my local park (socially distant of course).
Do I miss the office? Undeniably. I’m not trying to convince anyone pixels on a screen have the same energy as an in-person brainstorming session. And I hope those are possible again very soon. My personal dream is a new working world that is remote-first—with sporadic, thoughtful, in-person events designed for connection.
But the real reason I’m so excited about remote work is a lot larger than me and my backpack. I believe a significant shift to location-independent work could help solve some of the very inequalities COVID-19 has revealed. The flexibility remote work provides might start chipping away at the barriers faced by underrepresented groups in the workforce, such as women, BIPOC people, or people with disabilities. Rethinking the “9 to 5,” “office tower,” “downtown” core definitions of work allows us to create new, more diverse ways of working. Ways of working that allow for technology-enabled accommodation, that mold themselves around the demands of family life, that provide access to a much more diverse workforce. Ways of working that, hopefully, work better for everyone.
Companies can widen their talent pools far beyond their traditional borders and create access to good jobs that don’t require individuals to leave their communities for work. In fact, reorienting our cities and communities away from a work-home commute is one of the most exciting prospects of all. Imagine how mid-sized cities might become hubs for young professionals priced out of expensive downtown cores. How pollution might fall as we build communities designed to be lived and worked in, walked and cycled around, anchored by green and public spaces. Separating work and the cubicle creates an amazing space for innovation.
It’s my hope that we can take the best of what we’ve learned about remote work from this experiment—the flexibility, the empowerment, the environmental benefit—and continue to solve for some of the worst. As subway trains fill again, and office towers switch on the lights, I hope it’s a return to collaboration, connection, and teamwork. And perhaps a departure from that meeting that could have been an email!