With More Tech Workers Settling Into At-Home Office Spaces, The Future Looks Increasingly Remote

As the death toll for the novel coronavirus climbs to almost 6,000 people worldwide (as of March 15), drastic measures have been taken to avoid the spread of the disease. Without a vaccine, self-isolation and self-quarantine have become our number one defense against the virus. And this move has seen more employees than ever before transition from shared office spaces to working from home.

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Tech companies like Oracle, Twitter, Apple, Google, and Amazon have restricted employee travel because of the coronavirus outbreak. Major corporations like Microsoft, Hitachi, and Chevron are also asking workers to work remotely as a measure against the rapidly-spreading disease.

Which begs the question: could this cause a permanent shift towards working from home?

The current wave of remote workers has both an upside and a downside. Startups like Slack, Zoom as well as Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free. It's a veritable free-trial, bolstered by the hope that once everything goes back to normal, those who used these devices will continue to pay for them. But other systems are cracking under pressure. VPNs are malfunctioning, while internet providers have been encouraged to remove bandwidth caps.

"This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold," writes Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic. He goes on to posit that the changes "might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility. Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick."

"We'll never probably be the same," Jennifer Christie, Twitter's head of human resources, told BuzzFeed News of the company's workplace practices. She goes on to detail that those who have never had the chance to work from home may thrive this way, while managers will realize that managing teams can in fact be done remotely. "I do think we won't go back."

So what does the future hold for office-workers hoping to make the transition to working from home?

For starters, not everyone can work remotely. Even Twitter has had to take into account cafeteria workers, employees who perform manual labour and other jobs at its San Francisco headquarters. Currently, the company is continuing to pay people despite reduced requirements. "We're not going to put people out and not pay them," says Christie.

We may see a push towards more remote workers, but ultimately technology can only go so far. If social-distancing has taught us anything, we all need human interaction to survive. But having a new way of working that reduces the spread of sickness, time spent commuting, while also improving the quality of lives isn't just going away once the panic ends. It's something we're all going to have a long hard look at.