The world we live in is currently undergoing a seismic change. Previous patterns of working and living have been forcibly modified. One of the most foundational of these movements are the instructions to stay at home, which are in place for many countries across the world: employees, no matter their industry or profession, have had to come to grips with working from home for long periods of time.
The concept of working from home is not a novel. With the adoption of mobile devices and the increase in broadband availability both in private and public areas, a small segment of the workforce had already adopted this model. However, it was a secondary option, and its cultural impact was limited.
The spectrum of work has now shifted. Directives to work from home if possible have forced a global workforce to adapt to the home office. What had been an alternative mode of work has now become the primary—all within a few short months, if not weeks. Remote work is one of the biggest trends of 2020, and it is likely here to stay. Once a new norm arrives, innovation and investment can create entirely new industries, and the forced adoption of this new mode of work will force a similar shift. With the realisation that a different way of working doesn’t have to mean a dip in productivity, comes for many a change in perspective on what is required to advance in a way that is ‘normal’ or ‘optimal’.
In the wake of this transformation, the cultural impact of this shift awaits. In short order, can we expect remote working to become associated with health, power, and affluence – at least in sectors where it is a practical option?
Certainly, from a business perspective, the value of this new way of working is already evident, particularly for organisations that have already developed the infrastructure to accommodate a pattern of remote work. This does not just mean an installation of IT services such as a VPN, but also requires reconsideration of the established security mindset. While many of them may not have the scale to handle a complete and immediate transition to home-based employees, their transition to this brave new world will be smoother due to their pre-emptive investment in a revised security strategy.
This new approach to securing resources deemphasises perimeter defence and elevates the role of identity. Various systems and names have been introduced (or reintroduced) to facilitate the practical development of these systems; zero trust and CARTA are a few strategies among many that attempt to translate this vision into a practical reality.
Businesses that have already begun this shift are likely to be less impacted by the maelstrom of change; while none welcome this new reality, organisations well-equipped for this new cultural value will be healthier in both the short and long term. Fewer disruptions in their business and continuity in their economic model will mean that they have a stronger chance of not just surviving, but thriving as the crisis transitions into a different, hopefully milder, phase.
Even organisations with a solid security strategy, however, are subject to market forces. It is possible that the new dominance of remote work will alter the landscape of enterprise. Just as the rapid proliferation of the internet drove some organisations into the stratosphere and left others behind to languish in the “brick and mortar” mindset (the easiest example of this dichotomy is Amazon and local booksellers), working from home at this sort of scale has the potential to divide enterprises into winners and losers. As a result, remote work may become semantically linked with health and with power—or their business-speak equivalents “profitable” and “innovative”.
But the more profound potential for the cultural impact of working from home centres around individuals. In just a few short weeks, lockdown has shone a bright light on existing inequalities that are all-too-easily ignored.
The pandemic is revealing a caste system, one of whose demarcation lines is the ability to work from home. This flexibility is primarily dictated by both the availability of reliable broadband access and the specific occupation in question. Rural residents with limited network access, or those in specific sectors: the service industry, shipping and transport, food distributors, and government officials often have no viable option to work from a remote location—to say nothing of the healthcare workers who find themselves thrust to the front line of the pandemic.
For others, the ability to continue to work while staying home confers a wide range of benefits. The first is obvious: steady employment. With unemployment rapidly escalating, the pandemic is already having an effect on economies worldwide. If working from home means retaining a job, this primary benefit lays the foundation for the others that follow. The second advantage lent by remote work may be a bit more hidden: continued education for their children. Schools in 130 countries have closed, disrupting the learning of over 1.2 billion students. The same reliable network access which allows them to continue working also provides for the continued education of their children and puts those pupils at an advantage to their peers. Finally, the most striking benefit that working from home while in lockdown bestows is a better health outcome. If the point of stay at home orders is to prevent interaction with outsiders, preventing the spread of COVID-19, then by complying with these guidelines and working from their homes ensures that those individuals and their family are less likely to fall ill.
These are not minor benefits: affluence, education, and health. And if the pandemic and working from home are revealing an existing caste system, it is also reinforcing it. Those with the ability to work from home are finding their wealth protected, their children keeping pace academically, and their expected health outcomes confirmed.
After only a few short weeks of lockdown, both businesses and individuals are already associating a work from home model and increased health, power, and influence. After a long period in relative obscurity, benefits and requirements of remote working have been brought to the fore. As the quarantine continues, that connection will only strengthen. COVID-19 has transformed remote work from a relatively unused mode of employment to the only viable option, and the benefits that that model currently conveys will ensure its association as not just a possibility, but as a preferred way to work for many.