The long-term effects of the coronavirus outbreak on our society and business landscape are yet to be determined. But one thing we know is that a big swath of American businesses is conducting a large-scale experiment with remote work (aka work from home). Many of them have also made large investments in infrastructure to support it; one company bought 20,000 laptops for their employees, for example. The coronavirus shutdown will create new capabilities for remote work within firms large and small, and produce a treasure trove of findings about what works well and what doesn’t.
It seems very likely that the result of this current period will be an increased shift to remote work. For those who were already working remotely, it’s hard to see how coronavirus would push them back to office-based work. Companies have been looking to reduce the cost associated with their office footprint for years, with work from home solutions as part of that. The new capabilities and experiences gained through the coronavirus shutdown will allow companies to feel confident in expanding remote work. At the same time, many workers may have discovered that they prefer working from home.
The nature of this new world is not yet clear, but based on what we’ve already seen in existing remote work, there are some things that we can anticipate. The first is that work will be less tied to particular geographies. On one hand, this would allow local firms to hire workers without them needing to move to Indianapolis. Not everyone wants to live here, and this will allow firms to tap into that particular labor pool. On the other, it allows people in Indianapolis who otherwise might have been forced to move in order to advance their career. Both of these allow the worker more choice in where to live, which reinforces the need for us to continue increasing the attractiveness of the Indianapolis region as a place top talent wants to live.
Remote work itself presents a new set of challenges for talent development and individual career path management. At the dawn of the internet, people predicted it would lead to a mass decentralization of jobs as people could move to the country and continue to commute virtually. That didn’t happen. Instead, the value of location, particularly in the heart of major American cities, became more important than before. That’s because knowledge doesn’t just diffuse online, but through face-to-face contacts. This is how people hear the latest news, trends, and gossip. This is how they hear about new jobs opening up, and meet the connections that ensure someone actually gives their résumé a look.
While remote work can initially be exhilarating, those workers who find themselves cut off from these networks can suffer in their career long term. It’s also the case that without real social interaction with colleagues, it will be harder to keep employees engaged over the longer term. This will especially come into play as ordinary turnover changes over the employee’s peer and supervisors group. It’s one thing to start working remotely when your colleagues are people you formerly worked with in-person everyday. It’s quite another when it’s a group of people you don’t have pre-existing personal relationships with. For work-from-home arrangements that are still local to the physical office, in-person events and office days can help, but this is much harder when working remote over long distances.
Indianapolis is a city that is ideally placed to be in the vanguard of urban regions that create the environment in which remote workers can thrive. That’s because our city has very strong social infrastructure. It’s place where a newcomer can move and make an impact fast. It’s a place where those newcomers can make friends, unlike other cities where if you didn’t go to high school you are basically out of luck. It’s a city where people are very ready to help someone else out.
We see this in programs like the Indy Chamber’s Two Degrees program, that is helping mid-career workers, including remote workers, make personal connections that can help them continue to advance. Indyfluence, the region’s marquee summer intern event, is being reconfigured to a virtual program this year, and that will also create new capabilities to engage young workers remotely both with each other and with our region. Groups like IndyHub are also making sure there’s good connectivity among young professionals.
More and more, there will need to be structured events and programs like these that remote workers (and employers) can tap into to ensure that they are continuing to build their face-to-face networks. This is important both for social belonging and long-term professional success. Indianapolis, with its strong mix of openness yet with strong social connectivity, is poised to be a leader in the new post-coronavirus world.