Why Coronavirus is a Terrible Thing for Remote Work

Beyond it being a global health crisis, and all.

Another day, another coronavirus media frenzy. I’m about five minutes away from muting the keywords on social media so they don’t show up in my feed. But two articles caught my attention: 

  1. The New York Times reports that European companies are enacting emergency work-from-home plans amidst coronavirus. 

  2. Korean news outlet PulseNews reports that Korean companies are making employees work remote en masse to quell corona’s spread.

The weird part? People seem to… like what’s going on. Remote work advocates are calling it the largest remote work experiment in the world. Some are heralding it as ushering in a fundamental shift in how we work, with one person tweeting the question: “Will Coronavirus be a catalyst for a permanent shift to remote work?”

Another tweeter added to the conversation, saying, “Things like the coronavirus situation will propel the drive to #remotework by leaps & bounds.”

… this is where I get incredulous. In fact, not incredulous so much I believe this is simply incorrect. 

Based on what is happening in remote work due to coronavirus, it stands to reason that this outbreak will not be the catalyst toward remote work that many think it is. Instead, it could very well be a massive step backwards in the drive to remote work and location freedom in the working world. 

Simply put: Contrary to some beliefs in the remote work space, coronavirus is not a win for remote. Here’s why.

Coronavirus has associated remote work with distress and emergencies

As the New York Times reported, companies are pushing for remote work and work from home strategies due to coronavirus. What advocates of remote work got right is that more people are working remotely. What some miss is the fact that it’s under duress. 

Someone who enjoys an office environment can easily be converted to remote. There are clear benefits to remote work and you can win nearly everyone over to this side of the fence (I believe). 

But when something starts under duress, people get defensive. They just want things to go back to normal. And when they do, talks of remote work will cause a shudder and a horrible flashback to the ‘coronavirus days.’

You do not want this when you are building a burgeoning movement. 

Remote work will be seen as a band-aid solution

When companies are facing an outbreak like coronavirus and encourage people to work from home or work remotely, it’s not due to the benefits of remote work. It’s because leaders see it as a temporary way to quell fear amongst employees and keep them healthy until things can get back to normal. 

The mindset around remote work becomes that it is a great band-aid solution, not a permanent shift to consider. 

Given the stock market crashing around coronavirus worries and fears of looming recession around the corner, it’s likely that remote work will only ever be seen, to some, as a short-term thing to suffer through. Since people are likely to rely on old habits when the going gets tough, anything out of the norm (in this case, remote work), could be cast off as too new-agey for the hard times of a market crash and upcoming recession.

Lack of preparation could lead employees to push back against remote

A Channel News Asia published a think piece about how the extended remote work experiment is showing just how unprepared companies are for remote work. And while this may cause some people to ask the productive question of how people can become more prepared, when the crisis is over and people go back to their offices, there’s a solid chance many people will beg for remote to never happen again. 

Remote work, like any new method of working (think total bespoke to the production line) requires training, a new mentality, and constant reinforcement until it becomes ingrained. One of the fastest ways to create resentment and pushback is to force someone into something they don’t particularly want to do or are sorely underprepared for. 

In the coronavirus case, you have the double pain situation -- some people don’t want to go remote and others who do find themselves working for companies who aren’t prepared for it. If you are forced into a remote work situation where you’re not prepared or supported, there’s a decent chance it will color your perspectives on remote for years to come.

People want business as usual - and corona pushes remote further away from that goal

This public health crisis is likely to end. In the history of humankind, all pandemics eventually end. Further, our world is at a point where we’re far more equipped to handle health outbreaks than in previous centuries (think Spanish Flu in the early 20th century or other more localized pandemics). 

However, just as people revert to old habits when the going gets tough, humans value familiarity. That means the inertia is against remote work to start, which advocates know and are working to change. The problem is that an outbreak like this, with forced changes people are not prepared for, just made that arc of change significantly steeper and longer. 

There is a potential upside to all of this, though, which the media has captured beautifully: people who would have never otherwise tried remote work are now being forced to give it a shot. Humans, if nothing else, are fantastic at making the most of any given situation (when they want to). 

In this case, it’s possible that just getting a taste of remote work will cause people to stand up and question the status quo when this pandemic is all over. I, for one, welcome that questioning.