What to Expect After a Year of the Unexpected

January 27, 2021 5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It would be an understatement to say that 2020 didn’t turn out to be the year we expected. In a moment’s notice, the world in which we lived, worked and reveled in became a completely different place.

“Going back to normal” has become a nostalgic idea. Now, nearly a year into the global health crisis, we know in many ways that’s a good thing.

Even 2020 had its silver linings

While the past year has bared a lot of hardship, it also opened new and innovative ways of doing things. Industries and businesses were faced with new challenges, but also with new opportunities to rethink the way we work, laying the groundwork for how companies will do business in 2021 and beyond.

The global health crisis accelerated the future of work and provided real-world proof points and insight into the viability of a flexible workforce. We’ve seen that a remote-centric workforce is not only doable and scalable but also in demand. Forty-three percent of full-time American employees say they want to work remotely more often after the economy has reopened. In response, about two-thirds of businesses that have adopted remote work policies as a result of the pandemic plan to keep at least some of those policies in place long-term or permanently.

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This period has been a turning point when many businesses that once shunned or overlooked remote work have come to realize its myriad of benefits, including positive changes to employees’ mental health and well-being, increased productivity and cost savings. For the majority of employees who feel burned-out at work, remote work has allowed them to thrive and do their best work with more flexibility in their lives, improving work-life balance. We’re even seeing the benefits extend beyond the workplace, impacting environmental and sustainability efforts, migration patterns and even pet ownership.

While it’s hard to say for certain what will happen after a year of the unexpected, there are several positive trends that have been ignited by the shifts that have taken place. We can expect the following implications of remote work to take flight in the year ahead and beyond.

The positive societal and infrastructure implications of remote work

A shift to remote work impacts infrastructure — how cities redefine and prioritize their investments for areas such as road maintenance, public transportation with fewer commuters, and the reduced demand for commercial real estate in downtown locations. It’s critical that governments reexamine the focus of their capital plans, including potentially shifting dollars away from highways and public transportation projects to increasing the availability of high-speed broadband and upgrading power grids to better facilitate remote work.

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In addition to reducing the impact on our roads, remote work can also have a positive impact on our society. The average commute for Americans is 27 minutes daily, or nine days a year. Those nine days can instead be spent with family or friends, learning new skills, or even putting in extra work each day to make your business more successful.

To put this in perspective, even a small, 100-person organization could see an average of an additional 45 combined people hours every day by allowing remote work. This moment could be the impetus for significant change in how our society works, learns and communicates, and these changes will require a broader reset in where and how we invest time and resources.

A bigger focus on sustainability

At the beginning of the health crisis, organizations were focused on business continuity, employee welfare and productivity, but as we look toward the “next normal,” sustainability efforts will accelerate in the same way remote work has. An increase in remote work has the potential for some real societal benefits — improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and even reducing waste production as more people make coffee and lunches at home. If remote-capable jobs would transition to remote even just 50 percent of the time, we would eliminate 54 million metric tons of greenhouse gas, according to Global Workforce Analytics.

We can expect to see more global corporations, investors and business leaders intensifying their sustainability efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and promote greater sustainability in a meaningful and measurable way. This will go beyond just making office spaces more environmentally friendly and will necessitate taking a critical look at how to support renewable energy efforts with employees through education, training and empowering them to build sustainable practices, whether at home or in the office.

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Although “pandemic” was Merriam-Webster's official word of 2020, I’d like to think that "resilience" sits somewhere near the top of the list. While in many ways it felt like a remote work revolution, 2021 will be the year that we continue to naturally evolve into the benefits of remote work as a means to tackle whatever challenges or opportunities the year ahead brings. Onward and upward.