As pandemics always do, the coronavirus is taking a terrible double toll, killing people and jobs. Remote work could help us survive the medical crisis and the economic crisis. Now is the time to retool businesses for a remote economy, improve the quality of life for parents, and retrain the workers who lack digital skills. In fact, the response to coronavirus may reveal that some workers and employers prefer remote work after all.
Labor markets will need to adapt after this crisis. Competitive businesses will be the ones that serve the remote workplace or embrace it. Winning nations will manage to keep their workforce productive no matter where they are. Employers will need to retool for a remote economy with faster internet, broader use of collaborative technologies, tighter security and encryption, and monitoring tools to measure distributed productivity.
Governments could help by providing electronic collaboration training, federal aid, or tax breaks to firms that adapt to the new remote economy. Governments could also invest public money to improve internet access in low income or rural neighborhoods to ensure all their citizens have a chance to work in the new remote economy after this outbreak is over.
The resilient economy will need more than better online tools. It needs to ensure working remotely is satisfying for employees and is a productive business model for employers. While working remotely reduces the time spent on commuting, it does not necessarily provide more time for family and personal needs. The home environment needs to separate family and work to ensure work from home does not mean no more home life at all.
Parents will need time to take care of their children and relax, along with ways to make it easier to partition the personal from the professional. In the new remote economy, residences might need to be larger and more automated. Families will benefit from streamlined grocery delivery and a flexible workday that conforms to school hours. Done right, the move to remote work could benefit not only employers and employees, but also children, who will be able to spend more quality time with their parents.
Even with the shift to work from home, not all jobs can be done remotely. The people who work in bars, hotels, airlines, theaters, restaurants, night clubs, shopping malls, and cruise ships cannot work from home, so many are now left without a job. A vast majority of them are unprepared for the work of the future. The down time can be used to learn basic digital skills and become familiar with electronic collaboration. Businesses could even train these workers in computer skills through massive online courses.
Governments can become involved in subsidizing such online courses for the unemployed and incentivize those firms that provide courses to teach the basic set of skills to prepare for the new remote economy. These skills will not only provide workers with better opportunities after the crisis, but also a chance to earn money through online platforms during the crisis.
The pandemic should force us into the future. A global shift to the virtual workplace will buy public health and financial resilience at once. A more productive world will also be more far prepared for the next crisis that we cannot yet predict. This unimaginable tragedy should not go to waste. It should instead light the path to a more secure and prosperous world.
Ioana Petrescu and Steve Johnson are both senior fellows at the Mossavar Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School.