In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly across the world. By March, it had led to an unprecedented transformation of everyday life in almost every region of the globe. From one day to the next, the most routine and familiar of activities were no longer permitted or were subject to severe and heavily enforced limitations. Many 2020 will remember 2020 as a year spent primarily indoors.
Of all the enormous social shifts that resulted from the pandemic, few were as widespread or as significant as the shift to remote working. With only essential workers continuing to travel to their places of work, many sectors of the economy were forced to find ways to keep operating quickly. Thankfully, they were able to draw on a wide range of tools that had gradually emerged over the preceding decade, from cloud storage to video conferencing. It turned out that, for many workers, physical proximity was not, in fact, a requirement of their jobs.
Eighteen months later, and the world continues to struggle with the ongoing impact of COVID-19. In many countries, some forms of lockdown measures remain in place, and death tolls are as high or higher than in the earliest months of the pandemic. At the same time, however, a concerted effort is underway to envisage what a post-pandemic world might look like. In some areas, there is the anticipation of a return to normalcy, with the reopening of restaurants and nightclubs and the return of sporting events and festivals. But in other cases, there is little appetite for a quick and straightforward reversion to the way things were — and this is especially true of work.
As we’ll see below, remote working has proven massively beneficial for many workers, who relish the greater degree of autonomy and freedom that it has given them, as well as the substantially increased amounts of free time. Indeed, there is a clear and widespread sense that there is no turning back for workers as much as for businesses. But if there is a growing consensus that the pandemic has permanently transformed the way we work, the ultimate outcome of this transformation is less clear.
We are at a pivotal moment about how we work. It is a moment in which our usual ways of operating have been suspended and in which we are forced to consider how we want to move forward. How should we imagine the future of work in a post-COVID world? What do we want the “new normal” to look like? In this post, we’ll discuss how the pandemic and its aftermath offer us an opportunity to create a more flexible, agile, and egalitarian mode of working — as well as a more environmentally sustainable one.
But such opportunities cannot be taken for granted. Instead, the more radical alternatives will require us to rethink the social dynamics of how businesses are organised and the technologies that underpin them. As we will see below, the dependence of remote work on highly centralised technological infrastructures may serve to exclude some of the most exciting possibilities for the future of work.
COVID-19 and the remote working revolution
The scale of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had upon work — especially digitally driven “knowledge work” — cannot be overstated. In April 2020, the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that 46.6% of employed people had worked from home at least some of the time that month — with the number rising to nearly 70% for those in professional occupations. By contrast, only 26.7% had worked remotely in 2019. The situation in the US was similar. A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in October 2020 found that of those whose work could be done mainly at home, 71% were currently working remotely. If we focus on time spent working, the impact is even more explicit: before the pandemic, Americans spent 5% of their working time at home. By spring 2020, the figure was 60%.
To facilitate this sudden shift in working patterns, companies were forced to radically accelerate their adoption of digital solutions. According to research by cloud communications platform Twilio, “COVID-19 accelerated companies’ digital communications strategy by an average of 6 years.” Meanwhile, an IBM report indicates that 64% of businesses “shifted to more cloud-based business activities.” This shift underpins the massive growth of the cloud computing market that is predicted over the next decade, as we’ve discussed on our blog previously.
While many discussions of the pandemic’s impact on remote working have stressed that it accelerated trends that were already underway, this approach can downplay the sheer scope of the changes. As The Economist put it, the image of an “acceleration” is in some respects a “poor description of the massive rupture to office work” caused by the pandemic. While many of the technologies used to support remote working were already in place, there was a range of social and organisational barriers to their mass adoption. As the IBM report cited above states, “before the pandemic, many organisations seemingly distrusted their own technological capabilities and doubted the skills of their own workforces.” Once the pandemic struck, however, “previous barriers to implementation were unceremoniously shoved aside.”
In March this year, Microsoft reflected on the previous twelve months with extensive, in-depth analysis, concluding that hybrid work would be the “next great disruption”. Their research understandably highlighted the increased use of Microsoft’s own software during the pandemic, particularly Office and Teams. The number of people working on Office documents had increased 66% year over year, while Team chats were up 45% and weekly Teams meeting time was up 148%. However, the most telling finding was that 73% of employees wanted flexible or remote work options to remain in place after the pandemic.
This enthusiasm for remote working is understandable when considering the widely reported benefits of such arrangements for workers. According to Owl Labs’ recent State of Remote Work report, 82% of those who had worked remotely during the pandemic found that it was better for their mental health, while 83% said they were better able to manage their work-life balance, and 84% said they were happier overall. This is unsurprising when we consider that, for instance, the average US commute in 2019 was 27 minutes each way, while there is increasing evidence that the noise levels of open-plan offices can have a significant impact on physiological stress levels.
These various statistics, taken as a whole, provide a picture of a world in flux. We are in the midst of an ongoing revolution in how we work, the outcome of which is still uncertain. But the effects of this epochal shift are already being felt — albeit in ways that are perhaps unexpected. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that the shift to remote working may have benefits that extend beyond the health and wellbeing of workers — benefits that any “new normal” should strive to preserve. Indeed, it became quickly apparent that widespread adoption of remote working may be fundamental to tackling the climate crisis.
Remote work and the climate crisis
The collective memory of the COVID-19 pandemic will be indelibly marked by the images that flooded social media feeds and newspaper front pages in March 2020: images of deserted city centres, empty roads, silent shopping centres. Seemingly overnight, the busiest, the most crowded urban spaces became eerily quiet worldwide as governments imposed strict limitations.
These unforgettable images — of Times Square in New York City empty of tourists, of Red Square in Moscow patrolled by two lone police officers — have an inescapably apocalyptic feel. The end of the world has often been imagined in this way, and the viral spread of these images in the early days of the pandemic contributed to a widespread sense of anxiety and impending doom.
And yet, the sudden stilling of cities quickly began to reveal its less ominous side. It became apparent that it wasn’t just people absent from photos of Los Angeles, Delhi, Jakarta, and Beijing, among others. The usually omnipresent, inescapable clouds of smog were gone too. As airplanes remained grounded, cars left the roadways, and transport services were reduced, the skies began to clear.
This was a powerful reminder of transport’s significant contribution to environmental issues, from urban air pollution to global climate change. Before the pandemic, transport contributed around a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions. In countries such as the US, which have higher car ownership rates, that number is even higher. In 2019, transport contributed 29% of US CO2 emissions, making it the largest single contributing sector.
As a result, those eye-catching images of deserted cities soon became something other than a panic-inducing indication that the end times were here. They became visceral, immediate representations of a truth long known but still all-too-rarely heeded: only radical change to the structure of our societies will be sufficient to tackle the climate crisis.
While COVID-19 forced such change upon us temporarily, whether this translates into a lasting shift is a different question. The rapid return of dolphins to the Bosphorus Strait and swans to Venetian canals led some to believe that the natural world would quickly recover from the damage humanity had done. But this over-optimism was quickly transformed into a subject of mockery. The “nature is healing” meme craze justly satirised the idea that a brief pause would be enough to undo centuries’ worth of assaults on the environment.
Instead, what is needed is bold, long-term planning that will take advantage of the disruptive impact of the pandemic, using it as a spur to implement significant, lasting change. This includes remodelling city centres to emphasise cyclists instead of vehicles and improving accessibility for pedestrians. The concept of the “15-minute city”, for instance — in which everything the resident needs can be accessed within a quarter of an hour by foot or bike — is being touted as a way to reshape inner-city Paris. This is just one of many such bold ideas taking hold as we imagine life after the pandemic.
But any such changes will be untenable if we simply return to a pre-pandemic model of work. Any reimagining of urban space will rely on a significant and ongoing decrease in road traffic. While this can be achieved, in part, by promoting cycling and improving public transport infrastructure, any return to pre-pandemic levels of commuting will make such ambitions unworkable in the short-to-medium term. And as the COP26 summit has reminded us, time is truly of the essence when it comes to climate change.
Indeed, if this urgency wasn’t clear enough, it only needs to be noted that, as of this month, CO2 emissions have already almost returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Of course, the shift to remote working is not, in and of itself, a solution to the climate crisis. Indeed, it is not even an inherently beneficial step. In fact, many of the technologies that remote working relies on — especially cloud computing — have a heavy environmental footprint in their present incarnation. If the transition to remote working is to form part of the climate solution, much depends on how such a transition takes place and on the technologies it utilises.
As we’ve seen above, the mass adoption of remote working has the potential to not only improve the lives of workers across the world, but also to contribute to tackling the climate crisis. However, in the second part of this piece, we’ll see how the technologies that currently support remote work are not fit for purpose. If our “new normal” continues to rely on a highly centralised web infrastructure, some of our biggest hopes for the future of work will likely not come to pass. Instead, we need to imagine a truly decentralised foundation for the remote working revolution.
How you can support our alternative
Decentralisation is, by its nature, a collective solution that benefits from the widest possible involvement — and that’s why it’s important that everyone is able to take part. You can support our effort to build a truly decentralised future for remote work by partnering with us.
In order to develop our decentralised cloud computing solution, we need data centres and cloud service providers. If you can help us to achieve our goals, please get in touch today and see how we can collaborate.
If you’d like to get an overview of how the Cudos Network is growing, here are some of the recent partnerships we are excited about.
We are excited to be pioneering a fully decentralised, sustainable, and trustless computing ecosystem. We hope that you will join us in building this future together.
The Cudos Network is a layer one blockchain and layer two computation and oracle network designed to ensure decentralised, permissionless access to high-performance computing at scale and enable scaling of computing resources to 100,000’s of nodes. Once bridged onto Ethereum, Algorand, Polkadot, and Cosmos, Cudos will enable scalable compute and Layer 2 Oracles on all of the bridged blockchains.