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Remote work is not the future of the next generation of workers

Even though remote work has emerged as a solution to the challenges of the present, we must gradually disengage from what works in the present and rediscover what works in the normal.

Throughout the pandemic, a silver lining for many people has been technology's ability to step up and meet our needs.

Remote work is no longer the exclusive domain of IT professionals. Court Reporters and healthcare workers can offer their services through Zoom meetings. Traditionally, in-person events have gone entirely virtual.

Contactless systems have been taken to the next level, handling payment processing and delivery of goods. Even the restaurant and hospitality industries have found technological innovation to be a lifeline amid uncertainty and hardship.

Yet these technological solutions are, to varying degrees, widely considered palliative measures. And when it comes to everyone's jobs, a real question lingers in the air:How much of our work will continue to be done remotely as the pandemic recedes?

The uneven success of remote work

At the start of the pandemic, the widespread adoption of remote working was hailed as a response to the call for years for employees to become more flexible.

It is true that when you no longer have to show up at a traditional office, you benefit from greater control of your time and your working conditions. But overall, these benefits are not available to everyone.

Remote working arrangements had been selectively implemented in the years before the pandemic. It was not always due to the reluctance of employers. Remote Work Studies before Covid-19 flagged the digital inequality gap as a critical applicability factor.

Along axes of inequality such as race, class, or gender, people have different skill levels and access to technological resources. Those in a higher income bracket or with better education tend to disproportionately occupy positions at the middle and upper levels. These people have a greater ability to work remotely.

Remote work is inseparable from the knowledge economy. Industries that rely less on skilled labor and more on physical presence are unlikely to allow many employees to work outside of the office, pandemic or not.

This is the first problem with projecting remote work as the future. There will always be a large portion of the working population that does not have this realistic option.

A problem for young people

An even bigger problem is that remote work is not suitable for young employees.

There is a generational divide adjusting to remote work, and it doesn't cut as you might expect. Young Gen Z employees who have grown up as digital natives are often the ones who struggle the most. Meanwhile, Gen X and Gen Y are handling the transition smoothly.

This belies the fact that it is not about technology. It is about the experience we have of working within a well-defined structure, something that the office environment provides. And that's something young workers don't have a lot of experience with.

Even more concerning for young professionals is the potential cost to their development and career opportunities.

The daily drudgery of showing up at a desk can be tiring, but you also find intangible rewards in the form of social immersion.

Sharing a physical environment with your colleagues creates the opportunity for spontaneous and informal interactions. It helps you practice your interpersonal skills, allowing for better communication and collaboration. Getting to know people in person is still the best way to build your network and be observed for potential growth .

With these foundations in place, older workers can compensate for the relational and communication "poverty" of online tools. Again, it is young people who face considerable obstacles.

Actionable takeaways

It is laughable that remote work is being touted as the future when future generations themselves are ill-equipped to build entire careers on such arrangements.

As a welcome option for the few who can afford it and are able to navigate the transition, remote work will continue to serve these people well.

The real takeaway, however, is that we cannot neglect the rest of the labor pool as we move forward.

Some employers have been praised for offering their employees permanent work-from-home arrangements. Most would do better to understand the real challenge of securing offices and accommodating their full-time employees or as part of a hybrid model.

Workers, for their part, will have to recognize that remote work is another manifestation of inequality. If you want the most flexibility it offers, you'll need to be well versed in digital literacy and in-demand skills in the knowledge economy.

And while making efforts in this direction, be deliberate in networking, maximizing personal interactions and building relationships with others.

We live in strange times, but the present will eventually return to normal. It's best to stay rooted in the practices that have helped people succeed under normal circumstances.