Information and Communication Technologies have long decoupled the possibility to exchange and collaborate from the need for workers to be in the same office. The last two decades had already seen thousands of free-lancers fulfil tasks remotely, while a growing share of young workers were proving eager to harness digital tools for a nomadic lifestyle. But over the last two years, this shift has dramatically accelerated. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of businesses and employees alike found themselves “going remote” overnight, ushering in a profound reconsideration of the constraints linked to the geography of the workplace.
The overall impact of teleworking on productivity and well-being remains ambiguous. The OECD also finds that its use varies widely across countries, sectors and professions, as well as between SMEs and larger firms. Furthermore, there is little doubt that not all jobs can be performed from a distance, and that new divides are emerging as a consequence. With an overwhelming majority of employees resisting a return to the office commute and pre-pandemic work arrangements, the genie nevertheless appears to be out of the bottle for good.
Numerous companies, too, have come to recognise the potential benefits of remote work, with an eye on better work-life balance for staff, substantial cost-savings opportunities, as well as the ability to tap into a larger talent pool. In this process, they must however reinvent how and where people work, if not the role of the office itself.
As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event The New Geography of Work: From home, near home and beyond took place on 8 December 2021. This event has now ended but don't worry, you can still watch the replay!
This shift could also have major implications for economic, social and local development. From direct grants and tax breaks to “e-Residency” and “digital nomad visas”, many cities, regions and countries across the world are already striving to attract remote workers to bolster their economies and communities. In countries like Italy, workers from less-developed areas themselves are seizing this opportunity to support and reconnect with their home-regions.
And indeed, teleworking could represent an opportunity for regions lagging behind to catch up. While the decline of cities remains unlikely, the OECD finds that a surge in telework adoption could contribute to the decentralisation of some jobs, as workers pursue lower housing costs and a higher quality of life. In locations that have experienced years of brain drain, economic hardships and depopulation, such an influx of relatively high-skilled and well-paid workers could prove to be nothing short of a blessing.
Read more: An Imagined Country: A new perspective is needed on rural areas to secure a COVID-19 recovery by Lamia Kamal-Chaoui & Peter Wostner, Director, Centre for Entrepreneurship; Chairman; OECD Working Party on Rural Policy, OECD
It may however be too soon to predict that telework will help bridge urban-rural divides, alleviate population ageing, and perhaps even address the “geography of discontent”. Indeed, different degrees of preparedness for the shift to teleworking could rather entail a widening of existing divides between firms and workers, as well as between regions.
Stunning locations, affordable housing and high rates of sunshine are unlikely to suffice to attract remote workers; connectedness to larger centres and the ability to reach critical mass in service delivery are bound to play a role, too. And whilst the role of digital technologies has been essential in supporting the shift to teleworking, it lends fresh urgency to further investment in (digital) infrastructure. Already, researchers warn that while remote work could connect labour markets, it could also increase polarisation, and caution that it should be embedded in local skill-building and labour market programmes to serve as an effective tool for rural development.
In sum, teleworking may well have the potential to change the geographical distribution of workers, reduce inequalities between communities, and even alter electoral trends, but it is hardly a silver-bullet. It could, in fact, prove to be a double-edged sword.
If remote work does allow reshuffling some jobs within countries, it might reshuffle them across countries too. This could help reduce the imbalance between excess supply of graduates in the Global South and the high demand for talent in the ageing societies of the Global North—and perhaps even provide alternative pathways to physical migration. Yet, this is not without also prompting concerns that such a global labour market could result in growing precariousness for a segment of workers whose jobs could not previously be off-shored.
Teleworking has set the wheel of fortune in motion, and no one yet knows exactly where it will stop. What we do know, however, is that public policies stand to play a key role in turning teleworking into an opportunity for all. For better or worse, the future of work has come to coalesce with that of the workplace. We must now ensure it extends economic growth and well-being rather than redistribute discontent. The world of work has already changed, but it is not too late to join forces to re-imagine its geography, and harness this unique opportunity to bolster social cohesion and local development.
Read also the OECD Local Economic and Employment Development (LEED) Paper Exploring policy options on teleworking: Steering local economic and employment development in the time of remote work
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