Workplace upheaval is changing societies everywhere. But to fully embrace remote and hybrid work, one thing is clear: while digital infrastructure is critical, it’s not all that’s needed.
In 2009, Jackson County, Kentucky, developed a $45 billion infrastructure plan that included money for a mule named Old Bub, to help the community with an ambitious new mission: remaking its century-old economy.
At the time, Old Bub’s success seemed improbable. Unemployment in Jackson County was at 16 percent, near the national high. Yet former miners pinned their hopes on a new wellspring—the internet. So, with the help of Old Bub, they pulled and installed 1,000 miles of broadband cables to connect the struggling coal county’s 7,800 homes.
It turned out to be a smart bet.
Today, remote work opportunities brought by those high-speed cables have slashed Jackson County’s unemployment rate to 5.5 percent. The community’s success story is the model President Biden is looking to replicate with his record $65 billion investment to bring high-speed internet to all of rural America.
This is a feel-good story, a tale of underdogs overcoming the odds—and one that is repeated around the world as countries invest in broadband internet to extend the reach of jobs to remote and dispersed communities.
Yet challenges remain. In 2020, as COVID-19 raged, the World Bank conducted a study that asked which countries’ economies could be maintained under remote working conditions. Did most employees’ jobs require only a replaceable office desk? Or did they involve an industrial stove, a salon, or a warehouse? For emerging economies—Indonesia and Mexico for example—the World Bank found that just one in 26 jobs could be performed remotely. For advanced economies like Germany’s, the UK’s, and Japan’s, that statistic was one in three.
“The pandemic accelerated the pace of change across multiple industries,” says Prithwiraj Choundhury, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in remote work. But it also revealed that not all countries were on level ground when it came to remote work. Nor would every country choose to make the leap, even those in an optimal position to do so.
Take Japan. Fifteen years ago, the country rolled out “fast and light” broadband connections to the majority of its households to help make remote work possible. But the remote/hybrid transformation didn’t materialize along with that infrastructure, nor with the extraordinary pressure of the pandemic. At COVID-19’s peak in Japan, for instance, just 20 percent of employees were working remotely—fewer than half the American percentage.
What explains the difference?
Managers and directors at Japanese firms reward in-person employment—in Japan it’s talked about as an “epidemic of presenteeism.” That may be because, in Japan, in-person work often hews more closely to traditional business norms, which prioritize connection. Corporate culture in Japan focuses on “personal interaction, constant training on the job, and group communication,” according to one management expert in Tokyo.
In other countries that have the broadband infrastructure for remote work, the pandemic accelerated its embrace despite such hurdles. In India, for example, some workers, particularly in the tech industry, have long viewed the office environment—along with the gyms and restaurants often provided for employee convenience—as a perk. But in 2020, India instituted one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, and companies came to embrace the change, even choosing to continue remote work after the pandemic. In 2021, for instance, an information-technology and outsourcing giant based in Mumbai announced that three-quarters of its 450,000 employees would be remote by 2025. The company’s profits dipped almost 15 percent in a single quarter, but a year later the gamble paid off. Profits were up 32 percent from the year prior because the company’s employees were able to continue working.
“It’s a bellwether,” says Choundhury, pointing out that India’s biggest government-owned bank and a large infotech firm all recently announced that they, too, would be shifting to a work-from-anywhere model. Collectively, those firms employ nearly 100,000 workers. Choundhury believes that these bold moves will pay dividends now and in the long run. “The companies leading the digital transformation will become magnets for attracting and keeping talent,” he says.
Embracing the shift to remote work
In some countries, the shift to remote work has been fully embraced. In Australia, for example, two-thirds of employees work remotely, and four out five business owners expect the trend to continue after the pandemic ends. In Israel, one in three workers are remote, and in South Africa, among the most developed countries on the African continent, that number is one in five. Though remote work will likely never be possible for the half of the global economy that is service oriented, the shift toward more white-collar and knowledge workers, even in countries with fewer high-tech jobs, is having a seismic effect.
Still, challenges remain, including access to high-speed internet. In South America, for example, roughly three in ten people have no internet access at all, although that figure is likely to change. In Columbia, President Ivan Duque recently compared internet access to water, electricity, and gas—an “essential public service.” To that end, the country passed a law in July 2021 that obligates telecom operators to provide customers a minimum amount of browsing and free text packages during health emergencies like the ongoing pandemic. Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina are all considering, or have already put in place, similar laws in just the past year.
“This all really started last year in Latin America,” says Doyle Gallegos, lead digital development specialist at the World Bank. “It’s really a proclamation that providing internet access to all citizens is critical and a high priority for the government.”
In America, where remote work is as dependent on access to the internet as in any other country, firms are steadily rewriting the rules of labor. When the pandemic hit, many workers were poised to take advantage of the moment. Those who could work remotely did, causing a relocation phenomenon that saw people flee cities in droves. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles all experienced population declines as people looked for cheaper housing and more space. But where they landed was in large part determined by whether a city, town, or zip code offered high-speed internet; just 65 percent of the country does (compared with 96 percent of Western Europe). So where did people wind up? In the suburbs and in “opportunity cities” with broadband access and a focus on tech work, including metro areas like Boise, Idaho; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tennessee.
“The remaining 35 percent have such poor internet at home—or no internet—that it prevents effective telecommuting,” the Stanford economist Nicolas Bloom said in a recent interview. The subtext is that rural economies have faced challenges from the migration. Congress’s recent $65 billion investment in digital infrastructure is intended to correct that. By the time of the next economic upheaval, places like Jackson County, Kentucky, may be as integral to the national economy as big cities are.
Ultimately, access to high-speed internet will determine the future of remote work across the globe. The World Bank calls high-speed internet a “basic necessity for economic and human development.” Researchers estimate that if 75 percent of the developing world gains access to broadband, a total of roughly $2 trillion will be added to those countries’ GDPs, and 140 million new jobs will be created globally.
That transformation will happen. And when it does, remote work will no longer be limited by access to high-speed internet—instead bringing new opportunities to any economy that chooses to embrace it.