Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Work from anywhere: Is 2021 the future of work?

Work from home is changing everything from real estate to communications. Predictions from the front lines of our new reality.

The future of work? 'Work from anywhere' is here to stay

It's perpetually surreal to be living through what will inevitably be a historical pivot point. Our short-term adjustments are giving way to long term changes, and it's astounding how apparent that is. Nevertheless, the substance of the changes to work and culture, the ones that will survive, remain elusive, a betting person's game. 

Fortunately, some executives are willing to wade into the murky waters of prediction. One of them is Audrey Khusid, founder and CEO of Miro. As head of the digital whiteboarding platform, which has doubled its user base from 3.7M to 9M since March and is now used by 95% of Fortune 100 companies, Khusid has a front row seat to the evolution of the changing workplace.

Based on his observations from 2020, he predicts that work from home will become work from anywhere (WFX), and there will be a massive digital transformation as a result. What else will change? I caught up with Khusid to discuss the future. Here are his six most poignant predictions for 2021, with thanks for the insights.

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Work from home will become work from anywhere (WFX)

More and more companies are announcing that remote work will be permanent, even when travel restrictions and social distancing will not be. The result: As travel opportunities begin to reopen, millions of employees will turn their new-found remote status into the chance to work from anywhere, relocating outside of urban centers, making up for lost time with family, or participating in remote years and other "workation" opportunities. And because companies have spent the last year investing in technology that enables virtual collaboration -- for many of these employees the transition will be seamless and unnoticed by employers. 

The heartland will see an "undraining" of brains

The phenomenon of highly skilled college graduates leaving their hometowns in middle America and relocating to economic centers like Silicon Valley, New York, and Austin is commonly known as "Brain Drain," -- and remote work may finally bring it to an end. Instead of fleeing the heartland en masse for new opportunities, remote work will allow these workers to stay settled in regional hubs like Madison, Grand Rapids, Asheville, Boulder, Nashville, and Raleigh. This regionalization of talent will have a massive impact on American culture, affecting everything from real-estate markets to electoral politics -- while still giving companies from around the country access to top talent. 

Point to Accelerators coming out of places like Buffalo, South Bend, and Charlotte. 

Hybrid work will present new challenges to unequipped teams

Thousands of enterprises will gradually begin phasing teams back into the office by adopting hybrid strategies that combine remote and in-office work. While hybrid work is a good compromise to protect employees with health concerns, the risk becomes introducing "worst of both worlds" work habits into company collaboration. 

To mitigate these effects, enterprises can embrace a culture of asynchronous sharing to replace many of the status and other routine meetings that fill up employee calendars. For brainstorms and real-time meetings, companies must make meetings interactive so that virtual attendees can participate with just as little friction as in-person ones, and craft collaborative practices that are inclusive to remote workers, like holding meetings entirely virtually even if some members are in the office. 

Engagement is the new productivity

Since the start of the SaaS era, billions of dollars have been invested into technology solutions that offered improvements to productivity in the enterprises. Many of the startups built by offering these solutions are now publicly traded companies like Slack and Asana, and even more solutions in the space have come from giants like Google and Microsoft. Looking forward, CIO priorities and budgets will shift away from making employees more productive and into making them more engaged. 

Engagement is different from productivity. Engagement refers to the passion employees have for their jobs and the connection they feel to their teams. In an era of remote and hybrid work, high levels of engagement will be a competitive advantage in developing products, attracting talent, and building customer loyalty in a crowded landscape. 

In the new world of work from anywhere (WFX), employees must amplify their engagement to find advancement opportunities

One of the drawbacks of remote work is that it's more difficult to draw attention to what you're working on day-to-day. In an office setting your attitude, body language, and relationships help drive the way you're perceived, opening doors for those with genuine enthusiasm and passion for their workplace. But in a remote setting where employees collaborate predominantly with text, such enthusiasm is harder for employees to convey and for employers to identify.

In 2021 it will be important that employees put extra effort into amplifying their engagement virtually to make sure they get new opportunities. They must participate in virtual events, be active in group messaging, and keep their enthusiasm high during zoom calls to stand out as leaders while working from home. 

Young careers may suffer from lack of organic mentorship opportunities

Particularly early in their careers, young workers depend on a combination of observing experienced colleagues and formal, hands-on mentorship to improve the job skills that allow them to grow. In a remote work environment, organic opportunities for this kind of learning are fewer and further between. In an office, you can hear colleagues think out loud, hop in informal huddles to share the reasoning behind decisions, and observe professional behavior in-person to learn the ropes. In a work from anywhere (WFX) world, this is not possible. 

To help develop a new generation of talent, companies will need to be proactive and deliberate in 2021 in building mentorship programs, and managers must give time and love to new employees to make sure they are learning the ropes and ultimately mastering their jobs to take on new challenges. Those who fail to do so risk losing rising talent.