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CES debates the future of remote work trends

CES usually has a firm grasp on future technology trends, but when it comes to remote work, the road ahead seems unclear.

In consumer electronics, the near future is usually clear: Smarter TVs, more capable robotics, better smartphones and smart home technology. But when it came to remote work trends, the discussion at the CES 2021 wasn't as sure-footed.

At the virtual conference, speakers and panelists said the shift to remote work is here to stay post-pandemic. Larger percentages of people will work remotely, either full-time or under some flexible arrangement.

But experts on technology and workforce management were uncertain as to whether technology, as well as corporate cultures, can make the remote work trend a satisfying experience. The shortfalls may prompt many to return to the office, they warned.

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLabDarren Murph

What's not working in the home office environment are "those spontaneous conversations, those elevator pitches, those chats as we walk along," said Paul Lee, head of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte LLP.

"There is no digital equivalent of that as far as I can see," Lee said. "Zoom and other products like that are fantastic for the meeting room replication, but the reality is business is about more than just the boardroom."

"What's really hard is communicating using a 2D screen," Lee said during a panel discussion at CES. It is difficult to know whether something you are saying resonates or people are getting lost. "You can't see the whole-body language, which is what you need," he said.

Because of those communication problems, Lee expects -- as soon as it's safe -- that "most people who can will end up going back to offices as much as they can."

Remote work challenges
Challenges of remote work

But Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, a DevOps platform, outlined some of the benefits of remote work. Murph manages the firm's remote work deployment.

"Remote has been a major democratizing factor for many people, especially those who are introverted by default," Murph said. "A lot of people have felt that their career has been hampered if they weren't naturally the loudest voice in the room or they didn't carry a certain aura and charisma into the office."

Remote work "allows introverts to have an equal voice," Murph said.

The remote work trend is a significant opportunity for job seekers, Murph said during another CES panel. He believes candidates will walk into a job interview and ask, right off: "What is your company's stance on workplace flexibility?" That's something that might not have been asked so directly pre-COVID-19, he said.

But supporting a remote workforce could suffer if the executive team quickly returns to the office post-pandemic, Murph argued.

What's really hard is communicating using a 2D screen.
Paul LeeHead of technology, media and telecommunications research, Deloitte LLP

If the executives are back in the office, "the communication workflows and decision-making processes will more than likely gravitate back to wherever the executive team is," he said.

Technology can also be used in the wrong way when it comes to remote work, said Marc Goldberg, CTO at the Society for Human Resource Management, on a separate panel.

If a firm begins deploying HR tools to monitor and measure the performance and productivity of their remote workforce, they may alienate their workers.

When a firm hires someone because of their skills, it is an "investment in trust," Goldberg said. If an employer says they will start monitoring productivity because employees are no longer in the office, "it can be trust destroying."

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