The shift to a remote workforce had begun long before COVID forced the issue. I worked remotely for Silicon Valley technology companies from 1997 to 2004, telecommuting from my home office in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You couldn’t really say it was 100% remote. I did travel to the San Francisco Bay area a few times a year. And eventually, I was onsite about a week per month. But it still gave me the ability to live in a lower-cost part of the country where we could own a home and enjoy good schools and a lower cost of living. Meanwhile, we could still gain valuable experience working with cutting-edge companies.
Since then, in my IT leadership roles, I have partnered with vendor companies that managed to avoid having brick-and-mortar offices altogether. Every employee worked from home wherever they might live. Even so, until the COVID pandemic, it was still not the norm for companies to encourage or even allow Work From Home (WFH) or Work From Anywhere (WFA) situations.
The Shift to Work From Anywhere
Now, however, more and more companies are realizing that this can be an effective work environment. Increasingly more workers are experiencing a better work/life balance when they can cut out the daily commute and, in some cases, expensive childcare.
There are exceptions, of course. Some jobs are not yet handled effectively by remote workers—operating machinery, using lab equipment, or handling customer transactions in stores, to name a few. One of the notable holdouts in moving to WFA is the manufacturing industry. When manufacturing lines, physical goods, and raw materials must be handled, that would obviously be a barrier to remote work. A common mindset is that if some of the workers must be onsite, it’s better to insist that all workers be onsite.
However, the restrictions necessarily imposed during the pandemic showed that only a subset of the workers in a manufacturing company needs to be onsite. Any employee, even those whose offices tended to be in or near the plant or warehouse—such as production planners, logistics coordinators, and purchasing agents—were asked to work from home to limit the number of people who might bring the virus onsite and expose the workers who needed to be there.
Even after the restrictions began to lift, it was not uncommon for the employees who returned to the office to be asked not to enter the manufacturing facility and vice versa, in an attempt to further limit person-to-person contact unless necessary. This series of events seems to point to a cultural reason for avoiding WFA setups, rather than a functional one. Time will tell whether that mindset will shift.
What Enables Work From Anywhere in Manufacturing?
For those manufacturers that do get on board with the shift to WFA, what about those jobs that are currently viewed as “must be onsite”? What would it take to bring more flexibility to even those roles? This challenge involves creative thinking around new technologies powered by cloud systems.
In very advanced factories, robots are employed to provide the hands-on work needed at the manufacturing line, shop floor, or warehouse. Some may be automated; others are remotely controlled by someone who is connected from “anywhere” by the Internet. Someone will undoubtedly point out that someone still needs to be onsite to fix the robots or solve problems that are encountered. That is true, for now, but it still frees up more roles to be handled remotely.
Maintenance and engineering provide another great opportunity for WFA scenarios. You don’t have to send an engineer in-person to distant plant locations; someone onsite can use wearable augmented reality (AR) glasses while working with the remote engineer, who is able to see everything that the onsite person sees. They can bring up specs or demonstrate maintenance techniques directly through the AR system.
Manufacturing companies who are willing to look beyond widely held beliefs about WFA jobs will reap the benefits of a talent pool that exists far beyond the commuting radius of the manufacturing plant. Modern cloud-based technologies make it possible to collaborate and innovate through diverse geographically separated teams. This is already easily possible for corporate employees but is becoming increasingly feasible for those roles which have previously been limited to onsite workers. I believe that as manufacturers of physical goods struggle to compete in a global economy, we will see those who resist this move towards WFA begin to fall behind those who embrace it.