Remote Working: What to Learn From the Tech Industry That Pioneered WFH; Part I: How Did We Get Here?

Kim Christ, Director of SC Tech and SC Cyber
SC Council on Competitiveness

The technology sector was well-known for its remote workforce long before phrases like “the new normal,” “unprecedented time,” and “let’s Zoom” were part of our COVID-19 vernacular. Now, as other industries are putting new work from home policies in place and making difficult personnel and timing decisions, the technology sector is enjoying a well-earned head start. What can other industries learn from the technology sector, with 57% of IT workforce was already working remotely as of 2019[1]?

Employee retention and job satisfaction

The first thing tech teaches us are the benefits of remote work on employee retention and job satisfaction. Before we look at the effects of the pandemic on remote working, it’s  important to know why remote work has been so unanimously embraced by IT and technology firms. Of course, pragmatically, jobs in IT and programming can technically be done from anywhere. But also, the technology industry has taken note of the priorities of its essential workforce – millennials (anyone born 1981-1996). According to a survey completed in 2019 by Spiceworks, the #3 reason that IT professionals leave a job is to seek a better work/life balance. Millennials are expected to make up 50% of the workforce by the end of this year, and 75% by 2025[2]. And unlike their predecessors, they don’t have a lot of inherent job loyalty – nearly half expect to stay in their current job for less than two years. This turnover costs the US $30.5 billion annually[3]. Providing work from home or flexible scheduling allows companies to offer perks that are not salary-related, all the while showing their employees a level of independence and self-management that earns loyalty.

Increased creativity and productivity

SC Tech caught up with Dr. Kasie Whitener, Instructor of Entrepreneurship at UofSC Darla Moore School of Business and Managing Partner of Clemson Road Consulting, who literally wrote the book on the subject. Dr. Whitener noted, “The COVID-19 pandemic displayed in real time how innovative our workforce is when given time and space. Creativity exploded during the weeks of quarantine. We saw architecture firms increase their community presence through printable templates for youth, national brands increased their popularity through giving initiatives, arts organizations improved accessibility with everything from online dance classes to YouTube tutorials, and mom-and-pop shops turned to digital platforms to share curbside specials. What didn’t happen was an entire workforce turning into lazy defeatists.” When asked if we will see a return to normal work week policies once the virus is behind us, she was adamant: “There is no way to put this genie back in the bottle. Many businesses are finding that having remote workers or jobs with remote work options is the solution to problems they face. Perhaps they’ve grown beyond their current office footprint. Maybe they’re searching for a way to offer the work-life balance employees seek. Maybe they want more agile operations in preparation for the next unexpected twist. Developing a work-from-anywhere workforce means sustaining productivity even when the office isn’t an option.”

Remote work as a recruiting tool

Finally, many companies are looking at remote working as an opportunity to open their borders within recruitment. From an employee perspective, if a person can work from anywhere, why not live in a relatively low-cost destination like Charleston, with world-class restaurants, beautiful beaches and a day’s drive from waterfalls and mountains? From an employer perspective, if they can save money on office overhead, they may have more salary to offer to get the best and brightest employee, knowing they won’t have to offer relocation packages. We already have a large number of SC residents working for some of the biggest technology companies all over the world. As we move into another “new normal,” you have to wonder if we will see this trend adopted by our other leading SC industries.

What’s next?

Check back in next month as we look at some best practices from the SC Cyber cluster in maintaining data security in a remote work environment. Where are the vulnerabilities, how can companies educate employees on security measures, and what resources are available in SC to help our data stay secure?

[1] Hlebowitsh, Nadia (2019, February). 2019 Remote IT Workers Stats: 10 Facts Companies Should Know

[2] Marquez, Maria. (2017, March). Millennials: The Future Workforce.

[3] Carter, Brandon. (2017, January). 2016 Employee Engagement & Loyalty Statistics.

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