At this juncture, we can have some confidence about what the past few decades and the past year have taught us. Remote work has been a long time coming, but remote work mostly works. It is certainly less expensive than commuting to central offices. The COVID-19 crisis has provided a great opportunity, and the broad enthusiasm for remoteness may be developing some permanence. Many contractors are already embracing the practice formally and with lasting effect. What is less clear is what breadth and permanence federal agencies will allow, at least in their on-site contractors, and on contracts where work locations are geographically restricted.
The degree to which remote work will continue depends on the following factors: legitimization, shaping, and timing.
- Legitimizing the new practices, even against a backdrop of questionable old practices, means making them “socially, culturally, and politically acceptable,” here within the particular context of federal contracting. Legitimization of a market practice can be seen as a three-step process: unfreezing the current equilibrium, moving it to a new equilibrium, and then refreezing it there, at least for the near-term. Public reaction to the pandemic quickly unfroze the widespread acceptance of tacit discouragement of remote work. The task for contractors enthused about remote workforces is to prevent backsliding by federal contracting officers to old demands.
- Shaping the market means inducing transformational learning across the market—learning which changes their organizations’ view of what is possible in the markets—by both customers in government and providers in industry. In business-to-government marketing, shaping the institutional practices of organizationally complex procurement bureaucracies can require great investment of time in creating facts on the ground
- In market-shaping, timing can also be important. Office work, airline travel, and mass transit have clearly been affected cyclically, and possibly transformed secularly, at least in the private sector. We may be in a long stretch of a lingering, undulating response to a pandemic that substantially affects the willingness of people to work alongside one another. How quickly that willingness will return, and how much of it will return, after the widespread availability of a presumably efficacious vaccine remains to be seen.