Remote work and labor shortages: they seem to be the hot topics in today’s workplace.  March of 2020 brought about the perfect storm of necessity and the technological ability to test if remote work was viable.  There was no trial run.  Remote work was instantly thrust into action by a virus.  In-person meetings were replaced with virtual.  The classroom was replaced with video calls.  Zoom stock was up over 800% from January to October 2020.  Many offices were closed for as long as two years.  COVID-19 changed the landscape of the workplace seemingly overnight.  The office, commercial space and the commute were now ancient relics.  Dinosaurs, gone forever, right?  Well not exactly.


Before March of 2020, a measly 1.5% of US jobs were remote.  Two years later about 10% of the US workforce is fully remote and about 35% are hybrid remote (some days in office and some days remote).  It sounds great right?  Roll out of bed and begin the long commute to your basement desk in your pajamas.   What could be better?  Many employees agree and are seeking the remote option in a big way.  While there are several advantages to be gained in your personal life from remote work, it’s not all roses.  Because it is more difficult to effectively communicate remotely, (whether Zoom, email, or calls) the number of meetings is increasing.  Not only that, but anyone starting a new job has a much bigger learning curve being in isolation.  Many remote and hybrid workers feel like they are in some sort of work purgatory.  People in hybrid situations find themselves making a commute to a half-empty office, just to sit on a Zoom call.  Many complain of simply missing the daily human interaction and others claim that it is negatively impacting mental health.


While remote work continues to grow, many executives are pushing back.  JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon calls it “management by Hollywood Squares.”  He argues that remote work creates a working environment that is less honest and is much more prone to procrastination.  America’s most famous CEO, Elon Musk, sent a memo to Tesla employees threatening, “Work from the office for at least 40 hours a week or go home permanently.”  Many companies are struggling to bind teams together and encourage collaboration in a remote environment.


Some companies see the value of remote work, however, especially hybrid models.  Thousands of companies have sold or downsized office space and saved millions.  One study showed that hybrid employees are 22% happier than those working full-time in person.  Happiness has a direct impact on productivity.


Industry is a major driver when it comes to remote work feasibility.  Retail, hospitality, and logistics industries require in-person activity as that is their core business.  Customer support, banking, legal, tech, and healthcare are seeing huge shifts into the remote work world.  What does all of this mean to the agriculture industry?  Agronomists have been working from their trucks for years, but someone still needs to drive the semi to the elevator, right?  How is the co-op going to spray my soybeans over a wi-fi connection?  These tasks aren’t doable from your beanbag chair today, but automation could be on its way to save the day.  It is difficult to imagine a world where all operational jobs are replaced by automation, but many of them likely will be.  Drones are already replacing spray rig operators, and Tesla and others are dumping billions into self-driving vehicles.


LinkedIn says that remote jobs get three times as many applicants when compared to in-person positions.  Our experience in agriculture is similar to LinkedIn’s research: there are many more remote work seekers than there are remote positions.  The agriculture industry has historically lagged other industry trends, and remote work seems to be no exception.  Automation will continue to eat up operational jobs but will never fully replace them fully.  More white-collar jobs are becoming remote, but some will always require in-person.


Is remote and hybrid work the silver bullet to solve the labor crisis?  The stock market isn’t so sure.  Zoom stock is down 80% off its highs, but still well above January 2020 levels.  While the ratio will likely continue to swing towards more remote work, it will not solve the problem on its own.   Like satisfying world energy needs, it will take a combination of several solutions.  A mix of remote / hybrid work, automation and consolidation seem to be the way forward to help the agriculture industry find and retain the talent that will continue to grow, innovate and feed the world.

By Brad Jansen