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Is 2021 The Year of The Remote (Virtual) Employee?

Is 2021 The Year of The Remote (Virtual) Employee?


By Vincent Scaramuzzo, President, Ed-Exec, Inc.

COVID-19 has accelerated many online trends that were already happening worldwide. Online shopping, virtual house tours, telemedicine appointments, and more. But perhaps none has been fast-tracked quite like the hiring of remote employees (virtual workers).

Salespeople may have been some of the first remote employees in America. Going door to door, or company to company, their office was a car or hotel room, out on the road trying to close deals. While they had a desk at the office, they were rarely in it.

For a while in the early 2000’s it seemed other sectors and roles were experimenting with or embracing the idea of remote employees.

Then in 2013 when Yahoo’s former CEO Marissa Mayer decided to bring all workers back into the office, I imagined old-fashioned CEO’s everywhere letting out a collective “sigh” and “I told you so.” Were remote employees a dead idea?

For a while, we tracked fewer and fewer remote roles at the firm. I thought it was a palpable setback for workforces eager to leave the confines of cramped cubicles and stuffy office buildings. Meanwhile, other companies were building headquarters referred to as campuses. These were designed to make sure employees almost never wanted to go home. They included daycares, gyms, sleeping pods, slides, ball pits, gourmet coffee shops and more. But perhaps Yahoo did not make the right move, once valued at $125 billion, it sold to Verizon for a mere $4.8 billion in 2017 (according to Forbes July 2016).

It is hard to know for certain, but by some counts as much as 40% of the American labor force is currently working remotely – more people by far are still at work in offices. But a lot of people believe that continuing remote work and at least paring back physical offices is sensible.

Prior to the pandemic higher education was almost always “campus based.” Even online schools typically have a headquarters that house their top administrative leaders. While some student support employees are virtual (admissions, financial aid, career services,) the C-Suite and leadership were always under one roof. Occasionally we would see a specialized Dean working somewhere else – but they were plagued with endless trips to HQ. Organizations struggled to keep these employees engaged and part of the team. Only the most progressive and forward-thinking institutions seemed to be embracing remote employees.

I recently completed a search for a University client who was hiring a Chief Academic Officer for their Online Division. The Universities Associate Deans, program directors, faculty, and most of their support staff are all virtual – yet they insisted on this new hire being located at their headquarters. When I asked why, they explained “I really like having my entire team here, their office is right across the hall from mine.”

We completed the search, and they made a great hire, but it left me wondering did they hire the best candidate available – or the best candidate who could relocate to their offices?

As I sit in our beautiful office space alone, no longer occupied by our teams (they are virtual now) I wonder, what is really happening at an office that cannot happen over a Microsoft Teams or Zoom meeting? Prior to the pandemic, it was rare that everyone would gather in one office or conference room anyway. Typically, people were taking conference calls from their private office, and rarely brushing shoulders with colleagues down the hall.

But even amid a global pandemic “everyone under one roof” is still a common mindset. Many organizations, even with all their employees currently working virtual, want new hires committed to their headquarters once it is safe to do so. Many institutions are even reporting higher productivity from their teams working remotely. Despite this, they insist on bringing in new hires to their location.

These trends and philosophical approaches to building and managing teams are not confined to just the education sector. According to CNBC, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai delayed a return to the office until September 2021 and axed the idea of permanent remote work. Meanwhile, other competitive tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, have said employees can work remotely “forever” or over the next decade, allowing employees to move to other regions if they wanted to.

What does this mean for higher education moving forward? Without question, everything has changed. I do not believe we are ever going back to “the way things used to be.” This has been coming for a long time and has only been sped up by the pandemic.

Cost savings

Even having a partially remote workforce offers some advantages such as:

  • Payroll: Candidates often demand less salary when they do not have to live in a high-priced city.
  • Access: If you need to hire someone specialized but they cannot relocate – you can still hire them. This gives organizations access to a superior level of talent.
  • Relocation costs: If a hired candidate does not have to move to your city, you don’t have to pay for a move.
  • Infrastructure: Less office space and equipment are needed for remote employees. Moving employees out of headquarters and into remote or home offices can save companies millions of dollars per year. And keep in mind, these numbers dwarf the cost of IT support for these employees.
  • Increased employee retention: I have spoken to large organizations that have effectively stopped requiring employees to move to be closer to their bosses. A side advantage is that employees stay longer, and their institutional knowledge is maintained.
  • Increased agility: Minimizing the impact of geography lets employees be closer to customers and prospects and eliminates the need to relocate key employees in response to organizational changes. (Just because you now report to someone in Miami does not mean you have to move there.)


I think campuses will always be campuses; in that operational and academic leaders will need to be onsite if the students are present; however, some staff may not need to be. I have already seen many support services in a virtual environment. This is especially beneficial for multiple campus organizations that can centralize things like Financial Aid. You do not have to imagine this; it is already happening successfully. If a student wants to meet with someone in Financial Aid, they connect with them via video, share a screen, and assist the student. This has played out for admissions, career services, and student affairs as well. Admissions being the most popular to take on this format and emphasized by OPM’s.


If your students are purely online and not in Phoenix, Arizona, why does anyone else need to be there? Many schools are realizing that the additional cost of real estate and equipment is unnecessary and downright wasteful. Furthermore, many studies are showing remote employees are significantly more productive than on-site workers. The average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes in the weeks following COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, and the number of meetings increased by 13%, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed.

Moving forward

Not unlike the best solution for so many parts of the pandemic – I think hybrid is the answer. Do you need a headquarters? I think so. Do all your employees have to be there? I think not. In an efficient scenario, office space can be downsized and resources reallocated. A “home base” or headquarters is ideal for onboarding of new employees, monthly or quarterly meetings, and many other functions such as training. It provides a centralized location of organizational culture. I see this always being needed.

Spreading out your virtual employees should be in geographic locations that make sense. In the same time zone is ideal.

A short direct flight or a reasonable drive to the office enables everyone to come together quickly. It also makes it possible to meet with team members offsite as needed.

The bottom line is employees have gotten used to working from home during this pandemic and the technology has proven to be viable if not a superior modality. Despite working longer hours and being more productive for the same money – they are more than willing to trade that for the comfort of home, being able to get your kids off the bus, let out the dog, and the feeling of safety in uncertain times. Never mind all those Amazon packages they are home to receive.

From a talent acquisition strategy, I do not believe you will be able to compete for top talent if employees cannot work remotely at least some of the time. Organizations who embrace this will save across the board while improving productivity and the talent level hired.

Buckle up 2021 – it will be the year of the remote employee.

Vincent Scaramuzzo

VINCENT SCARAMUZZO is the President of Ed-Exec, Inc. A leading Education Executive Search Firm. He is also a contributing author to various education publications. As a specialist in the education field for over a decade, Scaramuzzo works nationally. He can be contacted at vincent@ed-exec.com or at 860-781-7641.

Contact Information: Vincent Scaramuzzo // President // Ed-Exec, Inc. // 860-781-7641 // vincent@ed-exec.com // http://www.ed-exec.com/


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