Remote working has become a widespread trend since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of workers across the world to work from home to limit the spread of the virus. Now, though, organizations and companies are beginning to cut back on the extent of remote working, bringing back their employees into their offices. 

For those workers who lived in remote centers of population in Israel, the window of employment opportunity which had opened during the period of coronavirus has begun to close again. The question is, what is the economic and social cost of the absence of their unique voices and perspectives?  

Remote working was far from common before the outbreak of the pandemic, being offered to employees only in exceptional circumstances.  Companies were skeptical of remote working because they feared this form of employment would result in a decrease in productivity and communication problems. In addition, technology had not sufficiently developed, nor were telecommunications sufficiently sophisticated to support remote working.  The constraints arising at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a spur for the development of companies’ abilities and this, together with innovative technological solutions and the provision of tools for employees and managers, allowed the functional roll-out of remote working.  

There are many advantages to this form of flexible working, including an increase in employees’ productivity owing to the work-life balance; a general improvement in a sense of quality of life, leading to an increase in motivation; general satisfaction with work; and a sense of identification with the organization.  A drop in the amount of sick leave taken and a more attractive image for the employer enabled the recruitment of high levels of human capital. There was also a reduced need for office space, saving in outgoings and in traveling times.  For the economy, there was a rise in work productivity resulting from the reduction in commuting, as well as a lessening of traffic congestion and air pollution caused by transportation.  In addition, remote working supported increased hiring of under-represented sections of the population in the workforce, particularly in high-level work, and in diverse populations and residents of both the geographical and social periphery.   

Looking at the rollout in hindsight, the following are the three central factors which are important to address when considering where remote work goes from here: 

  1.  Employment in the flexible format of remote working allows workers from the periphery to have a greater range of choice of jobs and places of work. This is without having to make the compromises which had been forced upon them, mainly owing to geographical constraints, as well as the lack of a developed transport infrastructure, principally in public transport.  In other words, remote working enables equal opportunity both through widening the base of those qualifying in new professions and through integration into distant places of work, in diversified jobs with higher salaries, transcending the restrictions of those locations which were mainly characterized by less diversity of employment and by an economy based mainly on production.  
  2. Economically, remote working makes a great contribution to the development of an information and knowledge-rich local economy. Remote working opportunities enable the development of new businesses in the periphery and increases population mobility.  Such flexible commercial activity contributes to the growth in the diversity of businesses and of the number of knowledge-based workers who can establish branches in remote areas. In fact, a knowledge-based economy requires heterogeneity in human capital and sufficient numbers of these exemplar models to increase creativity and enable diversification of the commercial portfolios of the products and services on a local and national level.  From the state’s point of view, this creates an opening for a national opportunity to close gaps and increase economic productivity.
  3. At state level (central government), commercial activity based on the remote working format is critical.  Government institutions are mainly located in the capital and the large metropolitan centres of the country.  Remote-based commercial activity allowed additional voices to be heard for the first time and for additional perspectives to be presented which had either been few in number or were entirely missing from these centers of decision making.  The integration of workers from the geographical and economic periphery contributes to better policy making and helps to ensure appropriate services for all citizens.  

To summarize, alongside the heavy price which the Corona pandemic brought, it also created a real opportunity for the Israeli economy in general and for the peripheral areas in particular.  Recently, with announcements coming from (mainly commercial) companies of a virtually full-time physical return to places of work, the difficult and long-standing dilemma faced by the population of Israel’s social and geographical periphery arises once more.  However, as remarked, this issue is not just one for workers who see the window of opportunity closing for them.  I see this as a national strategic objective for Israel which, for many years now, has been pre-occupied with finding ways to lessen the social and economic gaps between the periphery and the centre.  This is the purpose of public service: to ensure the representation of the whole population in central areas of decision-making, and to ensure that unique voices and different perspectives are heard.  

Are the voices of the residents of the periphery to become weakened again in the public space?

Get to know the author

Dr. Iris Nehemiah (WSL 2020) is the former Senior Deputy Director of Public Service, and an expert in strategy, regional development, and the delivery of change in a developing employment market.