The Future of Work is Virtual – Lessons from Online Higher Education

What will work look like in the future? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employees globally to work from home. As COVID-19 fades, will employees return to the office or prefer working virtually? To what extent will productivity, motivation, and engagement be impacted with more employees working virtually? How do organizations respond and facilitate such preferences by some employees? 

Of course, it is not feasible for everyone to work from home. Healthcare employees, service industry, transportation, and others require employees to be at the office or other locations to perform their work. However, a study cited in Newswire (2020) highlighted that over half of U.S. employees (75 million workers) hold jobs and have responsibilities that could be performed, at least in part, from home. It is estimated that there are five million U.S. employees working from home prior to COVID-19. We are estimating that this can increase to more than 25 million even after COVID-19 fades. We believe that remote work is here to stay. 

Consumers are seeking alternatives to the historical offerings. Individuals and families are finding significant benefits of working from home with no sacrifice in productivity. As an example, we at Western Governors University are in the business of preparing students to be successful in the world of work. Our typical student is a working adult. As such we have created programs that not only prepare students for jobs but are flexible for students to complete online. We believe that some of our learnings, from running online programs, can be applied to industry. Even prior to COVID-19, academic institutions have been depending on online programs for growth. 

At the heart of this transformation from office to working from home, is the opportunity and necessity for companies to stay viable and thrive in a rapidly changing environment. Strategies dictate that companies must be exceptional at anticipating what is next and reacting in real time. Online education has experienced massive growth over the past few years. Universities that are good at understanding such trends have adapted appropriately and are flourishing. 

Online Higher Education as a Guide for Virtual Work 

Why do students pursue their higher education online? Access to quality, relevant, and affordable education in a flexible structure is appealing to learners. Learners today are not seeking the historical classroom semester approach but value the flexibility and convenience of online education. Time is foremost among considerations for learners. Like higher education, the future of work is virtual. 

COVID-19 forced schools, universities, and companies to remote work, causing the explosion of online learning. This includes brick and mortar institutions that have been reluctant to offer full online degrees. At Western Governors University, we have been working in online higher ed for 23 years and have found that business education can be done well online. We currently have more than 120,000 students and enrolling steadily each month. 

Many universities and colleges across the world have experienced fast development of technologies, changing needs of digital learners and other aspects of the digital era have had a major impact on universities and their learning management procedures (Tereseviciene, Trepule, Dauksiene, Tamoliune, & Costa, 2020). Online education forces students to adopt and practice technologies they will need to work from home and/or to participate in more digitally structured places of work. 

Employee Motivation, Engagement, and Productivity in a Virtual Environment 

Just as in online education, where students’ individual stories and technology skills are considered and the need for acceptance and belonging within the online classroom community (Ratliff, 2018), companies have to ensure employees are engaged in a virtual environment and feel valued. Using a holistic approach to online education has enabled higher levels of student engagement, satisfaction, and ultimately graduation from their respective universities (McDougall, 2019). Caring, genuine concern, supportive guidance, a focus of social and emotional learning, employee development, and building a sense of community will go a far way to ensure employees are motivated and are staying engaged in a virtual setting. 

For us at WGU with more than 4,000 faculty members, technology plays a key role. Teams meet on a regular basis. Managers meet with employees using web-based meetings. There are constant interactions among employees all helping to create that sense of community. WGU has made it a priority to proactively build a positive culture using positive psychology and focusing on social and emotional learning. The sense of genuine care, compassion, forgiveness, and seeking happiness through work are evident. 

Will productivity be impacted with more employees working from home? Neeley (2020) posited that productivity does not have to go down at all. It can be maintained, even enhanced, because commutes and office distractions are gone. Similarly, students have demonstrated that they can pursue their degrees online within similar time as face-to-face programs and even complete in shorter times without sacrificing quality (learning outcomes). 

Challenges Working in a Virtual Environment 

Companies such as Best Buy, Yahoo and Aetna all experimented with remote work in years past before telling employees to come back into the office; remote communication is just not the same (Semuels, 2020). Among the major challenges is effective communication or lack thereof in a virtual environment. Through deliberate strategies and utilizing relevant technology such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and others, employees have ample opportunities to minimize these communication challenges. 

As more companies shift to remote work following the coronavirus pandemic, management may have to work harder to ensure that all employees are included and have equal opportunity. It’s a problem most companies grapple with even in a normal in-person office environment, but the issue can quickly intensify with distance (Abril, 2020). Furthermore, workplace isolation can be challenging. Companies are embracing a diverse workforce and improving hiring practices to include multicultural talent. While some employees integrate well, others fall victim to Leader-Member Exchange Theory’s “out-group” category and become estranged (Hunter & Chekwa, 2019). The concept of creating a community of care and an inclusive culture will be critical to reducing these situations. 


COVID-19 has revealed the need for corporate resilience and the ability to embrace virtual collaboration tools and practices (Hatfield & Jones, 2020). Companies that have previously embraced future of work practices are likely well positioned to sustain their operations. At the same time, adapting quickly and effectively to a virtual environment will likely enable companies to attract and retain the talent that is needed to drive competitiveness and enable them to win. Higher education has survived and flourished through the emphasis on online education. Universities and colleges understood the needs of the learners and adapted. Employees are seeking opportunities to work from home. It is the future. The future is now.


Abril, D. (2020). Remote work may exacerbate diversity and inclusion problems for companies., N.PAG-N.PAG. 

Hatfield, S., & Jones, R. (2020). Future of Work: Ways of working in uncertain times: Increasing organizational resilience in the face of COVID-19. Deloitte. 

Hunter, D., & Chekwa, C. (2019). Workplace Isolation among Ethnic Employees in Remote Work Environments. AIMS International Journal of Management, 13(1), 23-36.

McDougall, J. (2019). ‘I never felt like I was alone’: A holistic approach to supporting students in an online, pre-university programme. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 34(3), 241-256. doi:10.1080/02680513.2019.1583098

Neeley, T. (2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2-7. 

Newswire, P. R. (2020). Global Workplace Analytics and Iometrics Launch Survey to Reveal Who’s Working from Home, What’s Working, What Isn’t, and How the Crisis Will Impact the Future of Work. In GLOBAL-WORKPLACE: Y.

Ratliff, K. (2018). Building Rapport and Creating a Sense of Community: Are Relationships Important in the Online Classroom? Crear una buena relación y un sentido de comunidad: ¿Son importantes las relaciones en el aula en línea?, 31-48. doi:10.18278/il.7.1.4

Semuels, A. (2020). Does Remote Work Actually Work? TIME Magazine, 195(12/13), 42. 

Tereseviciene, M., Trepule, E., Dauksiene, E., Tamoliune, G., & Costa, N. (2020). Are Universities Ready to Recognize Open Online Learning? International Education Studies, 13(2), 21-32.