COVID-19 has changed where people work like no event since the mechanization of agriculture or Ford’s moving assembly. How radical and enduring the work-at-home movement proves to be, once we have a vaccine and social distancing ends, remains to be seen.
New Yorkers were permitted to return to the office in late June but perhaps only 10% chose to do so. Part of this is caution about the virus but also the city’s income tax does not apply for days spent residing and working beyond its jurisdiction. Workers can relocate to lower tax and safer jurisdictions.
Enabled by powerful laptops, collaborative technologies and the cloud, the share of workers spending at least part of their time offsite, according to Gallup surveys, rose from 39% in 2012 to 43% in 2016. With COVID-19 that surged to 70% in May but slipped to 53% in July—that’s more or less on trend.
Many businesses often report no lost productivity, and the absence of distractions actually may improve efficiency. However, distance can prove an issue in finance, for example, where very quick responses are required to compete in securities trading.
Even in technology industries, where Amazon AMZN, 0.98% and others are extending exclusive work at home into next year, problems emerge. Chef Robotics recently missed a deadline because of the difficulties of virtually integrating and testing software and hardware.
It’s important to recognize that offices and desks in cubicles came into existence for good reasons. Everyone in the same place most of the time promotes spontaneous collaboration, joint problem solving, mentoring young employees, and creating corporate cultures. The latter create consistency in how employees address unexpected challenges and interact with customers.
COVID-19 is like a terrible hurricane on a national scale. Workers are rising to the challenge out of fear—if you don’t figure out how to do your job offsite you might not keep it—and that American can-do spirit.
Near urban centers, many professionals live in barely adequate space but don’t have elaborate home offices. Younger colleagues are balancing laptops while sitting on beds with printers in a makeshift locations.
Home wi-fi is hardly as quick or reliable as office ethernet systems and if software malfunctions, help sometimes can only be obtained via cellphone. When computers break down or large software patches are needed, workers must trudge back to the office.
We can sprint for a period on Zoom or similar software, because we have well established relationships with colleagues—a history of water cooler conversations and formal collaborations. Those will decay over time.
Integrating new workers and establishing trust with unfamiliar personalities will prove more daunting. Orientation classes without physical contact with veteran employees can make difficult duplicating the virtual collaboration the current crisis has produced.
Facebook FB, 5.81%, Twitter TWTR, 1.33% and CEOs in many other industries see opportunities in work from home to offer flexibility to accommodate workers with children and long commutes, recruit workers even further away at lower wages, and rent less space.
However, employees cannot balance laptops sitting on beds indefinitely—they will develop all manner of ailments. Productive work requires an adequate separate space where employees have a decent desk and chair, photos of significant others and children, a few books and secret stash of Snickers—or whatever stress reliever they prefer.
Employees will need bigger living spaces and that requires more pay. Offsite tech support will be more expensive than if provided at the office.
New projects, difficult design problems and addressing challenging opportunities and competition will still require considerable face-to-face interaction. There’s lots of nuance in no-verbal signals that is not picked up on Zoom. Good managers that chair meetings read those cues and know how to maximize that information for better results.
It’s terribly expensive and a hassle to frequently bring engineers and marketers located near ski slopes in Utah or West Virginia to the West Coast or New York.
All this great technology will permit us to be more virtual—and not have to listen to the officemate who regularly bikes across Iowa—but we are still going to offices, just not as much.
I recall Walt Disney saying his job was to walk around and encourage people to be creative. People must show up for the genuine prophets to inspire.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland.