Among the many ways in which the coronavirus has turned the world upside down is how it has impacted the way people work. Silicon Valley companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google led the way during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they encouraged their employees to work from home, and then declared that they were planning to make telecommuting a permanent part of their business model for a majority of their employees – some even offering a $1,000 cash bonus to workers who won’t be coming to the office, anymore.
While the work-from-home trend was already underway, albeit slowly – between 2005 and 2015, the fraction of workers who regularly worked from home increased by only about 2 to 3 percentage points -the pandemic has clearly injected a bolt of momentum to a transformation that is likely to become more frequent and long-lasting.
Global Workplace Analytics estimates that, today, 56 percent of U.S. workers have jobs that are at least partially compatible with working remotely, especially since the pandemic has accelerated the types of internet platforms that make teleconferencing more efficient and user-friendly. Indeed, three-quarters of American adults now have high-speed broadband internet service at home – up dramatically from just 1 percent in 2000. So, it is expected that 25-30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
Of course, there are pros and cons to more telecommuting. The downsides include: managing a telecommuting staff can be difficult; professional isolation can have negative effects on well-being and career development; and the effects on productivity over the long run and in a scaled-up system are uncertain. However, research has so far found that remote workers are actually happier, more productive, take fewer breaks, and have greater loyalty to their employers. Indeed, openness to remote work among employees has never been higher.
In addition, the loss of the daily commute will be missed by no one. The average commute in the U.S. recently hit an all-time record of 27 minutes one-way; it’s a psychological and environmental scourge that increases depression, divorce, and fossil-fuel emissions. Allowing people to work closer to home—whether at a coffee shop, in a co-working space, on a couch, or in a spare bedroom —could be a win for work-life balance (especially for women), for happiness, and for the environment.
Saving money is also likely to drive the shift to remote work. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a typical employer can save about $11,000 per year in office space and energy consumption for every person who works remotely half the time, while an employee can save between $2,500 – $4,000 in transportation and other costs. In addition, offering telework as a benefit can help employers afford the cost of hiring high-skilled labor, while keeping these workers connected to the office and each other no matter where they’re based. Teleworking’s reach also allows employers access to a larger group of potential workers (and, in turn, allows workers access to more job options). Thus, many employers now believe that the benefits of remote work outweigh the drawbacks.
The forced experiment brought about by COVID-19 has demanded that companies adapt, and when the crisis finally recedes, many organizations will find that they can be highly efficient – and cost-effective – with more workers logging on, rather than punching in. They will alter policies and procedures to make remote work more available and, in doing so, begin to notice that pricey layers of management will disappear along with very expensive physical plants, while investments in office perks can be reallocated to salaries or (more likely) to their bottom line.
Al Krulick, Editor-in-Chief