The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted labor markets globally during 2020. The short-term consequences were sudden and often severe: Millions of people were furloughed or lost jobs, and others rapidly adjusted to working from home as offices closed.
Many other workers were deemed essential and continued to work in hospitals and grocery stores, on garbage trucks and in warehouses, yet under new protocols to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The demand for flexibility in where and how people work has been building for decades. Before the crisis, surveys repeated showed 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time.
Over a third would take a pay cut in exchange for the option. While the experience of working at home during the crisis may not have been ideal as whole families sheltered in place, it will give people a taste of what could be. The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not likey to go back in.
On-site work is back. But is it better?
As the pandemic winds down in the U.S. and many countries, companies are preparing to bring millions of employees back into the office.
The argument many employers are making is that being in the office is essential for collaboration and innovation. They say that fresh insights and keen decision making are born out of chance encounters and spontaneous meetings.
But is that true?
Claire Cain Miller, who writes about gender and the future of work, dug into this question and found that not only is there no evidence to back up that argument, but that in some cases, the opposite may be true. The office stifles creativity because it can create an inhospitable environment for many people.
“Long hours of face-time requirements in the office are often worse for many women, many people of color, people who have caregiving responsibilities, people with disabilities, people who are shy,” Claire said. “And when you lose those people you’re losing diversity, and the ideas that come with people from diverse backgrounds.”
Remote work, however, can enable ideas to bubble up from people with varied backgrounds. People who are not comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting may feel more able to participate in a virtual setting. Brainstorming sessions using apps like Slack can uncover many more perspectives by including people who wouldn’t have otherwise been invited to a meeting, like interns or employees from other departments.
Companies insisting on in-person work may also be overlooking one of the big takeaways from the country’s mass experiment in working from home. Even as the virus terrified workers, sickened millions and devastated entire industries, a funny thing happened: “It worked out really well for many white-collar workers,” Claire said.
Sure, many parents had their kids home from school and workers were constantly worried about getting sick, but for many “it was good for productivity, and work-life balance,” Claire said.
But corporate culture is hard to change because companies tend to stick with what they know, Claire said. Employers may be wary of allowing people to work from home indefinitely; it requires a lot of trust in employees.
“People who are making these decisions are usually managers, and they are the people that like to have visibility into what their employees are doing,” Claire said. “The people who are making these decisions are also the same people who have back-to-back meetings all day — and a long day of meetings on Zoom is not that fun.”
Reduced Business Travel
Covid-19 will also likely cause executives to rethink the need for travel to meetings, conferences, etc. They will learn that while virtual meetings may not have all the same benefits of being face-to-face, the savings may outweigh the costs much of the time.
A typical employer can save about $11,000/year for every person who works remotely half of the time. Employees can save between $2,500 and $4,000 a year (working remotely half the time) and even more if they are able to move to a less expensive area and work remotely full time.