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The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of U.S. workers to abruptly transition from office life to working from home. With no end to the outbreak in sight, companies and their employees are preparing for several more months of remote work. The prolonged absence from the office has raised the question of whether some workers will ever go back.
Though the technology for large-scale remote work has existed for years, less than 4 percent of the U.S. workforce did their jobs from home before the pandemic. In a matter of weeks, that number grew to include roughly a third of all workers in the country.
A number of large companies, especially in the tech sector, have extended their work-from-home periods until the end of the year. On Tuesday, Twitter became the first major firm to allow employees to do their jobs away from the office permanently, if they choose.
Why there’s debate
The sudden mass migration of the white-collar workforce into home offices has been so transformative that a significant portion of workers will never come back, many industry experts say. The most important reason the change may become permanent is it seems to offer benefits to everyone involved. Employees are spared the time and expense of commuting and have more opportunities to see their families. Many report they have been more productive at home than in the office.
Companies could see major financial benefits from cutting their spending on expensive real estate and reducing the cost of maintaining office space — especially with the extra safety measures that will likely need to be implemented.
Employers that had been reluctant to allow remote work have seen that many concerns about lost productivity and harm to company culture are unfounded, labor analysts say. The pandemic also forced companies to tackle the expense and logistical challenges that may have been barriers to broad work-from-home policies.
Others are skeptical that the pandemic will lead to permanent changes. While working from home may be better for some employees, it has been an enormous strain for others. Extended periods of remote work could result in a surge in depression and loneliness, trends that may not have manifested in the short period since lockdown orders were put in place. Certain industries that rely on creativity and problem-solving may fear that work will suffer without in-person collaboration. Other firms might be reluctant to surrender the control that comes from having all employees in the same place.
The pandemic has shown that people can do their jobs effectively from home
“One thing is certain: Many employees have proved they can effectively work from home, and companies are expected to continue letting many do so for a long time.” — Jena McGregor, Washington Post
A remote workforce will allow companies to save money on real estate
“The economic impact of the pandemic will likely force many employers to cut costs. For companies to reduce their rent obligations by letting workers work from home is an easy solution, one that’s less painful than layoffs.” — Rani Molla, Vox
Employers are seeing how counterproductive traditional office culture is
“Executives and managers have the opportunity to choose quality work over quantity of work. They can value the creative ideas that emerge after a midday hike or meditation session, rather than putting in face time at the office. They can stop rewarding the faster response over the better response, or the longer workday over a more productive workday.” — Bobbi Thomason and Heather Williams, Harvard Business Review
High unemployment will reduce workers’ power to insist on working from home
“As we sink into a recession, the job market will be tight for everyone. That means that while employers could offer benefits like working from home, they might not feel the need to. Sure, an employee might feel safer and happier if they don’t expose themselves to germs on the subway and in the office. But with fewer job openings, a company can probably find someone else who doesn’t mind coming in.” — Olga Khazan, the Atlantic
The pandemic compelled firms to invest in remote working infrastructure
“Now that so many companies have been forced to function with a remote staff and to adopt technologies that enable collaboration from a distance, they’ve already made the necessary investments.” — Ari Levy, CNBC
Companies prefer the control that comes with an in-person workforce
“Employers like offices so they can keep an eye on the people who do the actual work and motivate them to be productive. It’s much easier to do that in person.” — Greg Rosalsky, NPR
Remote work allows companies to pass some expenses along to employees
“Given the choice between retrofitting their offices with expensive safety features, or allowing employees to work from home, it’s a good bet that many companies will choose the latter. But if working at home does become the norm, it will effectively shift the cost of maintaining and renting office space from the company to the employees.” — Inga Saffron, Philadelphia Inquirer
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