COVID-19 has shaken the world to its core. There is no doubt that the world after the pandemic subsides will be markedly different from the world before it. One aspect of our lives that has already changed and will never be quite the same is the office. As many people begin working out of their homes for the first time as a result of social distancing measures, we must consider how many of them will ever bother to go back to the office.
As was previously reported by Recode, a recent study by the University of Chicago demonstrated that 37% of all the jobs in the United States could be done at home. A study from 2012 agreed, putting the percentage slightly higher. Another recent study by MIT found that 34% of people who had been commuting to work before the pandemic are now working from home, meaning that most people who can work from home in the US currently are. Given that before COVID shook things up just under 4% of Americans were working from home, this is an astronomical increase and a radical change for American workplaces.
As was evident to many people before COVID, notably disability activists who spent years fighting for the right to telecommute, having large numbers of people working from home was always possible- as a society, we simply opted not to do it. Necessity has driven us into trying it, and circumstance may force us to keep at it for some time. It would be wrong of us to presume that, having seen how well enterprises can work when people are at home, everyone simply agrees to go back into the office when it is again possible to do so.
Telecommuting offers a variety of benefits to both the worker and the enterprise that employs them. According to a study from Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison at Penn State, work from home arguments led to increased efficiency, lower stress levels, a reduced amount of turnover intention, increased levels of perceived autonomy, better manager-rated job performance, and reduced work-family conflict.
While downsides do exist, many people working from home often lament the lack of social interaction, can feel pressured to do more work than is necessary, and suffer from a lower rate of advancement, the statistical evidence suggests that, on the whole, telecommuting is a beneficial arrangement. It would be absurd to think that it will vanish as soon as the virus does.
This is not to say that the office space is dead, far from it. All of the previously mentioned studies agree that nearly two-thirds of the American workforce is employed in occupations that would be impractical to do from home. Many people enjoy going into the office, interacting directly with their coworkers, and being able to leave at the end of the day and not so much as think of their workstation for another 16 hours. These people will surely choose to go back into a centralized workspace even if they are offered work from home arrangements.
However, even these people will undoubtedly see changes. Fewer people in offices will likely change the layouts of more than a few workplaces. The flexibility offered to those who do stay home will lead to better conditions for those who choose to come in, just as improved wages and conditions in one part of any industry tend to raise standards all around. These sociable ones will also have to endure workplaces with fewer people in them, which may be detrimental to those who really do enjoy seeing their coworkers every day.
Having a large percentage of the workforce working from home was always possible, but it took a plague to force us to begin to actualize this potential. Given the various benefits of telecommuting and the inability for anybody to deny that it is possible ever again, it is probable that the army of teleworkers is here to stay. What business will look like after the pandemic is still mostly unknown, but this is one element that we can be reasonably sure of.