Originally Published by: Richard McGahey
As more and more people get Covid-19 vaccinations, it is becoming increasingly possible to return to pre-pandemic group activity—restaurants, movie theaters, baseball stadiums, concerts—and office work. So don’t assume you can work at home indefinitely. It will depend on your job, your company’s workplace culture, and your boss.
During the pandemic’s height, journalists speculated that office work was dead, shifting largely to home-based work. An August 2020 CNN story claimed “the office, as you know it, is dead.” Journalists jumped on every story about rising suburban real estate prices, with an NBC story in December saying “Americans fled big cities in droves to escape the coronavirus pandemic.”
But new data this week show that was hype. Analyzing thirty million change of address forms, analysts for the New York Times NYT -1.4% found “migration patterns during the pandemic have looked a lot like migration patterns before it.” New York and San Francisco had higher-than-expected net population losses, but the evidence in general doesn’t show “a broad pandemic urban exodus.”
There was some movement within metropolitan areas, with suburban areas gaining residents from core cities. When families age, there’s typically movement to the suburbs. But the pandemic suspended positive in-migration offsets from immigration, and from young people moving to cities for early career jobs. As those factors come back into play, relocation data will likely settle back down.
But hasn’t the pandemic caused a permanent change to working from home? “Office work will never be the same” says an article in Vox, while some experts from Harvard Business School say “the workplace as we used to know it, quite frankly, is dead.”
Maybe some offices and firms will change permanently, but the jury is still out. Remember that many jobs can’t be done remotely in the first place. Restaurants, hotels, airports, manufacturing, construction, warehouse and delivery services, health care, personal services—all have high percentages of in-person work.
Scholars at the University of Chicago estimated last year that “37 percent of jobs in the United States can be performed entirely at home.” But that doesn’t mean all of those jobs will be done remotely. In March, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 21 percent of workers did some work at home for pay because of Covid-19, down from 34.4% last May.
Remember BLS is measuring work at home “for pay at any time in the last four weeks” not just full-time home-based work. So the percentage of full-time home workers due to Covid-19 is lower than the 21 percent. Teleworkers are concentrated in higher education groups—43.7% of those with advanced degrees did some telework, while only 8% of workers with a high school degree did any.
But even in occupations with higher education levels, employers differ a lot. Facebook, Microsoft, and other large employers are allowing more home-based work, although full-time workers have to get approval from their managers, who will be responsible to the company for their subordinates’ productivity.
In contrast, Amazon AMZN +1.2% recently told its employees it plans a “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline.” And Facebook, Google GOOG +3.2%, and other growing tech firms also are adding office space even as they figure out the mix of office and home-based work.
All of this means more uncertainty in the job market. Analysts at McKinsey predict more workplace turmoil, with growing automation in some occupations and more disruption as lessons from the pandemic are factored into already-existing trends. McKinsey concludes “as many as 25 percent more workers may need to switch occupations than before the pandemic.” Lower-paid occupations, disproportionately held by minority workers, may be hardest hit.
There will be more home-based work. Commercial real estate occupancy remains down from pre-pandemic levels, signaling both reduced office-based work and a reconfiguration of existing space. Forbes contributor Jack Kelly reports that HSBC bank is getting rid of much of its executive office space with even higher-paid executives moving to “hot desks,” although HSBC also is significantly downsizing its workforce.
But don’t assume you can automatically work full-time at home. A more likely scenario is a hybrid setup where some (not all) workers work at home one or two days per week. And as the Facebook and Amazon examples show, the exact mix depends not only on technical factors but on workplace culture.
So how much home work can you do in the future? Ask your boss. But she may not know either, as her bosses try to figure out the complex mix of costs, work discipline, innovation, and accommodation of different needs and skills in their workforce. That discovery process will continue disrupting home and office work, housing relocations, and career patterns.