Can We Just Work From Home Forever?
It’s obvious that this would be a pretty bad time to be in the commercial real estate industry. Right now, over 14 percent of Americans are unemployed. That’s more than 30 million people. Big name brands have been filing for bankruptcy on a daily basis, so far including J.Crew, Pier 1, Avianca, Neiman Marcus, True Religion and Virgin Australia, among others.
Over the past few months, 62 percent of employed Americans have been working from home and three out of five surveyed said they would prefer to continue working from home. So the question has been circling: when and why would we ever return to working at a physical office?
Since the federal government hasn’t laid out any clear or consistent reopening guidelines, it has been left up to states and individual companies to come up with plans for reopening, including their own protocols for testing, tracing and enforcing social distancing. While some companies, like Twitter, have announced that they will allow employees to work remotely forever, other companies have taken the opposite approach. Some of the energy companies based in Houston, for example, are requiring many of their employees there to report back into their offices before the end of May.
With such a disparity of clear information or guidelines, this leaves many companies potentially liable for the health of their employees, and in some cases it may even be illegal to force employees to come to work during a pandemic. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exists precisely for the purpose of protecting workers from unsafe working conditions, and the federal OSHA rules are supposed to take priority over state laws. The lack of clarity in messaging and protocols from a federal level is making everything even messier and more convoluted.
There are clearly many businesses that can’t function with a work from home scenario. We’ve seen some of these “essential” workers continue to work throughout this ordeal, such as those in healthcare, transportation, grocery, agriculture, communications, and other industries. Many people however, are able to work from home just fine. In December of 2019, Zoom had 10 million monthly meeting participants, and in April of 2020 that number went up to 300 million monthly meeting participants. People pivoted and found ways to work remotely, so again, why should we ever go back?
For context, just a couple years ago WeWork was valued at $47 billion. Things change, and we adapt. In the near term, some of the companies forcing employees to go back into the office seem absurd and careless, given that most schools are still closed, which means that kids are still at home. At the college level, the California State University system has announced that their 23 campuses will remain virtual throughout the fall, and many other school systems are likely going to take a similar approach, including primary schools. With kids still at home for the foreseeable future, it is only logical that parents would be allowed to continue working from home as well.
The 2010 book “REWORK” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson laid out how they’d grown their company, 37signals, in some unconventional ways, such as having all of their employees work virtually. In their book, they point out that large organizations are so slow to pivot and respond to new ideas in part because they’re bloated and have too much mass. By removing a physical office space, you are shedding some of that mass and you can actually gain more ability to be nimble and agile.
For years, big tech companies had been enticing potential employees to work for them by providing extravagant office complexes, ping pong tables, cafeterias, and so forth. None stand out more than Apple, with its $5 billion headquarters. Suddenly, the reality of working from home has been forced upon us, and a lot of the inevitable workplace transitions are taking place much quicker than they would have without such tragic circumstances. Study after study concludes that overall, people are happier and more efficient when working from home.
Another benefit in all of this for employers is that their applicant pool can now include more people that don’t live in the vicinity of their former offices, and they can hire and retain talent from anywhere in the world.
This also helps allow people working in expensive cities to move elsewhere if they want, since working from home could enable them to move someplace with lower rent than having to work in say, San Francisco, where the average monthly rent for an apartment is over $3,600. The past several weeks of working from home are already making a lot of those employees rethink their Silicon Valley real estate.
Again, some businesses just can’t work from home. Even some tech companies that involve working with hardware, such as Apple, are already bringing some of their staff back into their Cupertino offices. Many companies will need offices still for these reasons, but a large portion of the tech industry and other industries can likely continue operating and growing just fine without an office in the future.
While some may argue that sustaining and building a corporate culture relies heavily on having people interacting in person, it is unlikely that a return to the old normal is going to happen anytime soon. New office layouts are likely needed to distance people, masks may still be required, and there could be a need for regular commitments to temperature checks or testing. This sort of dystopian workplace environment hardly sounds like a catalyst for inspiration or an improved company culture. There have yet to be any proven treatment methods or vaccine for Covid-19, and by all accounts it will be a while before anything of that sort emerges.
We don’t really ever have to go back to “normal.” At the end of the day, more companies ought to follow Twitter’s lead, and allow their employees at least the option to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, if not forever.
Nathan Pettijohn Contributor
Forbes Leadership Strategy
I write about innovations in media and digital strategies.