Will Remote Employees Ever Return to the Office?

Time to buy a proper desk

Key Takeaways

  • Almost half of all U.S. employees are currently working from home.
  • Work from home numbers will double after the pandemic.
  • People really, really love not commuting to the office.
Man in his office, sitting on a chair with laptop, on phone call
10'000 Hours / Getty Images

During the pandemic, millions of people have started working from home. Employees are happier, and can control their work days better, while actually getting more work done. They might never get dressed, but remote working employees don’t stay in bed all day binge-watching Ted Lasso, either.

Working from home (WFH) hasn’t turned out to be the productivity nightmare employers may have imagined. In fact, remote workers are more productive and, by some measures, less likely to look for another job. It’s also cheaper for employers, and because there’s no commute, it’s better for the environment. Big tech companies like Google and Apple have already extended WFH plans well into 2021. But will it continue after the pandemic?

"Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, rates of people working from home will explode," writes Stanford researcher Nicholas Bloom. "I see these numbers more than doubling in a post-pandemic world. I suspect almost all employees who can work from home—which is estimated at about 40% of employees—will be allowed to work from home at least one day a week."

Shirking From Home

Remote work used to be seen as a goof off. You could do the bare minimum, then spend the rest of the time watching movies or going to the pub. But in reality, as regular work-from-homers have known for years, you can get way more done without the constant distractions of the office. In fact, for freelancers, the problem is usually knowing when to stop working.

"Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, rates of people working from home will explode."

When you’re free to structure your own time and control interruptions, you can get complete more work, often in much less time. Add to this the lack of a commute, the possibility of setting your own "work/life balance," and cheaper and better home-cooked lunches, and it’s easy to see the appeal for workers.

"I do tech support for an internet provider," tech worker Carsten Klapp told Lifewire via direct message. "The company provided a computer and VoIP for me. We keep in touch with team members and managers through Skype. Eventually we will be coming into the office once per month, and the rest of the time working at home."

Klapp says he saves two hours of driving a day, and that the work-from-home arrangement was recently made permanent.

Woman working with computer on her lap, sitting on the balcony at sunset time
Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Right now, we’re still in a kind of emergency mode, trying to work at the kitchen table while the kids, with their schools closed, run around the place. But with proper planning, and support from employers, the home office could become more common.

Happy Bosses

The advantages for home workers are clear, but what about the employers? They may lose an element of direct control, but that doesn’t appear to be needed anyway. The most obvious advantage for employers is that it's cheaper not to run a big office. According to a study by Global Workplace Analytics, "a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year."

Remote workers are also 52% less likely to take a day off, and are less likely to quit because of a long commute.

"Our survey evidence says that 22% of all full work days will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5% before."

"We see an incredible 42% of the U.S. labor force now working from home full time," writes Stanford News’ May Wong. "About another 33% are not working—a testament to the savage impact of the lockdown recession. And the remaining 26%—mostly essential service workers—are working on their business premises."

The advantages increase if the trend continues. Employers can hire from anywhere in the country, or the world, instead of limiting themselves to local candidates. And in the long term, they’ll no longer need big, expensive downtown office space.

Is There Any Bad News?

One disadvantage of working from home is that you lose creative serendipity. You might chat to someone in line for coffee and unexpectedly solve a problem. It’s also way less intrusive to ask a question across the desk than it is to drag someone into a Zoom call, just to ask a quick question.

It’s the difference between walking around a city until you find a nice place for dinner, and looking up a place on Yelp and booking ahead. The answer here is to get together once or twice a week, but work from home the rest of the time.

Loneliness is another problem, one which might be mitigated after the pandemic. You could take a break with friends in the neighborhood, for example.

Still, whatever the downside, the advantages are enough to make remote working permanent.

"Our survey evidence says that 22% of all full work days will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5% before," writes Jose Maria Barrero in a 2020 study from the University of Chicago.

Cities will be changed by this shift, too. Without a large daily workforce, downtown cafes and restaurants will suffer, but traffic may improve. City center real estate may drop in price, or not, but all those empty offices will make great apartments.

How ironic would it be if we ended up working from home, but living in our old office spaces?

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