As coronavirus continues to spread, working in office spaces remains a health hazard for non-essential workers, prompting many companies to continue work-from-home policies adopted last spring. Although the economy has largely reopened in some parts of the U.S., many large companies are still hesitant to ask their employees to return to the office.
Share prices in Zoom Technologies, a web-based video conferencing tool, have skyrocketed as video chatting has replaced the usual face-to-face workplace meetings. Some of the nation’s largest corporations — such as Amazon and Facebook — have already signalled they may make aspects of their work-from-home policies permanent.
And while remote work has been primarily billed by most companies as a way to protect public health, it carries a host of cost-saving advantages that may solidify its use as a widespread alternative. Working from home, for example, lowers significantly companies’ overhead expenses and limits costs associated with travel.
Collectively, these trends suggest that the transition back to the cubicle and conference room may be stalled temporarily, or even indefinitely.
Prof. Donna Haeger, applied economics and management, said that the pandemic has served as a “worldwide pilot study” for the work-from-home model — one that, so far, has delivered mixed results.
“The groundwork has been laid for firms to consider at what level they want to integrate the remote work policies,” Haeger said. “Some companies will go remote at higher levels than others. It’s likely that startups and technology [firms] will take greater advantage of the low overhead associated with remote working to reduce their costs at the onset.”
But even so, Haeger still believes that a remote form of work will not overtake the traditional office space, citing the sort of ad hoc, “water cooler”-type conversations such an environment more naturally inspires.
“Nothing beats the productivity that happens in a casual hallway conversation or a good old fashioned brainstorming session over snacks in the conference room,” Haeger said. “That’s not going to go away.”
Sahitya Mantravadi ‘17, a data and applied scientist at Microsoft, echoed these sentiments, stating that she misses the more personal aspects of working in a physical location alongside other colleagues.
“I think it’s harder to communicate … it’s so much easier to pull your colleague aside when you sit next to them and go through something rather than message them,” said Mantravadi, who began working from home in mid-March.
Unlike many others, she faced a relatively smooth transition to a remote environment, owing to the mostly digital nature of her work. According to Mantravadi, Microsoft has also long stressed a flexible work environment, regularly allowing employees to “work from home a couple a days a week.”
Despite those advantages, Mantravadi said that, if work-from-home continued, she would be highly motivated to move to be closer to family.
“I [currently] live by myself. I think that’s a tough part,” she said. “At work, I have a lot of friends.”
Mantravadi’s equivocal feelings on remote work represents a microcosm of the sorts of decisions that both employees and employers will increasingly have to make as the future of the traditional office space is decided.
On one hand, companies will have to consider the quality of life for their employees when weighing the costs and benefits of going permanently remote, while employees will have to determine what model personally works best for them.
“In the remote model, people seeking freedom and autonomy in their jobs will become happier,” Haeger said. “The alternative is true for people who really thrive on the face to face.”
As a result, Haeger predicted an emerging job realignment on those two styles of employees: “Someone who really loves to be physically in the workplace will potentially leave an organization that goes fully remote,” while those who don’t may be persuaded to join a company with more flexible policies.
Companies also have to consider how each model affects their recruitment and retention strategy. For example, a remote model often allows for an increased pool of quality applicants, as individuals are given greater flexibility over their lifestyle choices and place of residence.
“Many people who apply for jobs will do it based on their geographic location,” Haeger said. “You’re increasing the quality of applicants when you’re offering remote positions, because people don’t have to move.”
Ultimately, according to Haeger, the workplace can be perceived as a continuum, marked by regular change and disruption. At least for the near future, workers will have to continue to acclimate to unforeseen environments and expect uncertainty.
“I think the people that are most comfortable in these kinds of times are those who are vigilant and adapt,” Haeger said. “Because the only thing we can be sure of is change.”