In the beginning of spring 2019, millions of US employees, mostly working for white-collar companies from the technological, financial, and media sectors, were thrust into an unexpected, confused experiment in working from home. After four months, the experiment isn’t near ending, and for many, it has turned into a permanent state.
In July 2019, Google declared that approximately 200,000 of its workers would remain out of office and work remotely until the next summer at least. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he anticipates half of his company’s workforce to be working remotely for the upcoming years. Twitter has also stated that its staff can stay home and work from there permanently.
With huge business giants embracing the new out-of-office working standards, real-estate markets in the biggest US cities are in disruption. Lots of NYC offices still remain empty and a number of wealthy families, having their second homes elsewhere, have left Manhattan for good.
Today, with the pandemic adversely affecting the economy, it seems certain that the balance between work and home is going to be broken and the boundaries blurred.
In the latest report conducted by the economists at Harvard Business School, whenever the pandemic crisis situation is over, one in six employees is expected to work from home or co-work at least twice in a week, or on alternate days as per the company’s policies. Another report by Upwork.com said that one-fifth of the employees will stay out of office and continue to work entirely from home after the COVID-19 crisis.
If corporate employees are informed that their inner city office is just an option, some will definitely choose to stay out of the city and work remotely. These new paradigms, even if they aren’t common in the beginning, could cause more shocking and notable shifts to the culture, economy, and future politics of America.
The Telepresence Revolution
The spending on tourism, food, and leisure has significantly increased since 2000. Employment in entertainment and hospitality—a huge sector including hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks has grown three times faster as compared to the other industries.
David Autor, who is a co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, says that the time of growth and prosperity for the leisure and hospitality sectors may be over. In the latest research paper co-authored with MIT’s Elizabeth Reynolds, Autor predicts that the growth of home working, or “telepresence”, will result in a more home restricted life and lead to the reduction of workplaces for others.
If corporate tourism and traveling decline by 10%-20%, it could mean far fewer employment opportunities in five-star hotels, restaurants, and airlines. Autor further says that corporate traveling contributes, in a big part, to the expenditures for the leisure and hospitality industry. Corporate tourists pay full price for business-class seats on airplanes and full accommodation price at five-star hotels on weekdays. They use business credit cards for shuttles and luxury meals. As the growing number of workforce is moving from office-based to home-based work, it will definitely transform the metropolitan labor market and reduce the need for many products and services, such as happy hours at restaurants or office buildings’ security and cleaning services.
For example, Amazon and all of its related companies operate entirely out of physical shops, which allows to expand and further strengthen their position in e-commerce. So the telepresence revolution could do exactly the same for office-based jobs as e-commerce did for brick-and-mortar stores: reduce the need for the workforce who serve white-collar employees working in the city.
Thus, Telepresence will surely grow in importance after the crisis, and the past record of retail industry shows that the shift from the traditional brick-and-mortar business to e-commerce has great economic implications.
The Growth of the Free-Agent Business Model
The workplace does not surely make for the perfect community, but the corporate environment has served as a last community standing for many people—a place where the majority of young aged collar-workers have kept showing up every weekday, working and socializing.
Suddenly, many businesses have been thrown headlong into the test of working remotely, and having to adapt to meet the new demands.
Due to this work-from-home shift, many employees feel overworked, overwhelmed, under-productive, emotionally destroyed, increasingly tired, and most importantly, more isolated than ever before.
Also, because the spacial relationships have changed, the emotional connections between colleagues will weaken as well. Many companies have, in fact, become digital group chats powered by Zoom, Google Meet or Abeedesk. According to Bill Duane, a former Google engineer, online communication creates more potential for mutual misunderstanding and conflict. Traditional face-to-face communication in the office carries more creativity resulting in more effective office work.
Telepresence will definitely weaken our connection to the office, but, on the other hand, it will grow and expand our connection to the outside world, building and reinforcing our business relationships outside the company.
More people may take on side projects, and even kick off their own businesses. The same tools and solutions that corporate workers use to remain connected online, can be adapted to go independently. So while sitting in a living room and feeling lonely, why not monetize the fact of isolation? The determined engineers, PR influencers, or digital marketers may be, at this point, more inclined to work on their own and for themselves.
If businesses discover that out-of-office work does more harm than good, they might decide to stop the experiment and get back to what was before. For the time being, however, many of the world’s biggest companies are suggesting that their hundreds of thousands of employees work only from home for a complete year, or even longer. If, in the long run, the decisions to continue to work remotely have no adverse effects on office culture, that would be extremely weird.