No, I don't believe everyone will work from home, but a lot of people will... most of the time.
The New York times published an article on the potentially dramatic transformation that could take place in Manhattan if there was a wholesale end to working at offices due to the Pandemic. This possibility is heavily supported by the advanced communication and work management technology that now exists, with video chat and conferencing of particular focus, something I have used for years and was always surprised why more people did not. This and other technology, at least for office workers, allows people to do pretty much their whole job without ever leaving home. However, that does not mean people will actually want to do this, or at least not all day and every day of the year because we are innately social beings that want to interact, in person, with other people. While we can do that better than ever with the myriad of video conferencing apps, let's be honest, it's just not the same. I love the ability to do it, but I am really getting a bit tired of this being the only way I have meetings and can't wait to get out of my full time work from home situation.
To explain to you what I think will probably happen, I need to go through a few steps. First, I am going to tell you why people won't work from home. Next I will tell you why people will work from home. Then I will mesh it together to form a synthesis of what type of patterns we might commonly see. Following this, I will discuss some impacts I foresee to the ecosystem which has been built around the phenomenon of going somewhere each day to do your job, and what the stakeholders within it might do to adapt to some new realities.
Let's begin. As I said above, here is why people won't work from home. First and foremost, many people do not actually get to decide where they work. I am not talking about tradespeople who must go to a job site, or delivery personnel, but office workers who can work from anywhere. There is a strong power dynamic that exists here and many people, despite their job being wholly doable from anywhere, are not afforded this option by the powers that be. While this may change to some extent, I don't see every manager and business owner who always wanted to see their workers in their seat by 9:00 AM and not a second later suddenly give up this control that they so relish. This is probably the most influential factor that will decide who and how many people make the change. Second, people want to get out and go somewhere. Despite our complaints about traffic and other annoyances, people like to go places each day and see people other than those that they cohabitate with or live next to. Thus, given the choice, many will still decide to go to the office each day so they can have their water cooler gossip and lunch beer with the colleague they love to complain with. Another reason why people will not be working from home is simply that many businesses are still not setup for this. There are many business that still have heavily paper based processes. I know because I recently worked for one. While of course this will change, and definitely much faster now, it is not always possible to change that fast, and many businesses will still need to operate their old school methods for the time being, until they can successfully modernize them. This, of course, is not a comprehensive laundry list of reasons, but I am pretty sure if I were to do that, you would get bored and never get through this blog post, so I will now move on to the next section.
The case for why people will work from home should not really be a hard one to make. There is obviously the concern over passing disease that may be heightened in the future, but people will surely enjoy avoiding a long, slow and crowded commute, be it on public transit or in a car. That activity is pure misery, and something I definitely do not miss having recently relocated to a much smaller city. The elimination of the daily commute will be a huge driver that will contribute to the elimination of going to the office. Another driver that will help motivate companies to get on board with this is the reduction in their real estate costs. When you have to set every employee up with a dedicated workspace, well it costs a lot of money. You need to rent space, make sure it is nicely designed with fancy ergonomic furniture, great lighting and a bunch of other stuff. As the unemployment rate dropped to record lows over the past few years, this became an even bigger focal point for discerning job seekers who had a lot of choices. Companies also need to supply sufficient meetings spaces and common areas for breaks to eat lunch, make a coffee or otherwise chat with colleagues. If most or all employees work from home all the time, companies can dramatically reduce their costs as they would only need to supply employees with computer technology to setup a high quality workstation at home, and possibly have a few hot desks and a couple of meeting rooms for occasional in person interactions. Now that many companies have realized they can operate like this, they are very excited to do so and have announced or at least discussed a strategic shift in their office and workforce planning. Another interesting trend we may see which can benefit both employees and companies is expanded flexibility in hiring opportunities. A company who is onboard with full time remote work can look anywhere for talent as long as it is operationally feasible, so we will not be talking as much about the local talent pool or job market. We may start seeing companies posting job ads for positions in a particular timezone, or set of times zones, instead of a city or country. This is actually not a new phenomenon, but will surely accelerate as it goes mainstream and people may find they can access new opportunities not previously possible. Finally, we have all of the technology that we have come to more recently know much better. More people will be comfortable with it, techno phobia will decline, and companies and leaders who previously shrugged #WFH off as a millennial fad, will now see it as a key strategic advantage that will reduce costs and provide access to greater opportunity, employee satisfaction and growth.
Wow, that's a lot to take in. Let's shift gears quickly to take a look at the third item I mentioned I would discuss, the ecosystem built around going somewhere to do your job each day. If we stop doing this, what happens. The ecosystem I mention is really nothing complicated. This consists of things like gas stations, roadside restaurants, stakeholders in the road system such as towing companies, emergency services, insurance, gas and various taxes generated from usage. It also consists of business in the proximity of the destination, so coffee shops, salons, dry cleaners, convenience stores, public transit, and the list can go on and on. There were mentions of some local restaurant in NYC business districts doing very little if any business during the pandemic despite staying open. This is not surprising as their captive customer base is not in the area. These people obviously need to eat lunch somewhere, but at the moment, it is not at their usual spot. Let's take this and run through a quick story of someone who would be their typical customer.
If we continue on with the story of the restaurant owner who has no lunch customers, we need to backtrack a bit to first figure out how that lunch customer arrived in the first place. That customer works close by, probably in an office tower within a couple of blocks. They work for a company that requires them to commute from another neighborhood, so they started their day at home, had breakfast in their kitchen, then took public transit to work. They arrived and grabbed a coffee at the cafe in the lobby of their office building and went up to work. At that point, they sat down in their fancy company supplied office chair and completed a few hours of work. At lunchtime, they went down to that restaurant we discussed, grabbed some food and went back to the office. At the end of the day, they left the office, got back onto public transit and arrived at their home station. Before exiting the station, they picked up their dry cleaning at the store in the entrance to the station and proceeded to go home. As we see, they interacted with and consumed products and services from many players such as public transit, food service, clothing service, and office furniture and other things. All of these goods and services are location and lifestyle specific, and all of them would suffer if this and other people stopped going to work. Some would simply need to relocate, so we might see a surge in suburban restaurants and cafes to supply this relocated demand, where other businesses might not survive as we may not need that fancy clothing that needs to be dry cleaned if we are not seeing people in an office with a formal dress code and can simply work in our pajamas, or at least more casual clothing each day. There are many more members of this ecosystem and many things could drastically change should we stop going places to work.
Now that we have reviewed why people will and will not work from home, let's try to synthesize this into some kind of likely scenario. What do I think will actually happen. I definitely think there will be a strong growth in remote working, be that from home or other locations, but this will not be full time for many people. We will mix working from home with working from a central location. This may be on a rotation such as splitting time 50-50, or simply going into the office for certain meetings or other activities. This trend will exist for many companies but surely not all of them, highly dependent on the nature of the work, and the attitude of management, many of whom will not have changed from their desire to closely monitor the activities of those they employ firsthand. While there is a case to be made that it could make them a less enlightened employer with people less likely to want to work there, from my experience, these truly elite people who can really choose are a small subset of the workforce, and most people do not have that choice. Only time will tell, and I look forward to seeing what happens and helping you figure out how to set yourself of for success once it does.