As Coronavirus Lockdown Rules Ease, Some Want to Keep Working from Home

As states begin to lift the stay-at-home restrictions put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, some workers now say they are just fine working from home and would like to do so permanently.

Source: WSJ | Published on May 27, 2020

Middle aged woman sitting at a table reading using a tablet computer, holding a cup, front view

In response, employers are formulating plans to allow many of their staffers to keep working remotely when the crisis is over. Such a move would have significant implications for everything from rent to congestion to migration in urban work environments.

Many U.S. industries are now entering the third month of managing employees working from home, amounting to a national experiment in remote-work capabilities. Studies show the shift is gaining momentum during the pandemic, enabled by pervasive connectivity, as well as relatively low-cost, widely available computing and video technology.

Upwork Inc., a global freelancing platform, found that 61.9% of hiring managers plan more remote work for their hires than before the pandemic, according to a survey released Wednesday. The study concluded that the shift to working at home will further remove geographic barriers to hiring and allow employers to seek the best skilled workers regardless of where that talent resides.

A homebound worker, economists note, has less reason to live in the most expensive parts of the country, particularly the coastal megalopolises that have for years drawn wealth and talent. That could lead to employers’ reducing office footprints, and could contribute to declines in big-city office rent, closures of urban retailers and reductions in service employment in cities.

Midtier and small cities, by contrast, stand to benefit from higher tax revenue and spending if skilled workers choose a less-expensive, less-congested lifestyle. The work-from-home experience is “one of the first trends we’ve seen in quite some time that has the potential to rebalance economic opportunity across the U.S.,” said Upwork Chief Economist Adam Ozimek.

Driving the shift are the workers themselves. “I know this is a terrible time,” said Amanda Berghorn, a Union City, N.J., account manager for a New York auction house. But Ms. Berghorn, 31 years old, is happy working from home. “I’m not spending as much money, I feel like my mental health is better, I’m not stressed with the commute,” she said, adding that the shift to a home office has been “a long time coming, a lot of people are living very much on the edge financially, and it’s stressful.”

She added: “I anyway am very much an introvert.”

A recent survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value found more than 75% of respondents would like to continue working remotely at least occasionally, while more than half want it to be their primary way of working after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Companies are warming to the idea. Tech firms were among the first to send employees home when the coronavirus outbreak paralyzed the U.S. in March, and some are making work-from-home a long-term option for employees.

Twitter Inc. said in mid-May that most employees would be allowed to keep working from home even after the pandemic has largely passed. Facebook Inc. last week revealed plans to permanently reconfigure the tech company’s operations around the dispersed structure that the coronavirus pandemic forced.

Within 10 years, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said, as many as half of Facebook’s employees—who currently number more than 45,000—will work from home.

The Upwork survey compared data from two surveys by research firm ClearlyRated: the first of more than 1,000 U.S. hiring managers in late 2019 and the second of more than 500 U.S. hiring managers in late April. The managers surveyed are now planning for 21.8% of their workforces to be entirely remote in five years, up from 13.2% in the pre-coronavirus survey.

“People will have to rethink if this is really where we want to head in the future,” said Christian Moser, an economist at the Columbia Business School. “It’s about habit formation in the end.”

Not everyone can work from home, of course. Economists at the University of Chicago estimate that just 37% of U.S. jobs can be done entirely from home.

Workers in jobs requiring physical proximity tend to be less educated, have lower income and fewer assets, University of Chicago economists found in a separate paper. That means more economically vulnerable workers have been disproportionately exposed to job losses during the downturn and will be further exposed to infection when local governments move forward with lifting restrictions on activity.

Mia House, a New York City bus driver, said passengers regularly get on her bus without masks on. She contracted Covid-19 in March and spent five weeks recuperating at home.

“The public, they don’t really respect us as we should be respected,” she said. “We’re like the lowest man on the totem pole in terms of public agencies.”

Still, Ms. House, 44, said she loves her job. “I like interacting with people, and I love driving,” she said. “It’s therapeutic for me mentally. If I had a job where I had to work from home, I don’t think I could do that.”

Some with jobs requiring human contact say customers now tend to treat each interaction with more care, perhaps because such interactions are rare. Diane Stevens, a salon owner, has started receiving email from clients thanking her for keeping her Greenbelt, Md., business open to essential workers.

“That has been very unusual for me, and I am appreciative of that,” she said. “People are much more appreciative of hairstylists.”

Jim Pettipher, a data-management consultant in the U.K. who has a compromised immune system, said he will have to remain in lockdown until he either contracts the coronavirus and survives or a vaccine is developed.

Before lockdown, his job meant he had to travel regularly to London, a 2 1/2-hour train ride from his home in Ross-on-Wye in western England. His wife, Sally Elizabeth Pettipher, also traveled frequently for work. Now “we’ve just got so much more time because we’re not traveling,” said Mr. Pettipher, who has been spending his extra time with his family and exploring local footpaths.

Craig Lovelidge, a consultant living in Amsterdam with his family, said he is now more productive. “I just seem to have more focus,” he said.

The prospect of life outside quarantine now seems strange, he said, “especially having to get back in the car, do errands and all those things that take time away from us, which we’ve kind of won back.”

“Just being able to sit down and watch your child learn and grasp concepts,” Mr. Lovelidge said, “you see a different side of your child.”