We’re writing this column from home. And we’re far from alone.
The pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely, either part or full time. And judging from a recent survey, most people are in no hurry to return to their prepandemic work habits, even after we get the coronavirus under control.
The New York Times and Morning Consult asked 1,066 Americans who could do their jobs remotely what they’d like their weekly postcoronavirus schedules to look like. Just under one-quarter of them said they’d like to work in the office five days a week.
In other words, roughly 3 out of 4 said they wanted to keep working from home at least some of the time.
Of that group, a plurality signaled a desire never to set foot in the office, wishing to work remotely all the time. Women were slightly more likely than men to voice this preference. The balance of survey-takers said they’d opt for a mix of at-home and remote work, with roughly equal numbers of people choosing anywhere from 1 to 4 days a week in the office.
Now, not everyone can do their jobs from home. Laboratory technicians at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation can’t sequence DNA in their kitchen sinks. Dental hygienists can’t clean teeth in their living rooms, and grocery clerks can’t sell you a gallon of milk out of their refrigerators.
Those who are able to work remotely skew to having more education and higher incomes, and most so far have escaped the most severe job losses from the pandemic. But that could change if the economy continues to flounder.
Employers may worry that at-home workers are less productive and summon them back to the office. Or, they could see virtual workers as more expendable if they need to reduce workforces.
In the Times/Morning Consult survey, almost 3 in 5 workers said they’d be more likely to apply to a position that offered remote work. Especially in a tight labor market, where working from home becomes highly desirable, employers might decide to discount those jobs. In other words, we’ll pay you $20/hour to come to the office every day, and $15/hour if you want to do the same job while working in your bathrobe Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The question of productivity looms large over this discussion. Research by Humuu, a tech company run by Google’s former chief of human resources, found that employees who stayed home one or two days a week produced best. In the Times/Morning Consult survey, respondents said they worked more productively from home — even with pandemic distractions — than in the office by roughly a 5-to-3 margin.
However, we’re sure we can find a few supervisors at OMRF who would dispute that self-assessment.
Still, any broad pronouncements one way or the other about productivity won’t hold up. The optimal arrangement will inevitably hinge on a number of factors: the nature of the job, an individual’s ability to manage time and workflow, home environment. As a result, one size will not fit all.
The same can be said about creativity.
In medical research, we believe in the power of serendipity, the insight that follows an unexpected finding in the lab or a chance encounter with a colleague. Can platforms like Zoom sessions and Slack channels serve as adequate substitutes?
Yet, without the distraction of co-workers popping into offices unexpectedly throughout the day, some may find the home a more fertile environment for idea generation.
When we talk to people who work from home, they almost always tell us how much they miss their colleagues. No number of video conferences, it seems, can replace the proverbial water cooler and the face-to-face interactions that serve as the cornerstone of America’s workplaces.
That said, with companies like Facebook and Twitter now allowing workers who went home with the pandemic to stay there permanently, many other employers will follow suit. What that will look like will differ among workplaces.
Hybrid models, we suspect, will abound. Work-from-home Fridays. Tuesdays where the entire department comes in to meet and focus on collaborative projects.
With the march of technology and the shift to a service-based economy, remote work was destined to become more prevalent. As with so many aspects of American life, the virus just sped up the process.