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How will COVID-19 change the way we work?

How will COVID-19 change the way we work?
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Significant economic events inspire pundits to prognosticate on how the economy and our lives will never be the same. The disruptions generated by our response to the COVID-19 pandemic are no exception. The current shuttering of many businesses — and extreme disruptions to work patterns for those enterprises that continue to operate — have brought their fair share of predictions about the future of work. We are currently engaged in a massive experiment where a large segment of the workforce has suddenly shifted to remote work. Does this current reality represent the future? The answer is a definite maybe, for some.

In a recent study professors Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman from the University of Chicago estimate that approximately one-third of jobs are able to be performed remotely. Jobs that require face-to-face interaction with the customer (food services, massage therapy) or must be performed at a specific site (factory and warehouse jobs) cannot be performed remotely.

Most of the jobs that are amenable to remote work are in professional and business services — finance and banking, sales, software and information technology. However, simply because a job can be performed remotely does not make it the most efficient way to organize.

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Fundamentally, there are basic questions about what types of work arrangements lead to the greatest productivity. In cases where sales reps have large territories, it often makes more sense for team members to live and work in the region they represent to cut down on travel time and costs, allowing for more frequent visits with clients. Conversely, while a finance team can put together a new IPO with everyone working remotely, it may be more efficient for team members to brainstorm together, especially at the early stages. While it may be possible to brainstorm over video conferences, it is difficult to schedule creativity. Activities that require a combination of creativity and collaboration will suffer in an environment where spontaneous interaction is inhibited.

And all of this assumes that workers are well trained and experienced in their roles and have the technology access necessary for remote work. Can companies train new employees effectively in a remote work environment, particularly when much of that training is through informal mentoring relationships? What about workers outside of the high-salary, high-skilled fields mentioned above? What costs will companies need to incur to ensure these workers have the technology, internet access and skills necessary to work remotely? These are some of the reasons many companies which had adopted telecommuting practices over the past few years recently reversed course.

Does our current experiment represent the future of work or merely a short-term response to stay at home orders?

Until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is available, I expect many companies will keep workers at home while others will experiment with a mixed approach, having workers come to the office a couple days a week and staggering the days groups of workers come in. In the long-term, while some companies might decide to have certain workers continue to work remotely, we are more likely to see greater use of flexible scheduling and settings where employees work remotely a few days a week. The latter approach preserves the benefits to creativity and problem solving that arise from having team members working together in the same location, while cutting overhead costs as less office space is needed.

It is a certainty that work in America will not be the same as a result of the current pandemic. Even after we have a vaccine, many workers will likely see long-term changes to the way they work. We do not know exactly how or to what extent the pandemic will alter work arrangements in the long term, but companies now have a golden opportunity to explore new software tools and determine how well these technologies fit their needs.

Before we declare the rise of remote work as the new paradigm, let us pause for a moment and learn from the current experiment.

Dr. Bill Kosteas is Chair of the Department of Economics at Cleveland State University.