By Dean Whittaker

Since March I found myself along with many of you working from home (WFH). The big surprise for me and many companies and organizations were that it works and works well! There are many benefits. On the personal side, there is no commute to the office, more time with my family, and wearing “COVID-casual” attire. There are fewer interruptions by colleagues, and I have a more flexible schedule. From a business perspective, there could be a cost-saving in reduced office space requirement, lower maintenance, lower utility consumption, fewer equipment needs, less furniture required, and more. Some of these cost savings resulted in increased costs for my home office. Figuring out my personal income tax deduction this year will be interesting.

Granted, there are also WFH challenges. We are social animals, especially extraverts. The social isolation is difficult even with frequent Zoom meetings. Another challenge is finding a quiet place to work and competition for Internet access with my spouse working from home. Lacking the physical separation from home and work I find I work longer hours. Being too close to the refrigerator makes snacking easier and the lack of exercise with my gym closed has caused an increase in my girth and a reduction in muscle mass.

According to a Brink survey from May 21-25, 2020 of 20 to 64-year-olds, the US economy was a WFH economy with 42% of the labor force working from home, 33% not working and 26% working on-premise primarily as essential service workers. WFH contributes 2/3 of the GDP when weighted by 2019 earnings. Remote work has allowed us to maintain social distancing in our fight against COVID-19. Working from home is not only economically essential, it is also critical to combating the pandemic.

Only those of us whose work is portable can work from home. According to the Brink survey, 51% of us report that we are operating at an efficiency rate of 80% or more while working from home, imitations of space and poor Internet service prevent us from being more efficient. Many of these issues will be corrected in a post-pandemic world.

Inequality Increases

Those of us with higher education and income are far more likely to work from home. This group continues to advance in their careers and develop new skills. Those not able to work from home are falling further behind, increasing inequality in the workplace. We need a significant increase in broadband in the US as the economy restarts and we also need skill development for the retraining of the workforce whose positions have been eliminated.

Trouble for Cities

In the meantime, the urban core is emptying of major cities due to the fear of contracting COVID-19, urban social unrest, and the inability to move workers in and out of multi-story buildings on elevators safely. The support infrastructure that served these office workers is in distress. While at the same time, the movement into other less dense environments has caused other challenges. For example, the New York Times reported on the impact that out-migration has had on a small Vermont town that grew from 579 residence to 10,000 in six months. Many other cities are experiencing a large influx of “COVID refugees.”

What about the Office Builds?

Multi-story office buildings have two fundamental challenges during this time. The two challenges are mass transit (getting people to work) and elevators (getting people to their offices), both of which are difficult to do while maintaining social distancing. There is a shift underway of moving from space in high-rise buildings in the urban core to suburban office parks with a low-rise building. There is hope however for the high-rise structure which may be re-configured for low-density use. This trend may increase the demand for office space as businesses decrease their occupancy density by 50% to maintain safety.

What is next for WFH or WFA?

Survey results from Brink indicated that for those who can, we will continue working from home 20% of the time. Second homes in resort towns will continue to benefit from the influx of part-time WFA (Work from Anywhere) residents. So, hang onto your “COVID-casual sweats” we may still get to use them post-COVID.

Be safe and stay well!