The U.S. has gone through three basic shifts—settlement of the West, migration of large numbers of people from farm to factory, and as the post-industrial economy developed, from factory to office or service industries.
Now, with an unanticipated jolt from the COVID-19 pandemic, some believe the nation is embarking on a fourth major shift—office to working at home.
Polls conducted as the pandemic peaked last spring, found that 40% to 60% of those who remained employed reported working remotely. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25% to 30% of the labor force will work from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
"The demand for flexibility in where and how people work has been building for decades," the San Diego-based consulting firm headed by Kate Lister said in a research report. "Before the crisis, surveys repeatedly showed 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time."
And a sizeable chunk of the workforce is willing to work for less for the luxury of working from home.
"Over a third would take a pay cut in exchange for the option," the report said. "While the experience of working at home during the crisis may not have been ideal as whole families sheltered in place, it will give people a taste of what could be. The genie is out of the bottle and it's not likely to go back in."
Benefits from working at home include money saved on commuting, meals and spiffy work clothes, but the downside includes isolation, lack of a suitable workspace, difficulty in collaborating with fellow workers, and family interruptions.
Many companies are preparing to alter the way they operate in a post-pandemic world. A survey conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that 83% of office workers would like to have the option to work from home at least once a week even if COVID-19 is no longer a threat to public health.
Seventy-two percent of respondents said they'd like to work from home at least two days a week, and 32% said they would prefer never to return to the office. Fifty-five percent of executives expect to permit employees to work remotely at least one day a week.
However, 39% of the workers surveyed said they found it difficult to collaborate with fellow employees when working from home, and 38% said it was difficult to balance work with childcare and other home duties. Many workers want to return to the office and 50% said they want to interact personally with other staff members.
Also, working from home can lead to an increased sense of isolation and diminish commitment to the company, surveys found.
Executives are split on what the findings mean for office space: 30% believe less space will be required in the future, but 50% expect more space will be needed to maintain social distancing.
"The office is not obsolete yet," PriceWaterhouseCoopers said.
"We're in the midst of a transition that's going to take more time than many may have expected," the report said. "Many businesses will need to use their office spaces more creatively to accommodate hybrid on-premise and work-from-anywhere models."
It's unclear if Zoom meetings and file sharing can replace face-to-face meetings.
Cities filled with offices concentrate talented people in small areas—Wall Street, for example—generating efficiency and creating new ideas. It's no accident that the exchange-traded fund was formulated and managed in Boston, center of many mutual funds, or that the first ETF was traded in New York.
Cities also offer great cultural and social amenities: museums, live theater, live music, fine restaurants, bars, top universities, and pro sports.
The survey included 120 company executives in the U.S. and 1,200 office workers. It was completed between May 29 and June 4, 2020 at the height of the shutdown intended to curb spread of the coronavirus.
It's clear that the pandemic has changed the basics.
"Employees will not be returning to the same office they left behind," PriceWaterhouseCoopers said.
"There will be fewer people, restricted collaboration spaces and rotating shifts—all of which will require teams to find new ways to connect and collaborate," the report said. "More than anything else, this need for connections is likely to shape what the office is going to represent."
Designers and office managers have thought about how design of the post-pandemic office might be changed to create a safer environment by altering layout and materials.
The latest shift offers the prospect of individual choice and could alter the population distribution of the nation as skilled workers head for the suburbs and rural areas far from large metropolitan areas. Thanks to the Internet, all many people need to avoid a long, expensive commute is a fast, reliable connection and a laptop.
If the shift becomes a stampede out of central business districts, some believe it could erode the tax base of major cities, upend the commercial real estate market, make the billions of dollars invested in infrastructure almost redundant and perhaps change the voting patterns of several states.
The catch: The latest shift is widely available only to those in select fields with computer skills. That could limit any future disruption. Worse, the selective nature of working from home could worsen the growing gap between educated "knowledge workers" and those with public-facing or blue-collar jobs who can't work from home.
The Future Redux?
In The Third Wave, a book published in 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler foresaw the widespread adoption of home computer terminals. He predicted that the "information age" would create an "electronic cottage" and change the way people worked and lived while reshaping cities.
"If as few as 10 to 20 percent of the workforce as presently defined were to make this historic transfer over the next 20 to 30 years, our entire economy, our cities, our ecology, our family structure, our values, and even our politics would be altered almost beyond our recognition," Toffler wrote.
It didn't happen.
The American Community Survey found that the percentage of employees working from home increased from about 2.3% in 1980 to 5.3% in 2018, the year before the pandemic hit. That's an increase of 130.43%, but off a small base.
Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, offered a more subdued view of changes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I have been studying teleworking nearly 40 years now, and during those past four decades there has been a steady stream of predictions about the pending ubiquity of working from home," Mokhtarian said in an article published by the university.
"It seems that history repeats itself with each one of these extreme events," Mokhtarian said. "We have lots of people teleworking during the event and the aftermath and there's lots of chatter about how 'now that everyone sees how great teleworking is, it's going to take off rapidly.'"
Future of Middle Managers
If significant numbers of people work from home following the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of middle management is likely to evolve from productivity checks to maintaining and building teams to keep productivity high, Randy Sparks a Marketing and Management professor and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs at the University of Dayton, told Newsweek.
At the office, employees have shared challenges, often a key element missing among those who work from home.
"Working from home and physical separation from co-workers makes it difficult to replicate shared challenges," he said. "It's therefore important to build camaraderie, a sense of devotion and commitment to the company."
The average per year cost for each employee at the office is about $12,000 including rent, utilities, and insurance, Sparks said.
Researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management found that developed economies will adapt more quickly to the move to working from home than less developed economies despite having a higher number of service jobs.
More prosperous nations such as Ireland, Spain and the United States have about 10% of the labor force in personal services compared with less than 5% for Brazil and China.
Many service jobs cannot be performed remotely, including dentists, physical therapists, barbers, waiters and flight attendants.
"Although (developed) countries tend to have a larger share of people working in high-proximity personal services – for which the demand grows as a country becomes richer – their more risk-prone occupational mixes are outweighed by strong scores on Internet quality, experience working from home, and demographics," the MIT researchers concluded.
Farewell, Rat Race?
It's still unclear if millions will work from home after the pandemic breaks and if working from home will allow them to escape what became to be known in the 1950s as the Rat Race.
The optimistic view: Working from home will allow many, largely those with college degrees, to better balance work and family.
The pessimistic view: Working from home will continue to widen the social and economic gap between the largely college educated who can work from nearly anywhere on a laptop and those in service jobs and typically without college degrees who must report to work each day.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change that was already happening," Chris Rasmussen, an Associate Professor of History at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told Newsweek. "The pandemic has revealed some problems and stresses in society, and while the pace of change may increase, we won't fully understand the repercussions for several years."