When the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world’s cities this spring, office workers had to hurry home. Taking their laptops with them, they entered a new world of meetings by Zoom call and remote working with their families, or flatmates, in the next room. A surprising number found they liked it.
Not having to take a crowded subway to work, or juggle working schedules awkwardly with partners, has been an unexpected boon. Even children bursting into rooms when their parents are on video calls have been treated indulgently. Some employees yearn to go back to the gossip and interplay of office life, but others now wonder whether they ever want to return.
Until the emergency ends, it is impossible for many employers to insist on them resuming their old ways. There may not be room in open plan offices for staff to socially distance at anything like full occupancy. Although workers in many countries have largely returned to the office, those in cities such as London and New York remain wary.
Some companies are sanguine: Google has told staff they can work from home until next summer, and Twitter has said they can choose to do so “for ever”. But others, losing the ability to see what workers are doing, and wondering whether they can sustain corporate cultures, are worried.
The pandemic struck in an era when technology and globalisation had loosened the bonds between employees and workplaces. Companies have not been slow over recent decades to exploit this, outsourcing some tasks — and even whole departments — to low-wage countries. Now, they face employees who want virtual globalisation to work both ways.
Homeworking can be at least as effective as being in an office. A study of a Chinese travel agency that let staff pick between working from home or in a call centre found that the self-selecting home workers were significantly more productive.
But companies have legitimate concerns. Apple is among those that have invested in large open plan offices designed to encourage interaction. Nicholas Bloom, the Stanford university author of the Chinese travel agency study, fears a longer-term “slump in innovation” from mass homeworking.
Employees also need to be careful about what they wish for. It has been relatively easy to remain connected with colleagues whom they already knew well by video call during the emergency but those bonds would be stretched in the longer term. It would also be harder for new recruits who have never known office life.
More brutally, companies whose staff move out of cities may question why they need to offer them city-level remuneration. Some will also reconsider whether to employ as many people in countries with high wages and legal protections. Coming to work is itself a show of commitment and employees who absent themselves from workplaces completely risk being ignored or, in time, discarded.
When the pandemic eases, a new compact is needed between employers and their staff to establish new patterns that benefit both sides. It is clear that many who commuted five days a week will not want to return to it; they may be happier and more productive with a mixture of home and office working.
The end of the office may be technologically possible but it would not be in the long-term interests of business or society. The pandemic has made many question the way they live and work, but most will seek continued commitment with more flexibility, not permanent revolution.