Amidst the changes left in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a welcome one might be the likely and long-overdue normalization of telework. We—or at least those of us who are largely desk-bound—were supposed to be able to roll down the hallway from our bedrooms to our jobs years ago. But employers have largely remained resistant to allowing employees to work off-site.
Now—with remote work a necessity for millions of people—the barriers may finally fall. That should expand options for jobseekers to take work without regard for where employers are based, and to settle where they feel comfortable and are free to live as they please.
It's strange how few of us worked remotely full-time before the pandemic, despite the transformation of communications, music, retail, and finance that we enjoy courtesy of the digital revolution. Only 3.6 percent of Americans worked at-home half-time or more as of 2018, Global Workplace Analytics estimates, based on American Community Survey data. At the same time, 43 percent of employees worked remotely "with some frequency," indicating untapped opportunities.
Despite the potential, telework has remained a special privilege for many employers, to be doled out only to workers who can sell their bosses on it, or else have the clout to make it happen.
"The ability to work at home appears to be systematically related to authority and status in the workplace. Managerial and professional workers are more likely than others to have the type of tasks and autonomous control of their work schedule necessary to perform work at home," noted a 2012 article in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Monthly Labor Review.
When it comes to lower-level employees, "executives saw the benefits of using flexible work to their advantage as a negotiating tool for recruitment, promotion, retention and motivation, but they often worried about the costs of training and potential culture change," Mohja Rhoads and Fynnwin Prager of California State University reported earlier this year after surveying Los Angeles-area workers.
The Monthly Labor Review article cautioned that "the ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweeks." True—but I ran into problems separating work and home in a traditional office where the top boss had the unfortunate habit of calling employees in the evenings to discuss his brainstorms.
Importantly, many people have spent the last couple of months honing the ability to draw lines between work and the rest of their lives. Social distancing and lockdown orders meant many jobs had to be done from home, or not at all.
"In February, before the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak truly took hold, 40% of American workers, or 63 million, were employed in occupations that potentially could be performed remotely," Pew Research finds. Since then, "90% of the decrease in employment—or 2.6 million of the total loss of 2.9 million between February and March—arose from positions that could not be teleworked."
As lockdown orders expire and the pandemic fades, some jobs will move back to the office. But continuing social distancing expectations will hamper a complete return to normality for many workplaces. Just as important, practical experience with telework will have eroded much of the resistance to implementing it on a regular basis.
"The pandemic is forcing these investments in industries where telework is possible, with more people learning how to use remote technology. As a result, we may see a more permanent shift toward telecommuting," write Katherine Guyot and Isabel V. Sawhill of The Brookings Institution.
"Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021," predicts Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics.
That has interesting implications for where people will base themselves in the future. If you can start a business where you want to be while employing people living where they feel comfortable, people no longer have to physically chase jobs and talent and location becomes a matter of preference.
Even before the pandemic, major cities were losing a bit of their draw. The cultural mix and opportunity that had made them attractive places for many people was losing out to expense and incompetent, intrusive government.
"Chicago has been losing people for years now, but Los Angeles and New York City have also found themselves on the decline," Scott Shackford wrote last year for Reason. "Each of these cities is facing some severe problems in the way they're managed, their uncertain financial situations, and a general disregard for the welfare and liberty of the citizens who live there."
One pandemic later, after a lesson in the opportunities for viral transmission provided by high population density and the unpleasantness of urban life in a lockdown situation, cities may be losing even more of their gloss.
"Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs," reports The New York Times.
The places that will draw workers and businesses will be those that attract them with desirable lifestyle, affordability, and a legal climate that doesn't treat flexibility as an enemy. That's bad news for California, where the law commonly called A.B. 5 attempts to force workers into employer/employee relationships while discouraging freelancing.
"The law was hurting workers and businesses before the outbreak of COVID-19, but now its negative impacts are being amplified by the pandemic," warns Vittorio Nastasi of the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website. "It is limiting job opportunities for workers who have been laid off as a result of the pandemic and government-mandated stay-at-home orders."
If greater flexibility is a feature of post-pandemic work, inflexible jurisdictions will have a hard time competing.
That's not to say that a telework-friendly future comes without its problems. In an already divided country, it may lead to more friction.
Debates over stay-at-home orders frequently degenerate into tussles between those relatively unaffected by pandemic-related lockdowns because they can work at home, and those for whom continued employment and the viability of their businesses require their physical presence. That split will linger if telework becomes a better-accepted option but remains possible for less than half the population.
On a similar note, in recent decades, Americans have had "unprecedented choice about where and how they wanted to live" and have moved accordingly, noted Bill Bishop in his 2008 book, The Big Sort. As it turns out, our preferred lifestyle correlates closely with our politics; "liberals would rather live in cities, while conservatives prefer rural areas and small towns," as Pew Research puts it. That's meant people concentrating themselves in like-minded communities, reinforcing each other's beliefs, and having less personal contact with those who disagree.
An enhanced ability to live where we want, rather than where our employer is based, may lead to more sorting along political lines and less room for agreement. That's not a big problem if decisions are left to individuals and communities, but it's a recipe for growing conflict if we continue to concentrate power upwards.
Overall, however, the pandemic will offset a little of the damage done by the virus itself, and by bumbled human responses to the health threat it poses, if it leaves in its wake a more flexible business culture. That will mean more freedom for many of us to work how we wish, and to live in places that make us happy and treat us well.