In 2020, in every conversation I had about the impact the pandemic would have on work, I heard a version of this statement: “COVID-19 is going to accelerate the future of work.” But with the year ending—and the pandemic still sadly out of control—here’s what we still don’t know: Exactly what will that future be?
What is clear is that work–or at least what we used to think of as office-based, white-collar work–underwent an astounding and sudden transformation as the first shelter-in-place orders came down in mid-March. Before the pandemic, perhaps 5% of American workers could be classified as remote. By May, according to the Economist, that figure had risen to 62%, and even as late as October, nearly half of American workers were still putting in their hours in spare bedrooms and on kitchen tables, connecting with their colleagues through the digital lifelines of Slack and Zoom.
What did we learn? That the sudden absence of the workplace did not mean the absence of work being done. One survey from the employee-visibility software company Prodoscore found that productivity between May and August of 2020 was actually 5% higher than the same period in 2019. Orders were fulfilled, timesheets were filled, emails were sent—more emails, almost certainly, according to research that found that the average workday grew by nearly an hour during the pandemic.
Because those of us who used to work in offices lived through the transition, adjusting to the realities on the fly (often painfully), it can be difficult to comprehend just how radical this forced experiment and its conclusions have been. There are a lot of reasons why, until a 200-nanometer virus from China showed up, that white-collar workers gathered in offices each day. Among them: the sunk costs of real estate, a sense that innovation and creativity required physical proximity, and the ingrained belief that this was simply how things were supposed to be done. But the unstated assumption that work simply wouldn’t be done as much (or as productively) at home—and away from the eyes of managers—was probably the biggest reason why offices remained sacrosanct workspaces.
We now know that this isn’t true, and likely hasn’t been true for some time, thanks to applications that can make work and collaboration doable at home. A recent study by two researchers at Harvard of call-center workers between January 2018 and August 2020 found that while remote workers were less productive initially than those in offices, by the end of the study—when nearly every worker being surveyed had been forced home by the pandemic—those who switched to working from home became more productive than they had been in the workplace. The takeaway here is that while workers are individuals with different productivity levels, where the work takes place isn’t the deciding factor, and indeed good workers may become even better when they’re allowed to work from home.
And many of them have made it clear they want to keep doing so, even when vaccines finally take COVID-19 off the table. A recent report from Glassdoor found that 26% of workers surveyed wanted to continue working at home, 70% favored a hybrid combination of office and remote work, and just 4%–yes, 4%!–desired a full-time return to the office.
Workers are also voting with their feet. A survey by Upwork from October found that as many as 23 million Americans, or more than 10% of the adult population, are planning to pack up and move thanks in part to the freedoms of remote work. They’re migrating mostly from dense, costly cities to cheaper places that might be far from the office. Another report from Upwork found that those working from home because of COVID-19 were saving an average of nearly 50 minutes a day that they used to spend commuting to work. That matters, given that a number of studies have confirmed what most people know from grueling experience–that commuting is among the least enjoyable activities people regularly do. Give workers the option of not sitting in traffic or a crowded train every workday, and being able to move to a place where they can get more house for the same amount of money–which in turn makes remote work easier, since satisfaction with working from home is linked to having a dedicated home office–they will take companies up on it.
Firms that can get over the need to have eyes on their employees will benefit from a much broader shift to remote work as well. One study found that companies can save as much as $10,000 per employee annually in real estate costs by switching to full-time remote work. Many top tech companies, including some that until recently were touting the creativity-enhancing benefits of their sumptuous Silicon Valley campuses, have announced their openness to much wider remote work. And companies that embrace remote work may be able to get away with paying employees less if they move to cheaper cities, which many workers are willing to do, even as they’re able to expand their hiring pool to the entire world.
So what will the future of work look like, once it’s no longer being dictated by a new virus or old assumptions? Pay attention to that 70% of workers in the Glassdoor survey who say they’d prefer a hybrid future: freedom to work at home sometimes and in an office-like environment at other times. Some kinds of collaboration really do require workers being eyeball to eyeball, and sometimes you just need to get out of the house. It doesn’t make financial sense for companies to maintain large corporate offices in expensive downtowns if they’re rarely more than half full, which they won’t be, especially if workers have fled to cheaper cities hours away. But working outside of the home doesn’t have to mean working in a central office. Satellite offices, co-working spaces, even cafes–all of them will be a better and more efficient option for when collaborative work is needed.
The bigger challenge may be for managers. As McKinsey & Company managing partner Kausik Rajgopal told me in August in a From Day One webinar, there’s a risk that a company’s culture could splinter if one group of workers remains in the office while another works from home. That’s why it’s important for a manager “to be thoughtful and think about each member of the team as an individual, and figure out what may be most helpful that they stay motivated and operate in a sustainable way.” That includes figuring out effective and fair ways to evaluate employees who work remotely and onboard workers who might never see the inside of an office.
No one would want to re-experience 2020, but if we’re fortunate, it could help give birth to a white-collar working world that is more humane to employees and more productive for employers. Provided, of course, we’re all willing to shell out for a decent chair.
Bryan Walsh is the Future Correspondent for Axios, covering emerging tech and future trends, as well as the author of End Times, a 2019 book about existential risk (including pandemics). He previously worked as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor for TIME for more than 15 years. You can read his new piece for Axios about the coming tech-driven productivity leap here.