Working from Home in the Long Term

One of the big stories of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increase in people working from home (WFH). The impression I have is that, overall, for a lot of white collar workers, it has been working out just fine. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are among the workplaces that have either extended the period of WFH out to the end of 2020 (or beyond), or even indicated it may be a permanent option. The “experiment” in working from home brought on by COVID-19 has, on one hand, forced companies to upgrade their infrastructure to support an increase in remote work, and, on the other hand, forced them to confront fears about WFH, and how they can manage workers.

I strongly suspect remote work will increase. It is a perk that can be offered employees with relatively little extra cost, and, in the long term, can help reduce costs employers may have in their workplace by reducing office space and associated expenses.

I think there will be a lot of interesting challenges and trends that will come out of this.

There Will Still Be Offices

I doubt offices will go away. Some companies will still need a smaller space, with a few conference rooms and touch-down spots, to act as a home base. This is where face-to-face meetings would occur, or equipment (such as laptops) is maintained.

But there will still be work that requires an office. Some businesses or work simply doesn’t lend itself to remote work. Other work may have restrictions, such as audit or security requirements, that do not allow working outside of a set, secure environment. It won’t go away completely.

Reshaping Cities

Office take up a lot of space–be it a tall building downtown, or a sprawling campus. A lot of businesses exist to support these. Directly, this would include companies that clean these spaces or secure the buildings. But, indirectly, a lot of business are dependent on this as well–the restaurant that is open basically for breakfast or lunch, or the bodega that provides works an afternoon drink or some other sundry. Some of this may shift to other locations. But the demand for a lot of this will go down. It is likely a symptom of a larger shift in how work is done.

Further, what becomes of the facilities themselves? A suburban office park represents a huge investment, though may readily be torn down to become a housing development or park. A downtown would be more challenging. There are only so many condos you can build.

“Bring Your Own Infrastructure”

One buzzword in office computing is “BYOD”–bring your own device. The notion is that the employee would procure (either at their expense or with a stipend) their own laptop, etc. This may even go on subtly in some sectors. For instance, I simply used by personal phone for work at my prior company, and bought some odds and ends (like my mouse and headset). Naturally, these went with me when I left. I’m personally skeptical of buying my own laptop outside of a stipend, as there may still be an expectation the company have some management of it, to ensure security compliance.

WFH means employees would be providing their own infrastructure: power, bandwidth, and coffee. To an employee, it may not be a big deal–any costs that aren’t a fixed sunk cost (I’d have an ISP regardless; I’m just using it more of my day) may be offset by the reduction in commuting costs and time. I connect to my office via a VPN–so long as I follow best practices in securing my network, my company has no issue from a security perspective.

How might this evolve? Will there be in-fighting between the two stakeholders? Will employees demand a WFH stipend, or employers figure they can pay a bit less? Personally, I think it should be accepted as awash (reduce commuting costs to the employee; reduced infrastructure costs (and a cheap perk) to the company).

Plus, there is a lot to be said for better coffee.

The Workforce is Being Acclimated

What do me and my daughter have in common during this crisis? We are both using remote work. It’s just that, for her, it’s school work. Schools and especially universities are shifting to remote learning. This is to maintain social distancing, especially for college campuses, where living and learning in close quarters in the norm. Different solutions are being evaluated, such as having lab days spread over a week, to reduce the number of students in a lab.

One effect, I suspect, is that this is acclimating the next generation of works to remote work and technologies. While the current workforce may be mirroring “normal” work, the next generation will come in having lived through this transformation, and have unique working styles and techniques for getting the most out of remote work.