Working from home
For corporations, working from home was a gamble. Could they trust employees to actually work when hanging around at home, instead of being supervised at the office. Some firms even deployed sophisticated electronics over the last decade to track employees and their productivity in the office.
IBM famously reversed itself some years ago when it insisted all employees had to show up in the office. A CAD vendor virtue-signaled by boasting how it had installed solar panels on its employee parking garage; I thought that not needing a parking garage would be the better approach.
Coronavirus changed that. Well, no. It forced change on corporations, at least those whose industries supported working from home. With employees telling surveyors that 40-60% of them wanting to remain working at home after the restrictions ended, executives were left scratching their heads over what to insist on once it was safe again to return to their normally-crowded offices.
On the one hand, keeping employees at home saves on costs arising from office and furniture leases, utilities, and coffee machines. Google spends $60 million a year on free food for employees. Moar profit! On the other hand, those 5- and 3-year leases don't end when offices are emptied. Businesses owning their buildings are in a greater bind: selling them on a free-falling market isn't a profit-maker. (Well, the capital losses could offset tax bills.) As PTC's CEO complained last month, "We have a lease on a brand new headquarters. It's been empty for six weeks. I'd like to renegotiate that, but the vendor doesn't seem to want to renegotiate it with me."
Breaking the Dam
Somewhere, an accountant is working out the costs and benefits. The first (that I heard) was OpenText, announcing it wanted only 50% of its employees to return to work, the remainder to remain WingFH (working from home). Then others expressed similar sentiments.
Finally, the 1000-tonne gorilla spoke. Google, announced that it didn't expect employees back until next year. That broke the dam, giving corporations permission to do likewise. Twitter said it never wanted to see its employees again, except for the few who needed to be in the offices -- custodial staff, I suppose.
As crowding is the way that the coronavirus is transmitted, one theory holds that cities will depopulate and suburbs will again become vogue. WingFH solves some of the dismal problems that seemed intractable as of last January:
- Rush hour traffic jams with hour-long commutes
- Overpriced housing relative to incomes
- Pollution from concentrated transportation and skyscrapers
But then WingFH creates problems:
- Loss of income for firms supplying corporations, such as meals and stationary
- Loss of relationships, as those who hang out together at work no longer do
- Loss of jobs related to office construction and operations
It will be interesting to watch how this shakes out, as computer-based industries make a shift that no one expected to occur this year.
What Will Become of Extroverts?
The mainstream media is these days concentrating on the psychological unwellness of those staying at home. About 50% of the population reports that. Those would be the extroverts, I expect. This is understandable, as the media is staffed by extroverts, and the media typically reports on what they know. The media don't report on introverts, who are glad to be "stuck" at home, with some expressing to me that, confidentially, they wish this would go on forever.
Throughout this coronavirus virus, I could be smug, having WedFH since 1991, initially using fax, CompuServe, and FedEx to communicate with clients. It helps that I am extrovert-introvert: I like being around people, but then I need my me-time -- 50/50.
Also, I am a compartmentalizer, so that I can ignore home-related problems as I write (like kids screaming in the early days). One of my fondest memories is of my youngest daughter coming down to my office, crawling under my desk, and falling asleep at my feet.
A neighbor, an introvert, envious of me WingFH, tried it. After a week, he admitted failure, as anytime there was a noise elsewhere in the house, he had to rush out of his office to find out what it was. For him, me being able to ignore that sort of thing, was incomprehensible.
As my wife points out, however, where does WingFH leave the extroverts who need to be in the office, or those who need to be away from home for familial or psychological reasons?
All humans are different, much to the dismay of the behavioral psychologist community. And so I suggest that corporations may want to survey staff to see which ones prefer staying home, and which prefer being back in the office. This would fit in well with initial recommendations coming out from countries like Britain, that there be that 2m-distancing between office desks.
Sarah Frier at Bloomberg points out more issues (with my answers in brackets):
- When employees leave for cheaper locations, do employers keep paying them the same high San-Francisco-level salary? (Yes.)
- How easy is to advance your career remotely? (Should be no more difficult than advancing in a global conglomerate with offices spread worldwide.)
- Do employers recruit for the next open role from anywhere? (Yes, that's a benefit.)
- Should employers give relocation bonuses to get employees to leave the city? (Interesting thought.)