Where people work will influence what jobs are available.

Back in March, the assumption seemed to be that most white collar workers being sent home because of the coronavirus outbreak would be able to return later in the year. Many made statements about September or maybe December at the latest being feasible for offices to reopen and “normal” to resume.

Much like how movie studios keep pushing more and more films to the middle of 2021, companies are now beginning to eye July of next year as the soonest that’s going to happen. Most recently, Amazon announced employees can continue to work from home through June, though of course that is just for *office* workers. Warehouse staff, 20,000 of whom have contracted Covid-19, are still required to show up in-person.

With so much still up in the air – especially since the number of Covid cases keeps going up – it’s a good opportunity to review just what options are available.

Option 1: Back In The Office

That companies keep announcing new “return to the office” dates indicates that their intent is to eventually get everyone back under one roof. This is, of course, the norm that businesses have adopted since the middle of the last century as white collar work began outpacing factory, farm and other labor.

But those constantly changing dates and endlessly revised plans are playing havoc with employees, who not only can’t fully make their own plans but who feel the companies aren’t committed to making remote work situations work.

Last month public relations firm Edelman released the results of a survey showing just 14% of employees trust the executives and managers at their companies to make the offices they have largely abandoned safe enough to return to. As Axios points out, that comes at a time when public opinion polls show significant disagreement among many Americans over what constitutes required safety measures, from masks to temperature checks and so on.

One suggestion offered by a real estate company CEO is that businesses will have to lure workers back by creating more of a cool clubhouse environment. Part of his argument is that the environment needs to be one that makes workers want to get out of their homes and become part of the “inner circle” by doing so. Those who don’t take advantage of that situation, he warns, will run the risk of falling out of favor with management and be replaced by AI or just fired and not replaced.

That kind of threat is one that has hung over remote workers for a good long while. The pressure is on them to constantly be available, find their own ways to connect with virtual colleagues and so on. Because they can’t be monitored the old-fashioned way – by physically being seen by their bosses – remote workers are often judged by how communicative they’re being. And since they are not there to participate in office meetups and inside jokes, they can easily become the first to go when it’s time for layoffs.

The argument for getting people back in the office often includes some variation on the watercooler effect, that office environments allow for moments of spontaneous creativity or problem-solving.

That may be valid (even if it is likely widely overstated), but it overlooks how the modern office is almost intentionally designed to contain a multitude of distractions that impair worker productivity. At the very least, a one-design-fits-all-productivity model simply isn’t realistic. People will prefer it to be warmer or cooler, don’t like the color scheme, can’t function well with the approved equipment and so on.

Option 2: Work From Home

In the immediate wake of office closures in February and March there was a lot of, shall we say, chaos. A number of news stories and reports talked about how companies sent everyone home in a hurry with little thought of the equipment people were going to need, how certain logistics were going to work and what kind of expectations there were regarding employee personal lives.

It’s clear that even now, months later, many companies are just starting to figure out what a long-term distributed workforce will look like and how it might function. That adjustment comes well after employees themselves acclimated to the new reality. Interruptions by pets, children, spouses or some combination of all three went from “Wow, this is really weird for all of us” to “Barely worth mentioning” in no time at all. What was so unusual just six months ago is now commonplace.

Not only that, but work from home arrangements offer a number of quantitative benefits that companies would do well to latch on to. For instance:

  • Workers have expressed widespread satisfaction in part because they can more effectively manage both their personal and professional lives from home than they can in the office, where their every action is judged.
  • Because women in particular don’t have to make such an analog decision between family or work, the hit they often take in terms of promotions, raises and so on becomes less severe.
  • A smaller corporate footprint means it might be a lot easier for companies to actually meet their sustainability and environmentally-friendly goals, as paltry as they sometimes are.
  • Worker productivity goes up, despite the fear mongering that happens whenever remote work is discussed.

This is not to say that remote work is always the best option for either party. Many are simply not in a position to make that work for any number of reasons. Some have a difficult time balancing home responsibilities with their work life when not in an office setting. Still others simply don’t have an employer willing to make that kind of accommodation.

Option 3: A Hybrid Approach

It’s incredibly likely that while some companies will be outliers in one of the two directions above, but more could adopt a hybrid model that offers workers some flexibility and builds in protections to guard against remote workers being seen as second class employees. Even so, there are a number of issues that will need to be hashed out both by individual companies and the labor market as a whole:

What constitutes workplace benefits? Over the last 20 years the notion of what constitutes perks in the office has evolved from coffee and occasional donuts to organic vegan fair trade lattes and pan-seared aji. While that’s been used as a competitive selling point when trying to attract and retain talent, it loses much of that power when the interviewee isn’t planning to be in the office to enjoy them.

The question becomes even more stark when you consider that those office snacks may account for a significant savings in employee grocery budgets. Because they’re not in the office to take advantage of the cereal in the kitchen they’re buying their own at home. Nor can they use in-building gyms and other amenities.

On the one hand, employers could offer stipends specifically meant to transfer these kinds of perks to the home environment. They could set up food delivery services, or sign everyone who chooses to up for Peloton. Or…and I’m just throwing this out there…they could take that money and just add it to everyone’s paychecks.

What role will the office still serve? Since the beginning of the pandemic there’s been the assumption that if or when businesses reopen the open office design won’t survive the transition, mostly because it’s the antithesis of the recommendations on how to stop the spread of the virus. So if we’re assuming we’re destined to go back to cubicles and/or offices with some form of social distancing in place, the question then becomes why workers would venture back.

It’s pretty much assumed that the role of the centralized office will shift significantly in the next few years. But instead of becoming the Kool Kids Klubhouse suggested in the article linked above, one would hope that it could transition to the place employees come when they have to or need to, not somewhere they have to be in order to do the very basics of the job. There should be a specific reason for the office, such as a meeting that has to happen in-person instead of virtually. There should be space for people to work if they can’t or don’t want to be remote as well as space for those who have to come in for something on a certain day. But the idea that it’s the only location individuals are allowed to be on a regular basis was antiquated a year ago and now may be dangerous.

What will we require from our digital, local and transportation infrastructures? Following the previous train (sorry) of thought, if fewer people are going into a centralized office there’s less of a need to shape a huge percentage of our societal makeup around getting people to and from said locations.

Highways in particular are ripe for reconsideration. Months after the first wave of pandemic closures were announced there were reports traffic levels dropped significantly, with pollution levels also coming down as a result. Because many states fund road repairs with tolls, gasoline taxes and other car-related charges (which are a regressive tax on those less well-off), that funding fell dramatically. If more systemic change comes to how and where people work, that kind of change could become, at some level, permanent.

It would be nice, then, if we could refocus those efforts on reinforcing digital infrastructure. School closures and the subsequent shift to online learning has starkly exposed the digital divide that exists across the country, with 59% of low-income parents saying the lack of fast internet service at home means their child/ren can’t adequately complete their homework.

This isn’t to say that our physical infrastructure isn’t important, but it was a system built for the 20th century. How we prioritize projects as a society should reflect our priorities, and both internet access and mass transportation – not highways and such – should be at the top of our list.

How do we reshape the economy to fit the decentralized model? Much of what’s been outlined so far all boils down to this question.

The massive support economy that’s made up of coffee shops, convenience stores, restaurants, office supply retailers and more has taken a multi-billion dollar hit since closures went into effect.

If indeed there is a huge shift in the work world then a good number of things will need to be adjusted as a result. It’s not just coffee and auto repair shops. Think about how toilet paper wasn’t available anywhere for about two months because the home retail and office supply chains are completely different? That process will repeat at some level across most industries.

There is, of course, no single answer that will be adopted. Each company will have to figure out what management and staff are comfortable with and adjust as necessary. But just as good coffee and other perks have been used as competitive advantages to attract or maintain talent for the last 20 years, it’s likely that simple location and timing accommodation will take on that role in the next decade or two.