Throughout the ongoing pandemic, the message from multiple health institutions has been clear: learn, work, and stay at home. As with all other international crises, we have seen rapid and creative changes from both governments and private organizations, who’ve adapted using a variety of tools at their disposal.
One of these tools has been the switch to online work wherever possible. Twitter announced in May that its employees can work from home “forever”. However, what if every firm (with the potential to do so) shifted towards this model? What would it mean for the area of the economy dependent on commuters and offices? The cleaners, baristas, transport staff and other service workers whose jobs partially depend on commuter demand? What would become of the office space previously occupied by thousands of workers who can now operate from the comfort of their living rooms?
The question is how many staff can actually work from home. Due to Coronavirus, 46.6% of people in employment partially worked from home, and of those working at home 65.6% of them worked the same number of hours or more, according to the UK Office for National Statistics . Hence, the nightmare of empty business districts is unlikely. However, there are multiple incentives to make working from home more common. Fighting off potential resurgences of coronavirus (and slowing the spread of any future pandemics), spending more time with loved ones and the immense savings workers are making by not spending on lunches, office attire, commuting related costs will all contribute to redefining the world of work. Not to mention the external benefits of reduced travel-produced pollution.
However the potential impacts are palpable. While airport and aviation job losses were the first to hit the headlines, the losses for high street firms and office maintenance staff are slowly becoming a reality as the new normal begins to set in. Pret a Manger has planned to cut 1000 of their jobs and close 30 stores, while McDonald’s announced it would have less staff operating in their kitchens at all times for safety purposes, though their lunch time rushes have been crippled by staff continuing to work at home. Plus, any government intervention to sustain these industries dependent on footfall would be incredibly costly if used indefinitely. The UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, while a helpful kick start to the high-street, is not a permanent option.
The possibility of entirely vacant offices looms over many developed economies in the distance. Twitter has not announced any plans for its existing San Francisco offices, suggesting they are waiting to see what their staff decide once coronavirus has been brought under control. Given the existing benefits of working from home, and the growing possibility that COVID-19 may become endemic in the United States, Twitter may have to give up their Market Square office. However, are there any businesses willing to take it, given the need for such large offices has decreased dramatically?
Ultimately, the arguments for working from home are beginning to gain enough traction to restructure industries built around a demand influenced by the commute to work. We may soon see others following in Twitter’s footsteps.