Opinion

How, and Where, Will We Work?

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

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