Many Americans were already couch laborers before this all started. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, about 29 percent of college graduates worked from home at least some of the time. Even once coronavirus restrictions are eased, Bloom and others expect the proportion of Americans working from home to grow. “I could see it being totally standard for jobs that can be performed at home to allow two days at home” per week, he told me.
Companies have been reluctant to allow employees to work from home because of inertia and entrenched norms, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter. But the pandemic has forced nearly two-thirds of Americans to work remotely, making it clear just how much work can get done from home, even despite the presence of children. When people get certain perks from their jobs, they tend to value those perks more than they used to, according to research by Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, a sociologist at Washington State University. Workers might resist being yanked back into offices after they’ve enjoyed the luxury of never changing out of their pajamas.
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“Many companies would have switched to telework with just a small push, and now they’re getting a great big shove,” Pollak says. According to Pollak, before mid-March, only 1.3 percent of job postings on ZipRecruiter explicitly offered the opportunity to work from home. Since then, 11.3 percent of jobs have.
Financial practicalities might speed up the work-from-home trend. After workers retreated to their homes, companies began desperately trying to shed office space. Getting rid of empty desks seems like an easy way to save cash as the economy collapses. Office real estate is already plunging in value as employers try to renegotiate their rent contracts.
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In spite of all the distractions at home, having employees work remotely more might be beneficial for employers and workers alike. Some small experiments have found that combining work and home can actually boost morale in certain circumstances. Washington State allows new mothers who work at state agencies to bring their newborns to work. Rather than distract people, the presence of the babies in the office made workers happier and more productive, according to news reports. And a 2015 study found that, six months after childbirth, women who worked from home experienced a statistically significant decrease in their levels of depression, compared with women who’d gone back into the office.
But as lots of American parents are now realizing, having your workplace be your home can lead to a hectic blend of labor and family life. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people working remotely are currently working longer days. Though workers won’t always be homeschooling their children while they’re writing memos, bosses might grow accustomed to the fact that workers are always on and always available. People who are now catching up on work on weekends might forget to stop when kids go back to school and “regular” work resumes. The days of logging off at the end of the workday and focusing on other things until morning, already dwindling, might be gone for good. In France, the scourge of the always-on lifestyle is referred to as “info-obesity,” and it is considered so grave that the country outlawed sending emails outside work hours. With U.S. workers frequently at home and constantly online, there may be calls for something similar to happen here.