How Remote Work Can Help Reactivate the Economy Following the Pandemic
Not long ago, many still viewed the concept of telecommuting as a novelty, reserved for the upper echelons of innovative Silicon Valley startups. It makes sense that the tech industry was where remote work initially thrived; after all, telecommuting as we know it today is enabled by technology which has advanced substantially in recent years (think Zoom now offering seamless video conferences, Slack functioning as a channel for all types of corporate communication, and work management apps like Monday helping you keep track of your team’s tasks and productivity).
The possibility of working from home was slowly but steadily making its way into a diverse array of industries when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, remote work went from being a revolutionary concept, to the reality of a large part of the world’s workforce. Quarantine orders doubtlessly had negative repercussions on a number of businesses — restaurants, bars, retail stores, theme parks, and events were immediately shuttered in an attempt to flatten the curve.
Though the long-term effects of the novel coronavirus on the economy are still difficult to elucidate, especially in countries where cases continue to rise, one thing is undeniable: the possibility of remote work has single-handedly kept economic catastrophe at bay through the pandemic.
In an interview for Stanford News, noted economist Nicholas Bloom pointed out that “without this historic switch to working from home, the lockdown could never have lasted. The economy would have collapsed, forcing us to return to work, reigniting infection rates. Working from home is not only economically essential, but it is also a critical weapon in our fight against COVID-19 — and future pandemics.”
Using the U.S. as an example, let’s imagine a world in which technology had not advanced to a point where over half of American knowledge workers were able to carry out their daily work tasks from home when the pandemic hit. The country would have been faced with an impossible scenario: either allow offices to remain open, therefore ravaging the health sector to a level far more unmanageable than what we’ve faced so far, or effectively condemn the nation’s entire workforce — and industries — to a halt they may never have recovered from.
“Once the pandemic hit and we were forced to shut down our office, our employees took their work equipment home, and we remained connected through virtual meetings,” says Laura Barba, co-founder of Diagrama Arquitectos, an architecture studio based in Guadalajara, Mexico. Though design is a notoriously collaborative field, Barba quickly found that her team was just as productive working remotely as they were in the office. “My partner and I were initially worried that certain tasks would be impossible to manage from a distance,” she recalls, “but after a couple of weeks we realized that nothing was lagging, and everyone had been able to rise to the occasion quite well.”
She also notes that this would not have been possible decades ago, when architectural design was a team effort that required many hands on the same physical blueprint or model. As the city of Guadalajara cautiously begins to lift restrictions, Barba’s office has continued to telecommute. “We’re in no rush to get back to the office,” she says, “for now, it makes sense to keep our team safe at home, as work has not been negatively impacted by quarantine.”
The case of Diagrama Arquitectos is not unique. Many companies across the globe are considering a partial or full pivot to remote after the pandemic, now that first-hand experience has opened their eyes to both the benefits that telecommuting offers workers and its cost-efficiency with regards to office expenses. At first thought, this may appear to be a red flag for the economy. The idea of hordes of workers suddenly spending most of their weekdays at home brings to mind a picture of deserted city centers and bankrupt businesses which once relied on the steady flow of commuters. But remote work is not only responsible for keeping the economy afloat through the pandemic; it could also be a key factor in rebooting it in the near future.
In response to The San Diego Union Tribune’s question of whether working from home is a skill that will benefit the U.S. economy, economist Dr. Lynn Reaser had this to say: “Two major issues will affect our economy’s long-term performance: Growth of our workforce and productivity. The work-from-home option could keep more older employees in the labor force longer and attract more people with childcare or other family responsibilities. Reduction in commute times for work or in travel to attend certain meetings could boost productivity.”
As has been the case with every major societal transformation throughout history, certain industries will have to reinvent themselves as they face a shifting paradigm. But many economists and sociologists are optimistic about the future post-pandemic. The fact that some people will no longer be spending money on their commutes or mid-day lunches doesn’t mean that they won’t be reallocating those funds elsewhere.
Millennials, for example, have become characterized by their inability to afford a house, and their lack of desire to raise a family. Both of those scenarios have a lot to do with their professional lives. In recent decades, jobs have migrated to major metropolitan areas, where real estate costs have skyrocketed. At the same time, many jobs have become increasingly competitive and incompatible with the responsibilities of childcare. Remote work will allow people to live outside of major cities, where homeownership is a possibility. It will also offer workers more flexibility with their time, which could be devoted to family life. With people migrating to smaller cities, the coffee shops, restaurants, and retail spaces that thrive around large office buildings will have to adapt to this new economy, especially as workers are becoming aware of the importance of having a fixed and well-thought-out workstation at home, instead of hopping around the city looking for decent WiFi.
There is a largely untapped pool of talent in non-urban areas, as well as thousands of current city-dwellers longing for a small-town life. The economies of rural areas have been declining along with the quality of life of younger generations. As remote has proven to be an effective work model, this no longer has to be the case. “Flexible work is the way through and the way out of this crisis,” writes Cali Williams Yost, an Opinion contributor for USA Today. “It must be front and center of any comprehensive public health and economic recovery program.” Yost is right — without the possibility of remote work, the economy would have collapsed entirely.
Moving forward, industries that take a leap towards even partial remote-friendly policies will be more resilient to unforeseen situations, economic downturn, and future pandemics. Adaptability has characterized humanity throughout history, and it’s become clear that remote work is the next step in work evolution.
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