Couch or cubicle? Vaccine may not lure Americans back to the office

By Reuters Staff, published by United States News

Washington:  Zoom fatigue? Isolation from colleagues? A craving for lamb shawarma from the downtown food truck?


Months into a pandemic that has changed work-life balance into a work-life M.C. Escher drawing – with the end of one and the beginning of the other now indistinguishable – Americans say they’ve actually adapted fine to home offices and dining room table workstations, and most want to continue working from home after the pandemic.

That’s the finding of new surveys published by the Pew Research Centre and the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute with potentially ominous implications for pre-Covid-19 business district micro-economies that had thrived on throngs of office workers going to weekly happy hours or dropping off their dry cleaning a block from work.

The Pew poll of 5,800 working adults in mid-October found that the transition has been easy for most. It allowed them to remain productive, and, on balance, has given people more control over how they use their time – counter to the conventional-wisdom impression of home offices as a maze of tech problems and family distractions.

Not everyone is thrilled, of course. More younger workers reported trouble staying motivated, and parents found it more difficult to work without interruption.

But “while not seamless, the transition to telework has been relatively easy for many employed adults,” Pew found in its survey.

The fact that people not only like but seem to function well at their jobs in a home-based setting, “may portend a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future,” Pew researchers Kim Parker, Juliana Horowitz and Rachel Minkin wrote.

The rollout of a vaccine in coming months will force companies nationwide to decide whether to keep leasing office space, let people work where they choose, or move to some hybrid arrangement.

It will also start answering the long list of questions about whether the changes in behaviour sparked by the pandemic prove permanent, or fade once the risk of being out in public has eased.


The study published by the Becker Friedman Institute also concluded that work from home “will likely stick,” and estimated perhaps 22% of all work days will be “supplied from home” after the pandemic.

That’s a major shift, with implications down the line for office building owners as well as the corner cafe. Authors Nick Bloom of Stanford University, Steven Davis of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Jose Barrero of Mexico’s Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo, said the pandemic’s “mass social experiment” will cut spending in major city centres as much as 10% on a permanent basis.

Why permanent?

The stigma of “shirking from home” has disappeared, the technology has improved quickly, and companies and employees have adapted, the research concluded. Firms have changed their tech infrastructure to accommodate, and the average worker, the study found, has spent about $660 outfitting their home set up.

Large majorities in their survey of 15,000 people, collected between May and October, said they were at least as productive working from home, if not more so, than they were in their office, and would like to keep working from home at least two days a week in the future.

The dollar value of that is significant. Nearly half of workers said the flexibility to stay at home two to three days a week was worth up to 15% of their pay.

The two studies shared other common conclusions, including the fact that the benefits of working from home aren’t universally shared.

It is, the University of Chicago group found, “a perk, but men, higher earners and highly educated workers will disproportionately get to enjoy it.”

Top: Midtown Manhattan, New York City, on a sunny day. Photo: Amit Chattopadhyay (CC BY 2.0)

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci

TNR staff
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