When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and spread across the US, we all became subjects in likely the greatest remote work and telecommuting experiment ever. Abruptly, and on an ad-hoc basis, millions of us brought our offices into our homes, and just kept on working. Overall, the work from home (WFH) experiment is succeeding. And not only that, it’s succeeding under conditions far less than ideal. It would be one thing if we were working at home and the kids were in school. But our kids are home, too, challenging us to balance both our kids’ needs and our bosses needs under the same roof at the same time.
We’ve learned, thanks to widely available broadband, home WiFi networks, and teleconferencing software that works remarkably well despite the security and data scraping issues, that physical offices aren’t really all that important anymore. We’ve been able to work effectively without them even if there have been some strains in the transition.
This lesson has not been lost on the C-Suite crowd. As we start to think about how to reopen offices, keeping public health and liability concerns front and center, they will not pass up the opportunity to shift their companies’ occupancy costs to their employees while they cut their companies’ office space requirements. The savings will drop right to the bottom line, and they’ll be richly rewarded as the stock-based part of their compensation zooms in value. While I’m familiar with the arguments about how “social” we all are, how we need to be with one another, and how important face-to-face collaboration is, we’ve proven by our actions that there is another way. And when management decides what’s best for the company, the matter is pretty much settled, especially in this time of record-high unemployment and spreading insecurity.
Looking ahead, I believe that we will see a lot of office space reduction in the coming year, whether in the form of consolidation, lease renegotiation wherever possible, greater use of reconfigured co-working or flex spaces, or other space-shedding strategies. And WFH will be a big part of the “new normal”. Overall, we’ll see lower head counts and more square feet per person, also known as lower density.
The office spaces that do survive this shift will be different. While the adjustment is just getting under way, changes are coming. The most obvious thing will be spreading out people in order to maintain social distancing, which is the only strategy proven effective in containing and controlling the spread of this terrible virus. And the impact will be significant. In New York, the ratio of worker to space dropped in recent years to as low as 80 square feet per person, as companies packed people in to manage their occupancy. Look for that allocation to at least double as employees are spaced further apart both for the sake of their health and the companies’ liability. Bench seating will become a relic of the recent past, and quickly. I doubt anyone will miss it.
Constant, routine daily cleaning and disinfecting will become the norm, both within office spaces and in building common areas. That will significantly increase operating and maintenance costs. Individual tenants will have to shoulder their own internal costs, but expect to see landlords trying to pass their increased costs through.
The concepts of attendance and start times will have to change. In nearly every office building, the elevators are the bottleneck. Queuing people up in the lobby spaced six feet apart, and limiting the number of people in each elevator at any time means that it will just not be possible to move people upstairs the way we used to just a few short months ago. When there is a vaccine, this problem may go away. Until then, expect to see a lot more flexibility in office starting times, limits on capacity beyond those imposed by office layout changes, work shift setups along the lines of factory work, and other concepts. Some will work and some won’t.
The biggest change will come when management looks carefully at how they use the space they have, and what their people actually do in that space. Then they’ll figure out how to prioritize which tasks actually have to be done onsite and reconcile those space needs in order to use less space more efficiently. Hoteling concepts are probably dead; after all, why pay for transient space when your people will work from home? We may see new designs for spaces for teamwork and collaboration onsite, taking into account social distancing criteria, while relying on WFH for what used to be individual offices or cubicles. An idea that may work in some businesses would be to keep everyone working remotely and only bring people in to make the important “in person” new business pitches or similar presentations. These are only a few ideas. There will be others.
Look for changes in mechanical systems. I think we’ll see new interest in increasing outside air changes, possibly ditching return air plenum designs in favor of ducted returns, attention paid to internal airflow, consideration given to operable windows, ultraviolet duct sanitizing systems used more widely, and other concepts. Proximity systems could also be expanded. Most office workers these days already have a key fob or ID card for access; there’s no reason they can’t be used to control a broader range of things. And hands-free washrooms could easily become the standard going forward.
Those are just some of the physical changes we can look forward to. As we start talking seriously about reopening, WFH needs to be developed from its ad-hoc format to a more fully featured way of working.
Home offices or workspaces have to be upgraded and improved. It’s one thing to spend a couple of months doing videoconferences with your laptop balanced on your knees as you juggle your notes, all the while backlit by the light pouring in your living room window as your fellow video conferees look up your nose. It’s another thing to spend a substantial part of your career that way. To really perform at one’s peak, remote workers need a comfortable workspace separate from the family. That requires dedicating a space in your home for work, in effect losing the use of it by you and your family. It also requires investment in the form of, possibly, physically modifying your home. There are also operating costs incurred, be they paper, printer cartridges, or other supplies that used to be available at the office. We may also see new house and apartment plans evolve to include a usable home office or workspace. Apartment dwellers, especially in the small units built in this current cycle, will be particularly challenged. One idea could be for their landlords to convert the ground floor retail spaces to intelligently, and safely, designed resident work spaces. Retail is failing, so this may be a way to make lemonade from lemons. No matter the solution, there is a value, and a cost to the employee to be accounted for.
We all have to learn new presentation skills. We may not all be anchormen or women, but we do need to improve the way we look on video. There are also a lot of tools and tricks to presenting oneself better on video, all of which are part of a truly successful WFH setup. Again, it takes investment in hardware, software, and training. And costs that the remote worker will have to bear.
The “time bleed” has to stop. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people working from home put in an extra three hours a day. While, as professionals, everyone accepts putting in some extra time as part of the landscape, three hours a day extends to 750 hours a year. Consider that a standard working year is around 1,900 hours; working an additional 750 hours is the same as putting in around an additional 40%. Since it would be naive to expect a commensurate raise, the solution is a social one. Companies and employees have to recognize that working from home requires clear limits and a clear understanding of start/stop times. Most important, employers must understand and respect these limits.
The tax laws need to change. By shedding office space and pushing the WFH model, companies are shifting their occupancy costs to the staff without compensation. Since all of this will be done as a cost-cutting move on the employers’ side, and since it’s unlikely that the companies will turn around and share those savings with the staff, the Federal and State governments should step in and do what employers can’t be expected to do: provide tax incentives or other rewards to people who work remotely. One way would be to drastically expand the range of office-at-home tax deductions. Another way would be a tax credit for individuals, in other words a dollar-for-dollar reduction of tax liability based on the annual value of an employee’s home office or workspace. Since the big companies have been vacuuming up all kinds of tax favors in recent years, not to mention stimulus dollars recently, it’s only fair that employees get their share.
Child care will be a bigger and more urgent issue. On one hand, having our children see what we do to put bread on the table can be a valuable part of learning and becoming a good citizen. On the other, our kids need us when they need us, and they can’t always be expected to understand the demands of working. The school day is also shorter than the work day, and so something has to close that gap. A good start would be respect and understanding of the family’s needs, and an acknowledgment that those needs really do have to be balanced with company’s needs. One solution could be a greater use of flex time, or shift setups that allow working couples to stagger their days to provide continuous child care. Another solution would be reliable, broadly accessible after school programs. Along with this, child care tax credits should be broadly expanded so that employees at all levels can get help with the cost of child care, whether it is day care, after school programs, special needs support, or other qualified activities that working parents need in order to attend to their children’s’ needs while performing at a high level while working from home.
The WFH experiment has, among other things, finally killed off the stigma of working from home. When I started my business, I worked from home, as have many others. I will never forget the sneers that greeted me when I acknowledged that, and the presumption that I was somehow less professional because I didn’t have an “Office”. But, when newscasters, entertainers, and even political candidates work from home, all of a sudden it’s OK. As companies of all sizes across the US push this, it will be even more OK. Meantime, the lack of an office is now an equalizer, and those of us who’ve been doing it for some time have the advantage: we’re space-efficient, nearly paper-free, and very tuned in to how we look on Zoom. Advantage the WFH crowd.