Mar 13, 2020 - Economy

Remote everything

Illustration of a pair of hands with super long arms reaching out and working on a laptop

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As cases of the coronavirus multiply across the U.S., every office, school, restaurant and store shutdown is stress-testing the country’s ability to live life without leaving home.

Why it matters: The coronavirus is triggering a grand experiment: Remote work and remote learning have long been buzzwords, but the sudden switch to telecommuting en masse has the potential to accelerate shifts in how work is conducted and the way we think about it.

“The virus could act as a game-changer for remote work,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School.

The big picture: Telework isn’t a new concept. It can be a great way to bring new types of workers — including stay-at-home parents or people living in rural areas — into the fold, and it can save companies millions in real estate costs.

But it's still relatively uncommon in the U.S. — and there's ongoing debate over whether remote employees are as happy and productive as onsite ones.

  • Less than 4% of Americans work from home full time.
  • Remote learning is more prevalent, with just under 16% of U.S. students taking all of their courses online, per a recent study from the Department of Education.

Now that almost every office and school is abruptly asking (or forcing) people to work at home, the disruption in habits and procedures could have lasting effects — even after people go back to business as usual.

  • Major companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, the Washington Post and the New York Times, are either mandating or strongly urging employees to work from home.
  • Dozens of universities — Yale, Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T., and N.Y.U. among them —are moving to online classes and sending all students home.

The coronavirus could be the catalyst that gets firms to adopt remote work policies in far greater numbers than we see now, even after the pandemic ends, says Choudhury.

But, but, but: It's not as simple as just closing offices and classrooms. Most companies and universities aren't built for the virtual world.

  • They're filled with managers and professors who value face-to-face interaction.
  • Workplaces exist precisely because sharing physical space fosters teamwork and sparks creativity.
  • And as Axios' Ina Fried reported this week, there are plenty of jobs that just can't be done remotely.

Studies of telecommuting are a mixed bag:

  • A survey published in the Harvard Business Review found that remote employees are more likely to be disengaged and quit their jobs than those on site.
  • But a 2015 Stanford study that tested the effects of telework on productivity at one firm found that the practice boosted productivity by 13%.

Be smart: WFH (working from home) because of a scary global pandemic is qualitatively different from doing so by choice under normal circumstances.

There are some tech companies, such as GitLab and Automattic, that are already entirely remote, and they've structured themselves to make it work, Choudhury says.

  • Some set up virtual water coolers — calls where employees can join to chat about topics outside of work — to recreate the social experience of an office.

But the vast majority of organizations aren't built this way. And the abrupt switch to telecommuting brings a host of logistical problems.

  • Noisy children, barking pets and trash that begs to be removed can make workers long for an office.
  • Keeping track of far-flung employees or students is difficult when nobody needs to show up.

The bottom line: "This is an opportunity to essentially restructure organizations," Choudhury says. "It's not just about downloading Slack and Zoom. It's about saying, 'How do we work? And how can we change that?'"

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