May 19, 2020 - Economy

Companies weigh the potential of permanent work-from-home

A briefcase in a trash can

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Led by the Silicon Valley tech giants, more and more companies are extending their timelines for remote work — and some are weighing letting employees work from home forever.

Why it matters: It's becoming clear that there's no going back to the way work and workplaces were structured before the coronavirus pandemic.

Driving the news: Last week, Twitter became the first company to acknowledge that the coronavirus-triggered experiment in telecommuting is working — and told employees they never have to come back to the office if they so choose.

  • Square, the contactless payments company that shares CEO Jack Dorsey with Twitter, announced a permanent work-from-home option this week.
  • Amazon has extended its remote work policy through October, and Facebook and Google have done so through the end of the year. Look for these extensions to turn into permanent policies, too.

"This is the global awakening of, 'We’ve been making it way more complicated to work than it has to be,'" says Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company. "So many companies have just been waiting for another company to go first."

The big picture: A shift to remote work has wide-ranging implications that will touch everything from companies' balance sheets to commercial real estate and urban planning.

Companies can save thousands per employee. And workers might save some money, too.

  • Firms will have to spend some money to make the transition work. For example, Twitter is giving each employee $1,000 for remote work supplies.
  • But in the long run — when considering cutting the costs of renting, heating and furnishing an office — telework could save firms up to $11,000 per worker per year, according to a new report from the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work.
  • Workers stand to save up to $7,000 per year in commuting, child care and wardrobe costs, the report notes.

Workplaces can become more diverse and inclusive. If place no longer matters, the pool of people from which firms can hire will get much, much bigger.

  • People who don't live in the big, expensive cities where the jobs are — as well as people who have caretaking responsibilities or disabilities that keep them at home — might now get recruited by some of the most innovative companies in the country.
  • "Tech companies attract the best and the brightest, and they all move to Silicon Valley. But now those that don’t move there or can't move there could work for these big, potentially life-changing companies," says Desmond Dickerson, the author of Cognizant's report.

Cities could change — dramatically.

  • "This is a gift for big cities," Murph says. Population booms in places like San Francisco and New York have sent rents soaring and driven millions out. Some deurbanization fueled by the rise of remote working could ease the pain in these metros.
  • Telework at scale — the way Twitter and Square are offering — could also help the environment. Global carbon emissions have dropped 17% due to pandemic lockdowns.

The bottom line: "There's no putting this genie back in the bottle," says Murph.

  • Even while working from home in the worst conditions — during a global health crisis, while taking care of children, and isolated from friends and family — many workers have gotten used to the new way of life.
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