Jul 28, 2020 - Economy

The back-to-work puzzle

Illustration of a sliding puzzle of a briefcase.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

With an unending list of factors to consider — including the safety of air-conditioning systems, the risk of using public transportation, schools' reopening schedules and the needs of high-risk employees — the back-to-work puzzle is getting increasingly difficult to solve.

The big picture: At first, companies were pleasantly surprised at how well telecommuting worked, with many firms — including Twitter — saying they might go remote forever. Now, about four months in, remote work doesn't seem so great anymore.

  • Companies are saying that projects take longer, hiring and recruiting talent is tougher, and integrating new employees — especially younger ones without a ton of workforce experience — is difficult, the Wall Street Journal's Chip Cutter writes.
  • "While working from home may not be great, the office is also not a great option. Masks, temperature checks, hand-washing and distancing all make it a far less productive and pleasant experience than pre-COVID," Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford, says. "In the shorter run, working from home is really a lesser of two evils."

Around 82% of workers predict they'll return to work within 18 months, per a Xerox Future of Work survey of people in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Canada. Firms are trying out several different strategies to make that transition as smooth as they can.

Google set a precedent this week by saying it'll have employees work from home until July 2021.

  • That doesn't mean Google thinks the public health crisis won't have gotten any better by next summer. It's about giving employees the time to plan ahead, instead of giving them return dates that keep getting pushed back.
  • The remaining tech giants, along with companies in other industries, are likely to follow Google's lead.
  • "One of the ways to deal with this moving target is to remove as much uncertainty as possible" by extending work-from-home guidance for many months, says Manny Medina, CEO of the tech company Outreach. His company will be remote through the end of January at least.

Some companies tried to go back, but they ended up sending employees home once again due to local coronavirus flare-ups.

  • Sequoia Consulting Group welcomed workers back to its Tempe, Arizona, offices in mid-June when the state opened up. But less than two weeks later, they decided to close down again.
  • "We very much had an in-office culture," and the goal is to bring everyone back, Steve Kim, Sequoia's chief legal officer, tells Axios. "It just felt more comfortable to err on the side of safety."

The other side: While most companies are trying to figure out how to return, don't underestimate the extent to which the coronavirus will accelerate a move toward telecommuting.

  • Around 20% of workdays will be from home in the post-pandemic world, compared to 5% pre-pandemic and 40% during, according to a study by Stanford's Bloom.

Jill Bishop, who runs Multilingual Connections, a Chicago-based small business that offers translations and transcriptions, says, "No one wants to come back. They want to come in for the communication and the social side, but their ideal is to stay where they are for the majority of their workweeks."

  • Her company is trying to get out of its office lease.

Go deeper: When going back to work isn't safe

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