Dec 16, 2020 - Economy

A year of monumental change in the workplace

Animated illustration of a traffic light changing from red to yellow to green with work icons

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In less than a year, the pandemic shot us more than a decade ahead in the workplace transformation.

The big picture: The pandemic's acceleration of telecommuting has changed much more than the way we attend meetings. We'll see lasting impacts on company culture, the job market, demographics and cities.

Driving the news: There is no denying the staying power of remote work.

  • Around 80 million Americans will be working remotely in 2021, according to a new Upwork survey.
  • By 2025, that number will drop to around 38 million. But that's still an 85% increase in the number of teleworkers when compared with pre-pandemic levels, says Adam Ozimek, Upwork's chief economist.
  • "This is not just an adaptation we’re accepting for a single year," he says. "In the long run, a significant share of the workforce is going to be fully remote."

Nine months in, here's what we know about this rapid and massive shift to teleworking:

1. We're rethinking where we work and live.

  • Around 20 million Americans are planning to leave dense and costly metros like New York and San Francisco and move to cheaper cities.
  • Companies like Oracle, Hewlett Packard Enterprises and Tesla have announced plans to move headquarters out of California.
  • In big cities, office vacancies are reaching unprecedented levels, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But, but, but: The pandemic won't kill the modern office.

  • The majority of workers won't be remote full-time. For example, Google just extended its remote work timeline to September 2021, but rejected the idea of permanent remote work and told employees they should live within commuting distance so they can come to the office at least part-time.
  • Cities will still be the center of business activity, says Julie Whelan of the commercial real estate firm CBRE. Look for "third workplaces" to gain popularity after the pandemic, she says. People might not want to go to the office, but they won't want to stay home either and might choose a coffee shop or co-working space instead.

2. What matters to us at work is changing.

After months away from the office, in-person perks like free snacks or stunning city views don't matter as much.

  • People increasingly care about company culture and belonging, and that will be a key factor in firms' abilities to recruit and retain talent.
  • Nearly a fifth of U.S. workers say their companies aren't doing enough to make employees feel connected, and those who say their companies aren't doing enough are twice as likely to say they feel burned out, according to an employee sentiment survey conducted by Glint and provided to Axios.
  • Companies that don't address culture and burnout issues will have a tough time maintaining productivity in 2021.

3. Companies have accelerated their adoption of workplace technology.

"The average company has increased their use of technology in six months what they otherwise would have done in six years," says Alexandra Levit, an author and an expert on the workplace.

  • It's not just tech that facilitates remote work, like messaging apps or video calling platforms, she says.
  • The pandemic has pushed companies to increase their adoption of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning as they attempt to conduct business while minimizing human-to-human contact.
  • Firms are also incorporating new forms of surveillance technology in the name of safety.

4. We have more workplace flexibility.

  • Getting dressed up for work seems superfluous now, and people have ditched business formal — and even business casual — for loungewear.
  • After the pandemic exposed the stresses working parents quietly deal with, companies are weighing alternatives to the 9–5, five-day workweek.

The bottom line: The pandemic will be remembered as the great accelerant. These are all trends that were coming, "but they would have taken several more years to kick in," says Levit.

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