May 5, 2020 - Economy & Business

The new working world

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus crisis has triggered indelible shifts in the way America works.

The big picture: The pandemic is accelerating the onset of new trends in work — toward telecommuting, new office layouts and a different work-life balance. And we’re already seeing signs that these effects will outlast the crisis.

Teleworking has taken over. Many of us are entering the second full month of working from home — and growing steadily accustomed to that lifestyle. “Remote work has gone from an HR-level discussion to a C-suite-level discussion,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School.

  • Staggering stat: Before the pandemic, less than 4% of American employees worked from home full time.
  • Now, that has jumped to more than half, per Brookings. Among the top 20% of earners — who are more likely to have desk jobs that can be done from anywhere — that share is closer to 70%.
  • Not all of those people will immediately — or ever — go back to their offices when states reopen.
  • With many companies directing employees to work from home for the rest of the summer (or longer), lots of people are leaving urban hotspots, where coronavirus cases are concentrated, Axios' Kim Hart reports. If the trend sticks, it will start to reverse a century-long move toward urbanization.
  • “Remote work is going to increase dramatically” after the crisis abates, says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “There’s a demonstration effect that this current crisis is producing: It’s showing that work can be done from home.”

Families are changing. Suddenly, Americans are doing their jobs, schooling their children, and spending family time in the same space. Despite the inevitable tensions, these months of togetherness could strengthen family ties for years to come.

  • Several families tell Axios they plan to cook more meals at home or do more arts and crafts with kids after the pandemic — incorporating crisis-era practices into normal life.
  • On the other hand, many working parents are more exhausted than ever, now that they have no break from either set of responsibilities — and no clear end in sight.

Workspaces are transforming. The offices workers eventually return to won't look like those they left in March.

  • Tightly packed conference rooms and co-working spaces will — at least temporarily — give way to spread-out office layouts that allow for social distancing.
  • And as a greater share of Americans work remotely, look for builders of new houses to give more thought to the home office (which has the added perk of being tax-deductible).

The bottom line: It's still too early to gauge the extent of coronavirus' impacts on work, but the changes it's already creating have implications for everything from how we conduct meetings with colleagues to how we file income taxes to the nature of our lunch breaks.

  • Says Sawhill: "Humans are creatures of habit, and right now we’re forming new habits."

This story is from the inaugural edition of Erica Pandey's Axios @Work newsletter. Sign up here.

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