As the COVID pandemic drags on, there is debate over whether – and, if so, how – workers will return to the office. PwC’s announcement this week that its 40 000 employees can henceforth work remotely has brought this question to the fore.
Many commentators – as well as some prominent firms – suggest that office work1 will be performed remotely in the future. If they are correct, then this has major repercussions for cities, notably for downtown areas and suburban office centres, which rely on in-bound workers : they occupy offices, and are customers for stores, entertainment, bars and restaurants.
Is the office dead? Here are a few points to consider.
1- Before the pandemic, many jobs were already remote
Many accountants and consultants, as well as certain specialists, analysts and programmers, rarely showed up at corporate offices before the pandemic.
These are jobs of two sorts. First, jobs that require the consultant to work with the client. Second, jobs that require specific skills, applicable in a similar way anywhere they are needed (such as programming or writing global market reports). It is employers of these types of worker, such as PwC, that are making moves towards more permanent remote work. They are effectively ‘officialising’ practices that were already common before the pandemic, and to which cities were already adapting.
Note, however, that consultants usually work at clients’ offices – so offices are still part of the equation. Note, also, that certain people – a minority (see the next point) – probably thrive as they focus on narrow highly specialised technical jobs, without much concern for other people: these are highly competent a-social ‘nerds’ – for want of a better term – for whom remote work is ideal.
2- Work – and humans – are social
Notwithstanding the possibility of remote work and the undeniable existence of a-social nerds, will remote work catch? Are offices a thing of the past? Probably not.
One idea that pervades the remote work discourse is that each employee merely performs an isolated, circumscribed, function.
This idea misunderstands two things.
First, people are motivated to work not only because of an income, but because they identify and feel bonds with co-workers. These bonds structure their self-worth and identity.
Second, organisations function as organisations because of these social bonds: notwithstanding the individualism that pervades our economic and social imaginary, a well-functioning organisation is more than the sum of its individual workers.
Working in the same place – with the many informal bonds created through body-language, chats, sharing stories, sharing food … – makes organisations organisations rather than collections of atomised workers.
In the longer term, organisations that cohere, and in which employees know each other on an informal and more personal basis, will have an edge (e.g. in terms of creativity, innovation, resilience) over those that are atomised.
3- Inequality and the performance of organizations
Not everyone can work from home – indeed, most people, especially younger ones and those from more challenging family backgrounds, simply do not have the physical space to work comfortably, over the long term, from home.
Why should organizations care?
They could simply make it a pre-condition for employment that everyone must have adequate at-home facilities.
Some organizations will be genuinely concerned by these equity ramifications, and will attempt to alleviate them. But even those that are not concerned should ponder what it means to exclude many young people, many with larger families, many in unhappy relationships, from their pool of potential employees.
In the end, a huge number of skilled, dynamic and competent people will be edged out of the job market if employers decide to go remote. This will provide an advantage to those organizations which accommodate these people.
4- Legal considerations and the cost of space
What are the legal ramifications of people working from home?
If people choose to do so, presumably they choose to take on the risks and costs. But if an employer gives them no option, and has specific expectations about spaces their employees work from, who has legal responsibility for workplace stress? Injuries? Confidentiality? …
And who pays for the space? Accountants may be happy to move the cost of office space, electricity and cleaning off their balance sheets. But these costs will be borne by employees: will salaries rise commensurately?
This point relates to the previous one, but from a slightly different angle – that of costs and of legal ramifications – that has yet to be worked out (as debates over PwC’s threat to reduce the salaries of workers living in low cost locations illustrates).
(As a parenthesis, PwC’s move towards different income for the same work, a staple of racially- and gender-segregated workforces, highlights facinating questions about how salaries are set. They are not based on merit, nor on marginal productivity, it seems ! This deserves another post).
To sum up: the office will change, but is here to stay
The post-pandemic office workplace will differ from the pre-pandemic one. The pandemic has accelerated a trend towards remote work and the reorganisation of workspaces that has been underway for at least fifteen years.
Once we have learned to live with the virus, as we have learned to live with the flu, it is unlikely that the ‘model’ introduced by PwC and other corporations (such as Spotify) is indicative of the future of (most) office work.
These models may work for firms catering to on-line needs (such as Spotify, focussed upon Internet sales and marketing), or for firms whose employees are out of the office most of the time (like PwC): but they are unlikely to work for many organisations. Most organisations will probably offer their employees hybrid solutions (e.g. a couple of days at home per week), as well as spaces to work every day should employees want or need them.
1 It goes without saying that many jobs – indeed the vast majority of them (e.g. security, logistics, truck-driving, nursing, grocery shelf-stackers, home-cleaning, child-care, garbage collection, factory work, car repair….) – will never be remote. Any discussion of remote work is addressing a small (usually white collar and fairly priviledged) segment of the working population).