Work-from-home : a longer term view

As we settle into a prolonged pandemic, there is recurrent talk of work-from- home becoming the norm: and until the pandemic subsides (or until good treatment is found for COVID 19), there is little doubt that work-from-home will remain popular and necessary.

But what of the longer term?

Work-from-home will never be the norm

First, work-from-home will never be the norm : even at the height of the pandemic, about 60 to 65% of workers did not work from home. It is only office workers (those most likely to write articles and blogs on the topic) who think that work-from-home is now generalized! Hospital, logistic, grocery, police, education… and many other workers would find the idea absurd.

So, any person reading this who doubts my assertion should closely consider the evidence upon which they base their idea. If one is an office worker one’s evidence will typically consist of other office workers (who, I am well aware, have massively – but not exclusively – pivoted towards working from home).

Work from home is not necessarily more effective

Second, although certain organizations (such as the Canadian federal government) are arranging for some of their employees to work long-term from home, private companies should be wary. When the pandemic subsides (and it will, one day…), work-from-home will only continue if it is more effective than working in an office. If companies are less profitable or provide a poorer service with remote employees, then work-from-home will not continue as it is during the pandemic.

Why would work-from-home be less effective than work in an office? Team building, impromptu exchanges, brainstorming, corporate culture, social trust, tacit knowledge exchange – all are difficult (if not impossible) to generate over Zoom. Video-conferencing is good for meetings with clear agendas and for instrumental interactions, but less so for other types of information exchange and knowledge generation.

Thus, a compromise, with a few days at home (for focused work) and a few in the office (for all those critical but less tangible interactions that make organizations run) is the likely outcome – an outcome that was already well on the way to being implemented before the pandemic, but which the crisis has accelerated.

Social segregation and work from home

The last point I will make is more general. What type of society will we live in if each individual can spend 100% of their time at home or in their own narrow social and ideological silos? This is a problem that has been growing since the advent of internet and social media, which facilitate each person finding entertainment and interlocutors who reinforce existing biases. The workplace (both as a place to work, but also as a place to meet and interact with clients and suppliers) remains one of the few places where one is obliged to seek compromise and co-habitation with people different to us.

In terms of urban processes, it is well known that during daytime social mixing in neighbourhoods is far higher than at nighttime. That is because people from many different backgrounds converge on job centres, but at night retreat to relatively segregated residential neighbourhoods. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture of job centres. Economic activities, even if they occur in the same neighbourhood, remain segregated: but at least in the workplace and its neighbourhood one is exposed to many different (and non-curated) people.

If work-from-home becomes the norm for our elites (because it will never be the norm for many manual, retail and personal service workers, nor for those who live in small apartments, abusive relationships, etc…) these elites will become even more disconnected from society than they already are.

photo: Tom Baugis, https://www.flickr.com/photos/35342879@N00/3650241176

Conclusion: work-from-home as the norm is over-hyped and probably to be avoided

The last point, unlike the first two, does not make the argument that work-from-home may be a little over-hyped. Rather, it suggests that work-from-home may participate in far-wider social problems if it does become the norm.

I think (and hope?) that the first two points carry the day: should I be mistaken, then I foresee far wider issues with work-from-home than slightly dysfunctional organizations.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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