The pandemic led to perhaps the most rapid change in the history of modern work. Much of the country’s 4 billion square feet of office space has sat empty since COVID hit. Last summer, about 44 percent of American workers were able to telework, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Wall Street Journal reported in November that less than a quarter of them had returned to offices.
Many employers concerned about costs and workers’ health have made the short-term decision to divest themselves of their office space contracts. In New York, for example, office lease renewals hit a 20-year low in 2020, and the value of commercial office space fell 15.6 percent. Meanwhile, Microsoft Teams usage jumped 50 percent in just six months and Zoom now boasts 350 million meeting participants each day.
A portion of office capacity should recover, post-vaccine. Some people—especially those new to the workforce or who’ve switched careers—want and need to connect and engage in informal networking. But for now, many companies will ride out the pandemic remotely. Google won’t return to the office until September, and employers like Facebook and Shopify are providing stipends of up to $2,000 for home office supplies.
While some businesses have worked to help employees in higher-risk roles—Lowe’s, for example, offered $300 bonuses and a 14-day emergency leave policy for hourly associates—COVID has exacerbated inequalities across the workforce. Last summer, workers with at least a bachelor’s degree were nearly three times as likely as those with a high school diploma to be able to telework. Furthermore, people with fewer financial resources are more likely to get COVID based on their work environment.
The pandemic has also inflamed gender inequality and shined a light on the childcare and schooling needs of more than 60 million working families. Despite being 7 percent more likely than men to telework, women left the workforce at four times the rate of their male colleagues in September when the school year began.
There have been some bright spots, however. Few DC workers miss their pre-pandemic commute, which averaged 43 minutes. But despite the time savings for remote workers, many struggle to establish boundaries and rituals—called micro-transitions— that delineate work and home. While employees have remained productive during the pandemic, there is danger of a crash if they don’t strike a healthy balance between work and home.
To avoid burnout among workers, employers must redefine “productivity.” Companies can offer workers flexibility by rethinking the traditional 9–5 workday and allowing them to accomplish their tasks and duties in a way that complements the demands of their homelife. Bottom line: Investment in employee health and technology will lead to a happier workforce that meaningfully contributes to company performance.