It’s hard to recall now, but when COVID forced millions of office dwellers to set up shop in their bedrooms and kitchens, the workforce collectively shuddered with angst. Many people accustomed to donning, uh, pants and cherishing the commute for its podcast-listening opportunities wondered if they could focus on their jobs with the kids and pets underfoot, a Netflix binge or disco nap beckoning, and snacks and booze always just a few steps away. Yet, like so much else, most Americans made the adjustments as the pandemic months flew by; those distractions could be overcome, it turns out, by gratitude to still be employed amid the wider economic hellscape.
Now an awful lot of us really love working from home — and that shift in attitude will have a major, permanent impact on how and where we do our jobs long after the defeat of the coronavirus. “There is no putting this back in the bottle,” says Dave Cohen, 33, a computer coder in Sterling Heights who, in November, landed a job with a Houston-based tech firm that required all employees to live near the office prior to COVID. “For some jobs, it is going to be really hard for employers to explain why everyone has to be in one place every day after we managed pretty well for more than a year on Slack, Zoom, and laptops.”
Data appears to back up those views. A survey by Upwork, an online marketplace where freelancers can seek gigs, found 56 percent of hiring managers believed remote working has gone better than they expected, and 32.2 percent said productivity has increased. GM CEO Mary Barra echoed this in a recent Wall Street Journal article where she’s quoted as being so impressed by the fact that vehicle developers and designers have worked seamlessly during COVID that “many of the things that they’ve done, I believe we can now permanently put in place.”
“I had a conversation with a financial advisor company in Ann Arbor today and the candidate they’re seeking asked to be able to work from home, so I got into discussion with the employer about it,” says Bill Wednieski, managing director of The Headhunters, a Michigan recruiting firm. “The owner of that firm is fine with some work from home, maybe Mondays and Fridays, and work in the office Tuesday through Thursday. Pre-COVID, that was not possible.”
Carolyn Billetdeaux, who works on the team focused on sustainability practices for a global company, has saved an hour a day by not commuting from her home in Ypsilanti and expects to be able to continue to work remotely after the pandemic. “Before COVID, it was an open-shut case — working from home as a general policy was a no-go. But as we see people able to do our jobs better, it’s making HR more open to it,” she says. “It’s moving to less a blanket policy and more empowering managers and leaders to make the call for what’s right for their department.”
Employers also are realizing that allowing for remote work is vastly expanding the pool of
potential talent. Billetdeaux says her firm is looking far and wide for summer interns this year because they’re “no longer geographically limited to qualified candidates.”
They’re also realizing they may be able to offer lower salaries for some of those employees both because there’s more competition for the jobs and because they are allowing workers to live in other, often less expensive locales. “From a management standpoint, I’m giving you the ability to work from home, so you don’t have to commute, you don’t have to dress up, all that, but I’m headquartered in San Francisco, which is one of the highest cost-areas in the United States,” says Ken Huxley, a vice president at Strategic Staffing Solutions, a national recruitment firm with an office in Detroit. “Do I really need to pay Ken, who sits in San Antonio, the same as I would if I hired him to come live in San Francisco?”
That geographic flexibility also is prompting many people to make decisions about moving that will last long after COVID subsides. Upwork says some 23 million households plan to move to more affordable cities because of the surge in remote work. But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic; Priscilla Cortez, a clinical social worker and therapist, moved from an apartment she shared with a roommate in Ypsilanti to live alone in a condo because there wasn’t enough space for her to conduct video sessions in private.
“It’s a big change for me that I made because part of me thinks some dimension of this kind of work is not going to go away,” says Cortez, 32, who also has been able to take on freelance clients because health insurers are now willing to pay for virtual therapy.
Obviously, most people will return to offices — and some quite gladly for the daily respite from the family and longing for socialization with colleagues. Even the rosiest predictions for working from home only project that about one-quarter of Americans will be doing it by the end of 2021, according to Upwork data. Yet the same survey expects some 36 million people to be working remotely by 2025, an 87 percent jump from pre-COVID levels.
“It’ll be exciting to see what the workforce structure looks like in five years, when the pandemic is in the past somewhat,” Huxley says. “It’s certainly opened up a whole new opportunity for both businesses and employees.”