- - Tuesday, August 4, 2020

COVID-19 has disrupted work for most folks like no event since the mechanization of agriculture or Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, but it’s not terribly novel.

During most of the 19th century, most Americans worked where they lived — on farms and tradesmen and merchants quite near or above their shops. The modern factory and office, and trolley and automobile, made work a destination.

Then automation and globalization shrunk the manufacturing workforce and the laptop, Internet and smartphone freed many workers in technical, knowledge-based and creative activities to spend at least part of their workweek at home.

According to Gallup, the share of workers spending at least part of their worktime offsite was 39% in 2012 and 43% in 2016. With COVID-19 that surged to 70% in May but slipped back to 53% in July. That puts us generally on trend except that currently a larger share of offsite workers doesn’t go to the office at all — at least while the crisis lasts.

Businesses often report no loss in productivity, and the absence of distractions actually may boost productivity. However, it’s important to recognize that offices and desks in cubicles came into existence for good reasons that transcend the digitalization of information.

Having everyone in the same place much of the time promotes collaboration, joint problem solving, mentoring young employees and building unifying corporate cultures. The latter significantly determine how individuals address unexpected challenges and interact with customers, especially those requiring out-of-the-ordinary services.

COVID-19 is like a hurricane of uncertain duration and on a national scale. Workers are rising to the challenge both out of fear — if you don’t figure out how to do your job offsite you might not keep it — and that can do-spirit embedded in American DNA.

Around urban centers, many professionals live in the space they need but don’t have elaborate home offices. Younger colleagues are often balancing laptops while sitting on the bed with a printer on their nightstand.

Home Wi-Fi is hardly as quick or reliable as office ethernet systems and if software malfunctions, help can only be obtained via cellphone. When computers breakdown or large software patches are needed, workers must trudge back to the office if it is open.

More importantly, we can sprint for a while on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or similar software, because we have well established relationships with colleagues — a history of water cooler conversations and formal collaborations. Those will decay over time.

Integrating new workers and establishing trust with unfamiliar personalities would prove more daunting. Orientation classes without physical contact with veteran employees can make quite difficult duplicating the virtual collaboration the current crisis has produced.

Facebook, Twitter and CEOs in many other industries are looking forward to enabling more work from home. They see opportunities to offer flexibility to workers with children and long commutes, recruit workers even further away in lower cost locales at lower wages and perhaps rent less space.

However, employees cannot balance laptops sitting on beds indefinitely — they will develop all manner of ailments. Productive work may not require a corner office, but it does require a separate nest where employees have a decent desk and chair, photos of significant others and children, a few books and secret stash of Hershey bars (or whatever brand of culinary stress reliever they prefer).

Employees will need bigger living spaces to accommodate home offices, and that requires more pay. Offsite tech support will be more expensive than if provided at the office.

New projects, difficult design problems, exploiting new opportunities and addressing new competition will still require considerable face-to-face interaction. There’s lots of nuance in non-verbal signals that is not picked up on Zoom. Good managers that chair meetings — leaders who raise organizations to the next level — read those queues and know how to maximize that information to raise performance.

It’s going to be terribly expensive and a hassle to frequently bring engineers and marketers located near a ski slope in Utah or West Virginia to the West Coast or New York.

All this great technology will permit us to be more virtual — and not have to listen to the officemate who regularly bikes across Iowa or always catches the biggest fish. But we are still going to offices, just not as much.

I recall Walt Disney once saying his job was to walk around and encourage people to be creative. People must show up for the genuine prophets to inspire.

• Peter Morici, @pmorici1, is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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