As Europe struggles with the second wave of the virus and faces a new round of lockdowns, governments and businesses must ask themselves whether people will cope with more restrictions as well as they have striven to do so far.
For many white-collar workers, the pandemic has already made remote work the new normal. But for all of its advantages, like saving on commuting time, there is also a price to pay — one that increases the longer we are out of the office and not able to meet others in person. Not only does virtual and distanced working risk loneliness, it is also bound to reduce on-the-job learning, creativity and innovation — all of which are often tied to serendipitous encounters.
The case for having people work from home, if they can, is relatively straightforward. Governments and businesses have a joint interest in containing outbreaks to keep the pandemic in check. Politicians want to relieve pressure from the health-care system, while employers want to prevent disruptions to their workflow. Local authorities also want to limit the use of public transport to those who really need it. For employees, remote working means a smaller chance of catching the virus and spreading it to their own families.
The costs are harder to quantify. Several businesses simply can’t be run remotely. For occupations in which staying at home is an option, the impact on productivity remains an open question. A number of executives, such as Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co., had warned in September that efficiency was bound to suffer unless employees came back to the office. The evidence, however, is less negative: Although productivity for some businesses can suffer, employees seem to compensate for it by toiling longer hours. In some cases, efficiency actually increases when employees stay at home.
Unfortunately, lockdowns bring additional complications. For starters, when governments require most people to stay home, remote working is no longer a choice for one’s preferred work environment but an obligation. This becomes even more problematic when schools are also forced to close, as parents have to juggle work alongside taking care of their children and helping them with distance learning.
Another peril comes when compulsory work-from-home is protracted. For example, it may be relatively straightforward to carry on performing the same tasks you did in the office from your living room. But what about starting new tasks or improving processes, which at some point will need to happen?
It becomes much harder to organize and innovate when people can only exchange ideas through mostly scheduled phone calls and teleconferences. It’s even harder when dealing with new hires who are not used to a company’s culture and ways of working. As for the idea that boredom can spark genius, this may be true for a few lone writers or mathematicians, but it seems less relevant for larger organizations.
Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, gave a thoughtful speech last month, arguing that excessive working from home can have a damaging effect on two important aspects of professional life: creativity and developing social connections. “Whether it is creative sparks being dampened, existing social capital being depleted or new social capital being lost, these are real costs and costs which would be expected to grow, silently but steadily, over time,” Haldane said. He added that these disadvantages reduce the benefits of home-working and raise doubts over whether it can be a permanent solution for employers.
Haldane concluded that, as the pandemic recedes, the future will look like a combination of our past, in which clerical workers were always at the office, and our constrained present, in which they are stuck at home. The hope is to achieve some flexibility, for individuals to be able to choose where they work best. But it’s looking like this will have to wait until after winter. -Bloomberg