Remote work can work out for the best

It could make people happier and more productive, while benefiting environment and infrastructure

Remote work could even increase productivity, by reducing the number of hours wasted by employees trying to look busy for their bosses. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(BLOOMBERG) - The Covid-19 pandemic has crushed the economy, sent joblessness soaring and killed over a million people worldwide. But there are a few ways in which it may prompt society to improve, and one is remote work.

Though it was initially necessary to keep employees from getting sick, remote work promises to make people more productive and happier while helping the environment and preserving infrastructure.

When the coronavirus struck, those who could do their jobs remotely often did. The numbers have gradually declined as our understanding of safety measures increased, but they are still substantial. And while many people will go back to the office after the pandemic is over, part of the shift will probably be permanent.

A recent survey shows a substantial increase in the number of workers who say they will not return to the office full-time. There are certainly drawbacks to the remote trend.

Those working from home are far more likely to be higher-income professionals such as engineers, lawyers, financiers or consultants.

Most lower-income jobs cannot be done remotely, such as those in the food service and brick-and-mortar retail sectors. That has created inequality in terms of both unemployment and exposure to Covid-19.

And when high-income workers become accustomed to staying home and ordering online instead of going out to eat and shop, it is the lower-earning local service workers who bear the brunt of the shift in demand.

The trend has also taken a psychological toll.

People who work remotely often end up putting in more hours than when they go into the office. With the boundary between job and home life blurred, there is no obvious signal that it is okay to stop working, which can make it hard to relax.

As any graduate student or entrepreneur can attest, the nagging anxiety of whether you should be working more can easily lead to burnout.

But there are good reasons to think that these negative effects will be mostly transitory. As shown in countries that have dealt successfully with Covid-19, engineers and lawyers will go back to restaurants and shop at stores when the pandemic is over.

While a few industries - such as cinemas - may suffer permanent decline, home delivery is not a true substitute for most retail experiences.

Psychological stress will probably also ebb as the Covid-19 threat eases.

People who work remotely will develop strategies to segment their jobs from their personal lives, and budget their time in ways that leave them less anxious. Professors, writers and others whose jobs have always been semi-remote show that this can be done.

Most workers will eventually alternate between home and the office.

This kind of part-time remote work promises to bring substantial benefits to society. Flexibility will add to work-life balance - if a working parent needs to stay home to take care of a sick child or supervise home repairs, they will be able to do that without sacrificing income or productivity.

Vacations will be easier, too. Remote work could even increase productivity, by reducing the number of hours wasted by employees trying to look busy for their bosses.

Remote work will also benefit American society economically.

Fewer days in the office means less time spent commuting. A recent blog post by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis looked at falling commute times in three suburban counties and calculated that about one million to 1.5 million hours were probably saved in each county between April and July.

Going forward, the amount saved will be less, but still substantial.

Long commutes are associated with unhappiness, so more days spent working at home will make for an emotionally healthier populace. It will also save workers money and reduce wear and tear on the nation's crumbling road infrastructure. Reduced greenhouse emissions will be yet another plus.

To maximise the benefits from the shift to remote work, government policy should aim to ease the transition. Since more people will be toiling out of their homes instead of in an office building, cities should change zoning codes to facilitate the conversion of commercial real estate to residential.

The government can also subsidise service workers' move to new neighbourhoods to follow high-income jobs, since that is where the new demand will be. It can also help retrain people displaced by long-term shifts in demand (such as the decline of cinemas).

And it can gather information from big companies that successfully managed a shift to partial remote work, and share those strategies with small businesses that might otherwise have a tougher time managing the transition.

In the long run, especially with smart policies, more flexible work arrangements will be a good thing.

Covid-19 has wreaked terrible damage on society, but in this small way it will end up moving things in a healthier direction.

• The writer is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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