Working From Home During the COVID Year
For so many New York City residents in early March 2020, life was humming along despite the news of the seemingly distant COVID-19 outbreak. Normalcy was the order of the day with busy streets, packed subways, and fully staffed offices; the idea that New York City could potentially be at the mercy of a pandemic seemed like a plot from a science fiction novel. But when the coronavirus inevitably reached our shores and city and state shutdown orders came in quick succession, corporate offices shuttered, and the workforce rapidly pivoted to working remotely. Like many residents of New York and other major U.S cities, I left the densely populated urban lifestyle behind for the relative safety of the suburbs. I wouldn’t return to the city for an entire year; working from home (WFH) was suddenly the new normal.
Corporate America 2.0
Before the crisis, 17 percent of U.S. employees worked from home five days or more per week, a share that increased to 44 percent during the pandemic. Practically overnight, the crisis accelerated the trend of remote work, as quarantines and lockdowns made commuting and working in an office next to impossible. WFH provided a solution, with specialized technology allowing workers to remain connected with colleagues and clients. By summer, with the U.S. now the epicenter of the pandemic, most American office workers by necessity had settled into WFH mode, with the idea of returning to the office an incredibly remote possibility.
Goodbye Suits, Hello Sweats
Despite its advantages, namely the time and cost savings from the lack of a commute and the by-default casual dress code, most workers reported that WFH was a mixed bag in terms of quality of life. Although many noted higher levels of productivity due to the nonexistent barrier between home and work, reported work/life balance levels among workers – not surprisingly – plummeted. With schools and daycare centers closed, workers had to juggle home and work responsibilities simultaneously, and often in home office setups that were less than ideal for focus and productivity. But Harvard Business Review researchers found in a home productivity study an unexpected correlation between increased work activity and job satisfaction: [the] lockdown helped people focus on job tasks that really mattered. They spent 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners. The lockdown also helped people take responsibility for their own schedules. Reportedly, they did 50% more activities through personal choice and half as many because someone else asked them to do so. Finally, during the lockdown, people viewed their work as more worthwhile. Many saw their work as a stabilizing, consistent force that could be managed while the outside world was in massive flux.
The Future of Work
As we are beginning to see the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel, courtesy of mass vaccinations and prolonged social distancing, what is the future of work? In a word, hybrid.
As previously noted, the response to COVID-19 demonstrated that hybrid work models do not impede productivity. As a result, there is consensus among experts that different remote work models will persist once the pandemic wanes. Many employers see benefits to flexible working arrangements, chief among them generally positive responses to employee wellness surveys and reduced office space. Many employees also plan on working from home more often, with 25 percent of respondents to a recent survey expecting remote work as a benefit of employment.
According to PWC’s U.S. Remote Work Survey, the days of physically reporting to an office every day of the workweek are unlikely to resume once the pandemic ends. Knowledge workers have become accustomed to working remotely and splitting time between the office and home is expected to become not just an occasional privilege, but a widespread expectation. The question remains just what the new workweek will look like, which companies are continuing to evaluate. A frequent response has been the “3-2-2” model, or one where companies let employees work from home two or more days per week, with some opting for three days in the office, two days remote, and then the weekend off. Some employers may even cut down to a four-day work week altogether. Whatever the outcome, a quiet revolution in work life is clearly underway.
Some companies have already responded to that question by allowing WFH policies to continue indefinitely, primarily tech giants whose workers have often collaborated via video conferencing under normal circumstances. Facebook, Twitter, Square, Box, and Slack have already announced that workers can continue to work remote indefinitely, even after the coronavirus threat recedes. Other industries, such as law and finance, are more likely to request their workers back sooner, due to cultures that typically prioritize in-person interactions.
The Next Chapter
Whatever the industry, the case has been made that WFH policies can work, and that most workers don’t want to turn back. Prudential’s recent Pulse of the American Worker Survey noted that 42% of current remote workers said if their current company does not continue to offer remote work options, they will look for a job at a company that does. But it’s likely that even the more conservative industries will end up bowing to pressure based on wider trends and permit some type of hybrid work model going forward.
As the pandemic continues to wane, my own base of operations has since shifted back to New York City. How the workweek will look in two months, six months, even a year from now is certainly open to larger debate. For now, I am fortunate to have emerged from the experience healthy and with the confidence that my colleagues and I can rise to the challenge of an unprecedented business – and global – disruption.
 “Change In Remote Work Trends Due to COVID-19 in the U.S. in 2020,” Kimberly Mlitz, Statisa, April 9, 2021.
 “Research: Knowledge Workers Are More Productive from Home,” by Julian Birkinshaw, Jordan Cohen, and Pawel Stach, Harvard Business Review, August 2020.
 Op.Cit, Mlitz.
 “The 9-5 may soon become a 3-2-2,” Andrew Seaman, LinkedIn, January 2021.
 “These companies plan to make working from home the new normal. As in forever,” Rob McLean, CNN Business, June 2020.
 “Just because you can work from home doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to,” Rani Molla, Vox, April 2021.
 “Is a ‘Great Resignation’ Coming When Workers Go Back to the Office?” Josephine Nesbit, Yahoo Finance, May 2021.