For millions of people around the world working lives have been suddenly turned upside down. As offices, shops and other workplaces close in the face of a pandemic, for many it has meant insecurity and hope that public economic intervention will protect their jobs, for many others it means learning how to work differently.
Recent government pronouncements in many countries that all but ‘key workers’ should stay at home to avoid contact and help stop the spread of COVID-19, has caused an immediate need to rethink work. Those whose job revolves around the phone, computer and desk can often work from home and are being encouraged, and in many cases compelled, to do so. Many businesses have reduced themselves to minimal staff, cancelled events, and moved all meetings online using chat software such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. Today’s level of connectivity means that a huge amount of the world is interconnected wherever they are and do not need to be physically in the same work place to be performing their daily activities. This crisis has hugely accelerated a trend that was growing already, especially in service sectors of the economy, and established it, in a matter of days and weeks, as a new international norm. Day-by-day people are going through a rapid transition to work out new ways of doing their job from home.
In spite of “working from home” sometimes being used as a euphemism for avoiding work, it has been known for some time that homeworkers can have result in higher productivity. A 2017 Stanford University study by Professor Nicholas Bloom came up with data that surprised him about the benefits of working from home. The study focused on China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip, which had 16,000 employees and a very expensive HQ in an office block in Shanghai. The CEO, James Liang, was interested in giving employees the option to work-from-home in order to save money on rent, and because his employees had such long commutes to work that staff turnover was 50% per year – half the workforce.They randomly selected employees to work from home, coming in to join the rest of their team one day a week and still being managed in the same way, and the results were astonishing. There was a 13% improvement in overall performance (equivalent to more than half an extra day per week) and the “quit rate” dropped by 50%. The results were attributed to those at home working more full shifts than those commuting, because their concentration levels were much better. Offices are distracting environments in which many people find it hard to function at their best and less fatigue due to less travel may also have played a part.
There are of course drawbacks for many who may have poor or no internet connectivity, no mobile phone signal, small accommodation unsuited to concentration, and caring roles that make working at home difficult. But this period of an enforced re-thinking of work could have longer term implications as many realise they can perform well without an expensive and polluting commute. It may force us to innovate and work our way around some of the issues to home working.
Recent research in the US confirmed anecdotal evidence that women still do far more planning, organising and thinking for the whole household than men. This is amplified if the woman is the main breadwinner. Mothers with jobs that provide their family’s major source of income are also two to three times more likely to be managing the household and children’s schedules than ‘bread-winning’ fathers, and more than 30 percent more likely than other working mothers to be taking care of everything from family finances to organising family vacations. Perhaps as home and work demarcation lines blur and “work” becomes more transparent, the relative importance and value of each job can be viewed afresh with more home tasks being equally shared.
The radical changes being made to our daily working lives are also having a big impact on the planet in other ways that illustrate the possibilities of rapid transition: the huge reduction in travel shows how much of it is currently discretionary or (as government warnings put it that are designed to reduce contact and hence the spread of virus) ‘unnecessary’ travel. As a consequence, immediate improvements in air and water quality happen. There is also a growing realisation that our local community becomes important when we are trapped at home and cannot be supported physically by family or distant friends. We may instead be reliant suddenly on a neighbouring stranger, which will shape new relationships and build community trust for the post-pandemic world. We will be examining these issues in detail in future case studies.
Today’s challenging environment is particularly interesting because it is enabling some radical trials to be carried out quickly and with a high level of self-enforcement. On the whole, people are following the rules and making sweeping changes that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago. Like a huge demonstration of ‘action learning’, this reveals examples of how rapid transition might work on the ground, in real time as a living experiment. It also shows that systemic changes at the societal level are possible within very short time frames.
There are several precedents for sudden shifts in working patterns, often in response to economic shocks like the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008. These too have revealed sometimes surprising benefits. Working from home figures are hard to quantify globally, but 2018 figures for the US show that 5 million employees (3.6% of the workforce) work at home half-time or more and that regular working at home has grown in scale by 173% since 2005, and at a rate 11% faster than the rest of the workforce (which grew 15%).
These figures show how enormous the current shift is in taking a majority of workers out of the workplace and this may generate additional benefits. A reduction in commuting time could help income inequality for those currently commuting long distances to office jobs. Generally speaking, people on lower incomes have longer commutes into cities, because higher rent and house prices keep them outside prime centre areas. This is amplified at the country level – nearly 91% of people in high-income countries live within one hour of a city, compared to almost 51% of people in low-income countries. Of course, many low-paid jobs are manual and cannot be done remotely. These people will suffer a much more immediate loss of income and status. In wealthy countries, their pay may be replaced or topped up, but in poorer states they may be left to fend for themselves. Ironically, some caring roles, which have historically been low paid and low status, are now being acknowledged as key worker roles – such as social care for elderly and vulnerable people.
The Stanford research also revealed what happened after the study ended. The CEO rolled-out to the whole company the option to work from home and people made their own decisions according to: their need to concentrate, their need to interact and their home circumstances. More than half the volunteer group changed their minds about working from home 100 percent of the time – they felt too isolated. But by trusting people to make their own choices, performance went up by 24% – those who chose to work from home really flourished in the right environment.
Trust has been an issue that slowed the uptake of home working; people tending not to believe that those at home work as hard- despite the fact that it is hard to see if someone is actually working even when they are in the office, unless a manager looks over their shoulder continually. Research also reveals that employees in workplaces around the world are not actually at their desks 50% to 60% of the time. Managers who have worked at home themselves are more likely to endorse it for others, because their worries about lost productivity become less. This current extended period of home working as the new norm could increase levels of trust at work, decreasing stress for many at the same time.
Home working will also make savings for many employers that might enable them to keep businesses open until the crisis ends. A US analysis estimates that a typical employer can save about $11,000 a year for every person who works remotely half of the time and that employees can save between $2,500 and $4,000 a year (working remotely half the time) – primarily due to reduced costs for travel, parking and food. This could increase if they are able to move to a less expensive area and work remotely full time. The research goes further to estimate that the annual environmental impact of half-time remote work (for those who both want to work remotely and have a compatible job) would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire NY State workforce off the road.
In the early 1800s, just under 10% of the developed world lived in cities and only 3% of the world’s total population. The industrial revolution changed all that for many countries as factory owners required large numbers of workers on site each day to run machinery and make products at scale. This established the tradition of people working away from their homes during the day; before that, excepting some types of seasonal agricultural labour, most work was done near or in the home, with only itinerant trades travelling to ply their wares. Daily hours gradually reduced as workers’ rights improved, leaving us with today’s “nine-to-five, five days a week” description of a normal day. Of course, this is still far from normal for many workers who do shift work, multiple jobs, work part time or work for free (volunteers and many carers).
Urbanisation has changed things rapidly. By 1900, 14% of the world’s population lived in urban areas and twelve cities had populations exceeding one million. Just fifty years later, in 1950, the world’s urban population had doubled to 30% and the number of cities over 1 million numbered eighty-three. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the number of cities with populations over one million tops four hundred. By 2030, almost two-thirds of the world’s population is projected to be urban. The number of megacities—cities with populations over 10 million—rose from three in 1975 to sixteen in 2000, and is expected to reach twenty-seven by 2025 (Population Reference Bureau, 2012). Big cities means more commuting and according to analysis of EU statistics, the inhabitants of capital cities often had the longest journeys to and from work (in terms of the average time taken). Those living in and around the EU’s biggest cities can spend a considerable amount of their lives commuting between home and work. For example, commuters in Paris spent an average of 39 minutes for their journey time to work (2010 data). Over 3.6 million Americans commuted more than 90 mins each day in 2014, which amounted to 31.3 days per year spent commuting. Multiply that by 3.6 million workers and you reach 1.8 billion hours of potential productivity – the time-equivalent of 900,000 full-time jobs.
Some analysts are predicting that we may see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis within the next two years once the current crisis has ended. Based on the figures above, this could mean huge savings in resources, reductions in pollution and increases in well being. There is also a small but impactful group of super-commuters, who have in recent years been commuting much longer distances – usually by air – to take advantage of cheaper real estate. Experts estimate there could be hundreds of thousands of super-commuters worldwide, made possible in large part because of technological advances and the proliferation of low-cost airlines. These people will have been forced largely to stay at home during this crisis and it will be interesting to see if this trend withers away.
The current transition to home working has been abrupt but largely accepted because of the sense of emergency in the face of a global health pandemic, with governments, the media and key workers asking others to stay away in order to keep them safe and enable them to carry on with their work. This powerful argument has created strong social cohesion and pressure to conform. The move has obviously been easier for those in secure, full-time, well paid office work, where their employers can continue to pay them and where they can function sufficiently well to continue their role from home. Even in a superpower, the picture is mixed: nearly 29% of US workers said they could work from home in 2017-2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Half of workers in management, business and financial operations said they did at least some work at home, and 38% of workers in “professional related” jobs could do so. But only 5% of workers in the service sector and 7.4% in maintenance and repair said they could work at home. Repairing a car, replacing a bandage or making a cup of tea cannot yet be done remotely.
The roll-out of technology, high speed internet and smartphones has also made this possible in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Virtual meeting systems are free and easy to use, and likely to be used by today’s 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world – 45.12% of the world’s population. 5.17 billion people have a mobile device of some kind – that’s 66.77% of the world’s population. And by 2025, 72% of all internet users will solely use smartphones to access the web. This still leaves a huge number of people struggling to access what others take for granted.