Market Analysis

The Pandemic May Have Changed Work Culture Forever

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ― C.S. Lewis

WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN JUST 10 WEEKS IS DIFFICULT TO FATHOM

The Pandemic that is Covid-19 has permanently altered the way we work. There will be no way to go back to the work-life we all knew in February – just 10 weeks ago. As of this writing, worldwide there have been 5,331,427 infected cases of Covid-19 and 340,566 deaths from Covid-19. The United States has sustained the most pain from the virus; tallying 1,645,646 cases and 97,663 deaths. Unfortunately, the daily cases are not showing clear signs of abating. In fact, the daily cases reported May 22 were the highest ever at 107,716 new cases worldwide (chart below).

The change in work behavior has been dramatic. A recent Gallup poll showed that the percentage of Americans working from home doubled from mid-March to early April 2020. The chart below shows that number jumping from 31% to 62% in about 3 weeks. Also, "Three-fifths of people working from home said they'd like to keep doing so once the crisis is over."

What does this mean for work-life going forward? With expectations of a vaccine not until mid or late 2021, but people trying to normalize now, how will companies and workers create safe and acceptable ways of doing business?

BIG CO'S ARE MAKING ANNOUNCEMENTS AND PLANS

In May, CNBC reported that "Twitter has said that employees have the option of never coming back to the office to work, while Facebook Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Salesforce.com Inc., and Slack Technologies Inc. have said they don't expect workers back in the office until 2021 — if then." It is believed that Twitter's announcement will ripple through TECH and many other industries.

Many believe that remote technology has proven itself in the past 10 weeks. "It's hard to not see 20% to 40% of our workforce be remote," Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told MarketWatch in an interview Thursday (5/14/20). We need to make real-estate decisions long in advance, two to three years, and are in the speculative conversation now if we have 30%, 40% fewer desks," Butterfield said in discussing conversations he was having with fellow Slack executives this week. "We may make the office more of a hotel."

"U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April than in the same two months a year ago through cloud-based business tools, chat applications, and email, according to an analysis of 100 million data points from 30,000 Americans by workplace-monitoring company Prodoscore." "I was pretty wrong about this. I thought productivity was going to plunge, but it has been very good," Okta Inc. CEO Todd McKinnon OKTA, -1.19% added, as the company considers a new dynamic work initiative. He said he could see Okta following Twitter's path "until there is a vaccine or a treatment."

"Some elements of this work-from-home scenario will not go away," Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said during a conference call with analysts Wednesday following the company's quarterly earnings announcement. For example, Webex hosted more than 20 billion meeting minutes in April, compared with 14 billion in March and 7 billion in February.

"The pandemic has created a permanent shift in the way people are working, and while not every organization will go 100% work from home forever, there will certainly be more support for virtualized environments," Vonage Holdings CEO Alan Masarek.

Of course, there is a stark divide among those who can and will work remotely and those businesses and, therefore, workers who count on NOT working remotely. The use of commercial real estate and public transit are likely to decline dramatically. Restaurants, bars, entertainment, sporting events, and gathering spots, in general, may be endangered. There will be dramatic changes in transportation. Will people return to Uber and Lyft or taxis? The use of airplanes, trains, and busses may decline, while the use of individual cars may skyrocket. There are winners and losers all along the spectrum.

WSJ/Marketwatch reported that "Gartner last week released results from a March 30 survey of 317 CFOs and business finance leaders that found 74 percent of those surveyed expect at least 5 percent of their workforce who previously worked in company offices will become permanent work-from-home employees after the pandemic ends. According to Gartner, about 25 percent of those surveyed expect 10 percent of their employees will remain remote, 17 percent expect 20 percent will remain remote, 4 percent expect 50 percent will remain remote, and 2 percent expect over 50 percent of employees now working from home to permanently work from home after the pandemic subsides."

The effects of the Pandemic will not easily be reversed and may cause an acceleration of a remote work trend.

PRODUCTIVITY

As soon as technology (the internet and computers) became powerful and fast enough to make it possible, a lot of employees have been expressing the desire to work at home or, at the very least remotely, to avoid the time, energy, and expense of commuting 5 days a week. Employers have, however, claimed for decades that workers would not be as productive at home due to lack of structure, distractions, less interaction with peers, the difficulty in receiving consistent guidance from management, insufficient access to the necessary tools and system, and just plain laziness. Now, there is a possibility that new technologies (Zoom, etc…) and the Covid-19 experiment may have dovetailed in such a way to show why working from home with the right tools can be productive and provide balance.

Ravi Gajendran, an organizational psychologist at Florida International University, believes the Covid-19 experience may be an important inflection point in the debate over working remotely. "This is going to change the conversation," he says. "You'll have a larger swath of employees who are going to say, 'We did it then, we can do it again.' … And managers are going to find it harder to say no." He admits that for employees to really work remotely efficiently, however, businesses are going to have to reinvent and recommit to those kinds of systems, no matter what comes of the strange work conditions created by Covid-19. "Telecommuting is like any work arrangement or any work practice," he says. "If the ecology is set up right, the practice can be successful."

In addition to making workers happy and perhaps achieving the same or better productivity, there are also huge potential savings of remote working. Beyond the benefits that have already been observed around major metropolitan areas such as less traffic and less pollution, the savings to companies may involve huge office costs related to investments in land and buildings, rents, and energy. According to Global Workplace Analytics, employers can save $11,000 a year for every employee who works remotely half the time."*

WHAT DO WORKERS WANT?

Away from the stories about dogs and kids running astray through Zoom meetings and employees appearing half-dressed or saying inappropriate things when they thought they were muted, the Covid-19 work remote experiment has been more successful than most could have imagined. WSJ/Marketwatch reported that CEO Todd McKinnon OKTA, stated, "I was pretty wrong about this. I thought productivity was going to plunge, but it has been very good." The question is, "What do workers want?"

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A Society for Human Resource Management poll outlines a myriad of advantages and drawbacks for workers to working remotely.

The table below shows that the best 4 reasons for working from homes are:

  1. Reduce commuting time
  2. Better balance between home and work
  3. Spending more time with family
  4. Flexible work hours

The most important drawbacks of remote working seem to be:

  1. Lack of in-person collaboration with colleagues
  2. No clear definition to the end of the day
  3. Homelife distractions and interruptions
  4. Eating more
https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/poll-telework-coronavirus-full-results.aspx

Interestingly, it may be younger employees, who are possibly more TECH savvy, that have less of a desire to work remotely. They may want and need the face-to-face social interaction. Ironically, it may be older workers, who are less familiar with technology but have established families and social networks outside of cities and work, that may have the strongest desire for a remote work system. These people have more work experience and may be better able to be disciplined about unplugging at the end of the day and dividing their days into productive work units. More experienced workers may also require less direction.

OFFICES DURING AND POST COVID-19

The reality is that the work world will never be 100% remote. So, what will the office look like when people go back?

"The workplaces that we left are not going to be the workplaces that we go back to," said Joanna Daly, vice president of compensation, benefits and HR business development at International Business Machines Corp. "We're going to have to learn a new way of interacting with each other that was not the way we were interacting a few months ago."

Bloomberg writes that the possible new ways of being in the office may include:

  • "Self-administered Covid-19 symptom and temperature check. An app will report the results to your boss…
  • Once at the office, a second health check. Attendants will strictly control access to doors, elevators, and common areas to prevent close contact…
  • The route around the office will be one-way only…
  • Formerly jammed open desk plans will sit half-empty…
  • You may be encased in a makeshift cubicle made of plexiglass sheets…
  • To avoid overcrowding, keycards or sensors will monitor your whereabouts throughout the day…
  • Your smartphone may vibrate to alert you to coworker traffic, like Waze for commuting to the copy machine…
  • Lunch will come hermetically sealed."

Large companies like IBM, Hewlett Packard, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are readying offices for at least a portion of their white-collar workforce to return over the coming months. Mark Canavarro, President of Obex P.E, Inc., believes the open floor concept is dead. He says, "The biggest casualty will be the open floor concept, said Obex P.E. He has been "inundated with requests for hardware and panels to add walls to the low-level partitions on shared desk spaces."

Workers will find it very difficult to commute as they try to avoid mass transit. Some companies may find they need to provide transportation, but that will not work for the vast majority of employees. Many people will turn to driving to work instead of using mass transit. Another solution may be satellite offices.

A consistent theme seems to be the idea of a "staggered return" of employees coming back to the office in stages. Another idea involves "clustering" so that if one person or group becomes infected, it does not stop the entire department or company, but allows for quarantining of subgroups.

Ken Matos who has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and is director of people science at CultureAmp., a worker survey and assessment provider, believes companies will need to, "Give people time to mourn the past, because you may not care about it, but they do….What's probably going to be running through people's minds is: 'Everything else has been disrupted, I just wanted the office to be like it was."

THE SOLUTION

"It is still a bit early to make the call, but the longer they stay at home policies stay in place, the more it will change peoples' lives," said Ryan Lakin, president of IronEdge Group, a Houston-based solution provider. He does believe, however, that "there is a lot of work to do to prepare for an expanded permanent work-from-home workforce….Those employees will need more support," he said. "For people who work from home, there will need to be a lot of changes in IT. Companies will have to rethink their IT strategies. And this will be a big opportunity for us as people adjust to the new norm."

If a large scale move to remote working is to successful, there will need to be an initial investment by companies in technology for workers' homes or satellite offices. Most homes are not adequately set up to be full-time offices. A lot of people are now working at kitchen tables or basements without the necessary computer screens, data systems, and printers.

Chris Bedi, chief information officer of IT automation software provider ServiceNow, says "the terms remote work and work from home are going to disappear. There's just work, and it's work from anywhere,". He adds, "that the talent war will also fundamentally change because employers will quickly realize that they can start hiring anywhere and attract a whole new set of prospects. And even though there's a level of Zoom fatigue that's setting in from nonstop video calls, the travel market is forever changed, he predicts."

In the end, the work world will probably be a mixture of working from home, satellite offices, and central offices. The workweek may not be 5 days anymore. The remaining offices and office procedures will be drastically different. Mass transit may be unalterably changed forever. Smaller businesses and social centers may appear outside large, more dense urban areas. There may be a larger demand for cars and single-family homes as a safer choice than public transportation or crowded apartment buildings and there will almost undoubtedly be a large-scale exodus from cities.

Sources:

https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/30/productivity-pitfalls-working-home-age-covid-19/
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-01/the-office-you-left-is-not-going-to-be-the-office-you-return-to
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/11/work-from-home-is-here-to-stay-after-coronavirus.html
https://www.crn.com/news/running-your-business/some-may-work-from-home-permanently-after-covid-19-gartner?itc=refresh
https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2020/could-covid-19-usher-new-era-working-home
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/
work-from-home-productivity-gain-has-tech-ceos-predicting-many-workers-will-never-come-back-to-the-office-2020-05-15?mod=home-page
Jeffrey Sloane

Jeff Sloane is a former Wall Street trader who now provides institutional research for banks and hedge funds. His most recent projects are focused heavily on emerging technologies in the real estate market.

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