As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the U.S. economy, many companies were unprepared for everyone to suddenly be working from home, leaving them scrambling to set up remote procedures. “More than half of the people who were forced to work from home overnight had never done it before with any regularity,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research consultancy. In fact, only 20% of employees were working from home before COVID-19.
When the pandemic hit, both companies and workers were thrust into an unprecedented situation in which they had to quickly figure out which tools they needed, both hard and soft; what space they required; and how to manage their workflow. Some of that included sending laptops to employees, arranging for Zoom and Slack tutorials, setting up virtual private network (VPN) systems, and ensuring that workers had the mental support required to succeed in the new normal.
All of a sudden, any boundaries between work and personal life went out the window. People were working from wherever they could find spare space in their house or apartment, while parents added juggling virtual school and childcare at the same time. As time went on, some of those issues became more manageable but were still a major adjustment. About half of those surveyed by Pew Research in October 2020 said they liked the flexibility and the ability to manage their own hours, while 65% said they missed interacting with colleagues in person.
A big upside for companies that previously had been wary of remote work having an adverse impact on productivity was the positive effect on their bottom line. In fact, 83% of those surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in January 2021 said remote work has been a success. Still, no one expected it to last this long.
- Companies and employees showed remarkable resilience by quickly figuring out how to cobble together remote work operations.
- Working from home did not hurt productivity; 83% of those surveyed by PwC called remote work a success.
- As companies began to evaluate their plans for return to the office, the Delta variant struck and, for many, has altered or delayed those plans.
- While some companies want everyone back, most are looking at hybrid or remote-by-choice options.
- Companies are also evaluating their office-space needs.
- Housing inventory dried up as a result of remote work, as many employees looked for more space.
- Home prices are expected to remain high, with inventory remaining tight into the third quarter.
- Experts predict the housing market to begin easing by the end of 2021.
The Rise of the Delta Variant
Just as companies were beginning to evaluate whether they wanted employees to return to their offices, a new and more dangerous Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus arrived, bringing with it the possibility of new restrictions and ever more stringent laws and guidelines.
A survey of 3,500 workers commissioned by employment screening service, GoodHire, found that more than half of those surveyed are seriously concerned about the new COVID-19 outbreaks and do not feel safe about going back to an office environment.
Additionally, 74% of employees said they would volunteer their vaccination status to their employer to ensure the office environment was safe. Further, just 16% of workers say they are ready to accept a mandated return-to-office without additional safety measures in place.
Based on results of the GoodHire survey, 84% of American workers surveyed want some combination of the following:
- Masks for all employees in-office
- Required proof of vaccination for all returning workers
- Limits on the number of people allowed in-office
- Daily sanitizing of all work surfaces
“The office is no longer the primary location of choice for employee collaboration and productivity,” says GoodHire Chief Operating Officer, Max Wesman, “In fact, our survey showed that people are bypassing job ads altogether that don’t mention a remote work option.”
A Reimagining of the Workplace
Some companies, including Twitter, Slack, and Square, plan to remain remote for the foreseeable future, while others, including Facebook, Netflix, Linked In, and Google are considering a hybrid approach. Microsoft, another hybrid proponent, created a Hybrid Workplace Dial that breaks down the level of its office occupancy into six stages based on local health conditions and government guidance.
Still other companies want all workers back full time. Conditions for any back-to-the-office approach, however, have been affected by the rise of the Delta variant according to news sources. Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, and Morgan Stanley are among those altering their return to the office plans to include requiring proof of vaccination in order to come back. Unvaccinated employees will be expected to work from home.
For many companies, precise plans depend on how much the country gets the pandemic under control. Ford, for example, recently pushed back its plan to start bringing back some workers to Jan. 2022 from Oct. 2021, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Most employers (75%), in the PwC survey said they would like to see employees return to the workplace by July. In the GoodHire survey, however, 85% of workers say they and their co-workers prefer working remotely.
One thing that stands out is that companies seem to be taking a longer view. LinkedIn recently created a new internal position—Vice President of Flex Work—to address how the “workplace of the future” might look. “It’s a super interesting challenge to solve, challenging us all to think creatively, make careful decisions and collaborate more effectively,” posted Shannon Hardy, who has taken the job.
Working From Home Created a Housing Bubble. Will it Last?
Another side effect of the work-from-home migration is its impact on the housing market. Two things happened when remote work became the norm: Some people quickly realized they needed more space, so they rushed to buy a new home. Others realized they could work from anywhere, which prompted some workers to move closer to family members who often lived in different parts of the country. With everyone working from home, it didn’t matter where you were.
According to a recent report from Zillow, the trend toward working from home, at least part time, is here to stay. That will likely keep the housing market heated for the near term, especially as interest rates remain at attractively low levels. Although the latest statistics from real estate brokerage Redfin show a softening in demand since the Zillow report, the median home sale price is still up 16% from a year ago and new listings spent only 18 days on the market and sold for 1.6% above the asking price.
Still, there is some good news on the horizon for buyers. In its latest housing market update, Zillow said it expects a total of 5.89 million existing-home sales in 2021, up 4.3% from 2020 but down from the 5.91 million total 2021 sales expected in its prior forecast. Continued high inflation, Zillow said, "will put upward pressure on interest rates which can potentially dampen home purchase demand and home value appreciation."