Telecommuting to Combat the Coronavirus (COVID-19): A Mass Experiment in Working From Home

This isn’t the first time the US has experienced a major disease outbreak. Just over a hundred years ago, the poorly-named Spanish Flu (which may have actually originated in the US) killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide. That’s more than the number of people who died of the bubonic plague in the span of a century. One reason for its spread was the increased connectivity of the world: some soldiers who flew to fight overseas took the disease with them, while others brought it home.

Part of the carnage could have been avoided. During the Spanish Flu outbreak, several large public gatherings in the US went ahead despite warnings from experts to postpone them—and it wrought horrific consequences for the host cities. In Philadelphia, 200,000 people participated in a parade meant to boost patriotism and sell war bonds; within 72 hours, it had turned the City of Brotherly Love into a horror show, with every hospital well over capacity.

Reducing the rate of infection remains a critical step in keeping health systems functioning, and the easiest way to reduce the rate of infection is to limit the opportunities for a disease to travel. Offices, like parades or concerts, can be petri dishes for disease. In 1918, experts couldn’t feasibly ask anyone to work from home. Today, they can.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Google, Airbnb, Twitter, and Microsoft tell their employees to work from home. Many other companies and universities have (and will) follow suit. A large portion of Americans are about to get a crash course in working from home, and it might change the way the average person thinks about the nature of work.

Preparing for a Forced Rise in Telecommuting

According to an Harvard Business School report, only 30 percent of business leaders believe their company is prepared for a rise in remote work. Companies who ask their employees to temporarily work from home will likely come to two immediate conclusions: that this is both much easier, and much harder, than they first thought.

A 2016 Gallup poll found 43 percent of employees had already worked from home at some point. But having an entire company transition to remote work at the same time is a wholly different situation. Everyone’s routine is disrupted, and new processes for coordination need to be developed on the fly. Policies for this contingency do not exist, and the way companies behave during this period will dictate what policies are eventually written in the future.

The Implications of Working From Home

The good news is that a large majority of in-office functions translate easily to the virtual world. Brainstorming sessions become video chats. Knocks on the door become messages on Slack.

And it might just make the company more productive. A 2015 study from Stanford University found that productivity in a call center went up 13 percent when its employees were allowed to work from home; a 2019 Harvard Business School study found similar benefits when introducing work from anywhere policies at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

According to the HBS study, three main factors contribute to building out successful work from home policies:

  • First, gradual transitions help employees adjust (which, while not possible in the instance of COVID-19, is possible to incorporate in the future).
  • Second, technology tools can support light supervision of and coordination between remote workers, removing a key barrier: the fear that workers will shirk their responsibilities or not work as hard as they would in an office.
  • Finally, a period of in-office work provides a strong foundation.

COVID-19: An Unplanned Experiment in Remote Work

In some ways, this is the biggest work from home study ever done. Companies and their employees will be forced to learn how much they don’t know about having a massive remote workforce—and academics will be watching.

Once this experiment concludes, and updated policies are put into place, companies likely will be able to wield the “work from home” setting more frequently and more effectively. They could then institute rolling periods, such as during a normal flu season, where employees are encouraged to work from home. Working from home versus working from the office won’t be seen as a concrete and binary choice, but fluidic. The future of work can be optimized.

Unfortunately, it’s still a position of privilege to be able to work from home. Someone who works largely on the internet will have an easier time working from home than, say, a sanitation worker (whose role and function in society is at least as critical, if not more so, than the internet worker).

Moving Forward: Essential Policy Changes to Deal with Pandemics

The US needs to mandate paid sick-leave in every state, with policies on par with other developed economies. The logic is simple. If sick people stay home, they can’t make others sick, and if sick people don’t lose money by staying home, they’re more likely to stay home. But the impact is massive. According to The Economist, policies which mandate paid sick-leave reduce the spread of influenza by 5 percent in normal times, and 40 percent during a wave. Unfortunately, 39 states do not require paid sick leave.

The lack of compassionate work laws carries over even to those who can work from home. The corporate culture in America highly discourages vacation time and sick days, and Americans already get some of the least vacation time per year.

Furthermore, an arcane healthcare system incentivizes sick people to stay sick, rather than risk medical bills they can’t afford. And, to complete the cycle, medical bills encourage people to work more than they should.

For businesses who can get their employees to work from home, future policies need to be compassionate, nimble, and well-coordinated. For many employees, companies have long looked down upon asking to work from home. That must change, and, after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, it likely will.

With this major work from home experiment, companies will learn what academic studies already have: working from home can increase revenue, reduce hiring costs, and lower office costs. Employees will learn that they can work from more comfortable, less costly locations, while earning the same paycheck.

When the pandemic is over, Americans will go back to work, but many will never think of their job the same way again—and neither will their employers.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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