What does WFH mean, and will the pandemic make it more common from now on?

wfh work from home coronavirus
Photo via David Martyn Hunt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, an acronym that was previously not in the everyday lexicon has become a daily reality for many Americans. As noted by Merriam-Webster, WFH or wfh is an abbreviation for “work from home” or “working from home.” Other terms you might read or hear that are synonymous to WFH include “remote work” or “working remotely,” “telework or “teleworking,” “telecommute or “telecommuting,” and “home-based work.”

Under normal circumstances, having a job that lets you WFH could have many positives. It allows you to save money on commuting (public transit fares or gas for your car, if you have one), food, and other expenses you would otherwise incur when you are out and about. It allows you more flexibility with your work schedule and gives you the freedom to redefine your hours according to what is most productive for you. If you are living with family, home-based work allows you more quality time to spend with them because it eliminates travel time between your office and place of residence.

However, not everyone has the freedom to enjoy a work-from-home job. For people who thrive on in-person interaction and aren’t used to working solo, telecommuting can be an isolating or boring experience. Furthermore, a lot of industries—such as retail, transport, healthcare, and other jobs that require seeing customers or working with products or equipment in real life—do not readily support remote work.

WFH in the age of quarantine

Considering that the U.S. is currently still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely is the safer option and lessens your potential exposure to COVID-19, even though some are trying to make it safe to go back to the office. In fact, it seems that more employees prefer the WFH option—a recent survey found that 64% of respondents believe that they have better productivity at home.

On the other hand, having your home and office be the same place can blur boundaries and cause stress to bleed into your time for relaxation. A survey conducted by online job platform Monster in early July showed that 69% of employees are reportedly experiencing burnout while working from home, a result that’s almost 20% higher than a similar survey the company did in early May.

Is WFH the new norm? “This could be a harbinger of the future way people will be working,” Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Stanford University, told WBUR. Brynjolfsson co-authored a paper that analyzed how the U.S. has been transitioning to remote work since the spring of 2020, and results showed that WFH rates were higher in states “with a higher share of employment in information work including management, professional and related occupations.” 

In another survey recently conducted by Harvard Business School, researchers analyzed 1,800 people in both small and larger businesses and found that remote work is more prevalent in industries that cater to more educated and higher-paid employees. Respondents that come from these industries have also experienced less productivity loss from switching to home-based work. Additionally, the survey revealed that at least 16% of those forced to transition to work-from-home during the pandemic will continue to do so even after the coronavirus crisis has died down.

The working paper, entitled “What Jobs Are Being Done at Home During the COVID-19 Crisis? Evidence from Firm-Level Surveys,” also found that more than one-third of firms that had workers switch to WFH believe that their transition to remote work will become more common at their company post-pandemic. This is evident in the number of large tech companies like Facebook and Google that are opting to keep their workforce at home until at least the middle of 2021. Some companies like Twitter and Square are even offering the option to work from home permanently.

Is the U.S. headed for a work-from-home future?

In the midst of the pandemic, the new reality of businesses that can switch to a remote workforce choosing to stay that way seems like a foregone conclusion; at the very least, it may mean a partially remote work week for plenty of workers, who may see home-based office hours anywhere between one to three days per week.

For those who can’t work from home—whether it’s because of the nature of their jobs, or because they aren’t equipped with a reliable internet connection or enough space that’s conducive for work—there will be a higher probability of getting sick, a potential lack of skill development opportunities, or an eventual loss of income.

Other impacts that seem inevitable include the decline of city center growth where most offices are located, as well as the businesses that cater to and rely on the office population, according to research by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom. This means potential loss of revenue for restaurants, bars, retail stores, and taxi cab operators.

It may also mean a surge of activity in the suburbs and rural areas, where Bloom thinks large companies that are reevaluating the future of their offices should be flocking. “Given the need for social distancing, the firms I talk to are typically thinking about halving the density of offices, which would lead to an increase in the overall demand for office space,” Bloom said. “But instead of building more office skyscrapers—which has been the dominant theme over the past 40 years—I predict that COVID-19 will dramatically shift the trend to industrial parks with low-rise buildings.” 

Bloom also predicts that if a vaccine for the novel coronavirus eventually becomes available, most of society will have already become accustomed to social distancing and will be reluctant to go back to work at their overpopulated workplaces. He said, “My latest survey results seem to bear this out: employees reported a 25% drop in demand to work in high-rise offices in 2021, presumably after COVID.”

Sources: Merriam-Webster, Korn Ferry, CNBC, WBUR, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, TechCrunch [1, 2], Stanford News

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