According to a new MIT report, 34 percent of Americans who previously commuted to work report that they were working from home by the first week of April due to the coronavirus. That’s the same percentage of people who can work from home, according to a recent University of Chicago publication.
These new numbers represent a seismic shift in work culture. Prior to the pandemic, the number of people regularly working from home remained in the single digits, with only about 4 percent of the US workforce working from home at least half the time. However, the trend of working from home had been gaining momentum incrementally for years, as technology and company cultures increasingly accommodated it. So it’s also likely that many Americans who are now working from home for the first time will continue to do so after the pandemic.
“If it’s just about you banging out emails or writing a report, sure, you can do that wherever,” Waber said. “But the vast majority of stuff we do at work today—teamwork, not individual work—that is the stuff that really measurably suffers.” For big companies, that decline in productivity can be worth millions of dollars a year.
In a 2012 poll, 62% of employees said they found telecommuting to be socially isolating. And “jobs where individuals are most likely to be telecommuting involve sitting in front of a computer,” Allen said, so it makes sense that people working from home would get less exercise than those who have to commute.
For many if not most knowledge workers, that is exactly what they do most of the day: sitting in front of a computer and writing documents and emails. And in many workplaces, they are expected to do that with minimal interaction with others, which is viewed as socializing and break time in the tradition of the water cooler — not working. The cultural ethic is nose to the grindstone in the style of the Industrial Age assembly line.
Tolan is certainly correct that in organizations that encourage collaboration, being face to face is ideal. But as Tolan suggests, most knowledge organizations do not operate as full time focus groups or think tanks. Constant co-located and spontaneous interaction among their members isn’t an organizational expectation. Tolan is also right in pointing out that not all knowledge workers have a suitable home office environment. A growing industry is stepping up to address this need with shared co-working office space in communities where knowledge workers live.
In addition, Tolan ignores the enormous business and personal cost to both knowledge organizations and their constituents to maintain what I term in my book Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty First Century as centralized commuter offices (CCOs) that involve hours of wasted time spent each week traveling between home and office, often entailing significant distance and time. CCOs are unnecessary with today’s information and communications technology that is rendering the Industrial Age daily commute trip obsolete.