Google and Twitter are right. Workers should stay home

The more I read and hear about what offices will be like as they reopen, the more dystopian it sounds: empty desks, no meetings, everyone keeping their distance from one another. I miss the thrum and hum of the workplace, but the need to maintain social distancing means reopening won’t bring that back. 

An employee works inside the Twitter Inc. headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

And for all that offices will be quieter and emptier, they may not be much safer. Erin Bromage, a biology professor at UMass Dartmouth, compiled a useful list of several known COVID-19 super-spreading events that highlights the danger of being cooped up inside with a sick person. If a 90-minute restaurant meal, 120-minute choir practice or 180-minute birthday party is enough for one person to infect a roomful, how much more risk is in a 540-minute workday, even with precautions?

Rather than bring employees back anytime soon, organisations should settle into remote work for the long haul — as some are beginning to do. Google and Facebook have gone this route, telling employees to work from home for the rest of 2020. Microsoft is green-lighting WFH (work-from-home) through October. Twitter has said employees can continue to log in from home indefinitely.

“The fewer people who return to work, the safer the workplace will be for those who do.”

– Sarah Green Carmichael

It’s a strategy that could be broadly popular. In an informal poll Bloomberg Opinion conducted across our social media channels, 52 per cent to 63 per cent of respondents said they’d rather keep working from home than return to the office. That mirrors Gallup’s findings: About half of people surveyed want to continue working remotely.

And why not? Allowing remote work is cheaper than arranging for office upgrades. By now, organisations and employees have already invested in essential remote-work gear: computer monitors, ergonomic chairs, sweatpants.

That’s just the hardware. Companies have invested in virtual collaboration apps like Slack, Zoom and their rivals. Teams that have grown accustomed to them will probably continue to use them.

Supporting work from home long-term requires a shift in the way many companies think, explains Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, an assistant professor at Purdue University who studies office design. Companies have long encouraged employees to see the office as a kind of home, stocking kitchens with snacks and providing seating that feels, if not exactly homey, then rather like a nice hotel lobby. Now, homes have become workplaces, even if it’s just a presentable corner of home. Companies have always been happy for people to take work home, but when there are no alternatives it means rethinking some basics — such as internet access, for starters.

Many companies have invested in Zoom and similar programme that facilitate employees working from home. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Since the start of the shutdowns, many cities have seen slower internet speeds. Upgrading is tricky, however, explains Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and director of its Digital Planet initiative, because most connection problems occur between the curb and your house. Those problems are expensive to fix, and internet service providers have little incentive to fix them because there is so little competition at the local level. But if more people work from home, high-speed internet access will become a greater necessity, like reliable electricity or clean water, and public pressure might force some level of minimum access.

In the meantime, companies with employees working from home will need to find solutions that use less bandwidth, whether it’s for communication or data sharing or something else.

I know that not everyone can work from home indefinitely. It’s much easier for those in what’s broadly known as the knowledge transfer business — a category that includes technologists, journalists, researchers, consultants and lawyers. Still, that’s a lot of people. In one survey, as many as a third of workers who once commuted say they’re now working from home. Compare that with only about three per cent of American workers who previously worked from home. 

Those of us who can comfortably work from home should keep doing so. And that’s where managers should put their energies — not in reopening office buildings for people who don’t need to be there.

They should consider it the first step toward keeping employees safe. As Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, emphasised in a recent interview, the only employees who should be asked to return to the building are those who need to be there to keep the business functional.

Many companies are instead leaping ahead to solutions further downstream — improving ventilation and air filtration, staggering employees’ schedules and stocking up on personal protective equipment, including masks. Those things should be used only when working from home isn’t an option.

By working from home as long as possible, we do more to fight COVID-19. The fewer people who return to work, the safer the workplace will be for those who do.

— Sarah Green Carmichael