COVID is changing work and office life; the focus is on flexibility

COVID-19 could turn into an endemic disease like colds and flu – maybe. But even if the virus has more twists in store, it’s time to start thinking about the future.

Many people are ready to return to normal, especially in the workplace. But that’s not the right way to look at it. There probably won’t even be a single normal model; the only constant will be change. To cope with this new reality, workers and employers must not be chained to a particular work model.

Companies that bring workers back into the office or don’t provide workspace to willing employees will both struggle to attract talent. Industrial policy ideologues and unions that wish to codify their own preferences risk displacing workers, slowing the COVID recovery. It was all going that way anyway; COVID just sped up the timeline.

Two main factors led to this change. The first started about 20 years ago, when email and the Internet became widespread. This made it possible for the first time to perform some office work remotely, such as accounting and writing.

Upwork’s Adam Ozimek estimates that 12% of workers were already full-time remote workers when COVID-19 first hit, rising to over 41% when the pandemic was at its worst. Long term, he expects full-time remote work to remain above 22%, almost double pre-COVID levels. And a new Pew Research poll from 2022 finds that 59% of workers who can work from home do so – with 61% doing so by choice, not necessity.

The second factor is the rise of the sharing economy that began a decade ago. Uber drivers set their own schedules and use their own car instead of company-provided taxis. The company was founded in 2009 and operated in 35 cities as of 2013. Taskrabbit and Fiverr, which enable office workers, journalists, translators, video editors and musicians to market their services, were also founded around this time.

This change is deeper than just physical location. This means working as an independent contractor and not being beholden to one boss or the company’s single health insurance or pension scheme. This trend was emerging anyway, but has been happening en masse during the pandemic, and the changes are here to stay.

Also, people’s needs for flexibility will survive COVID. Someone with young children or caring for elderly family members might not be able to work traditional office hours. But they can do gig work on a flexible schedule if they want.

But all is not upside down. We have found out the hard way that distance learning works poorly. Many jobs can only be done on site, from manufacturing to haircutting. For much of the economy, the traditional commuting model isn’t going to change anytime soon.

What should decision makers do? Be as flexible as possible. Let the workers experiment. Let employers make mistakes and learn from them, at their own expense. Relax burdensome zoning and business licensing rules. Avoid policies like California’s gig worker law, which put thousands of independent contractors out of work before major parts of the measure were repealed via a ballot initiative.

Different people have different preferences. Some work better in a traditional office; some thrive on working more independently. Savvy employers will try to make room for both and adapt as needed. Getting stuck in one model or the other means losing promising recruits and the talent they bring.

Companies can adapt quickly — they have little choice. Regulators and unions have ideological or financial interests in the legacy work model and are pushing to lock it down. Yes, this may be the best model for some workers and certain industries – but no single model works for everyone.

Ryan Young is a senior researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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