Who Gets to Work From Home?



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Two things are becoming clear about the U.S. economy in the not-so-distant future: it will be open and it will be thoroughly freaked out. As tedious as lockdowns have been, a worry-free labor market is still a long ways off. Even the most extroverted among us will be nervous about strolling back into an open-plan office, factory or a co-working space for that matter.

Some gigs just can’t be done remotely. If you are a pilot, hairdresser or Amazon warehouse worker, braving coronavirus exposure may just be the cost of staying afloat. Almost half of U.S. small businesses expect to fold if the crisis lasts four months, with restaurants and retail shops providing the bleakest forecasts.

Meanwhile, another chunk of the workforce—typically a better-paid chunk—won’t be venturing far from the home office for months. Until a vaccine comes out, sweatpants will serve. But what about the folks in the middle? On the bubble, if you will? This group is far larger than anyone realized two months ago. A recent federal study found that almost 40% of U.S. jobs can be done from a pajama-friendly environment. The labor markets in Sweden and the United Kingdom are even more amenable to a virtual workplace.

32,491 in U.S.Most new cases today

-16% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​091 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

It’s still possible to design a car, for example, from the home garage. And it’s still possible to sell one via online chat and curbside delivery, in fact many customers prefer it that way. Legal work largely continues by phone and fax. Last week, I had a video chat with a financial analyst who was updating DCF models from his "guitar room." Telemedicine and remote learning, in particular, are showing their strength. Even Trevor Noah is no less funny and sharp when he trades his studio suit for a hoodie.

Cisco shifted almost its entire 75,000 workforce into remote mode and is reportedly taking steps for its people to stay there indefinitely. Other employers are being far less understanding. Some federal agencies, for instance, are requiring crowds of administrative workers to come on sight just to field phone calls, open mail and pick through data on computers. 

Make no mistake though, every plan to open the economy is fairly terrifying. At best, it seems, we'll have a Covid cat-and-mouse game for months, a so-called "adaptive recovery." One idea coming to the front is for the population at-large to re-emerge in alternating shifts, one week on, one week off.

Savvy companies, meanwhile, will shuffle tasks so things that can be done remotely more neatly fall into an individual position as well as things that need to be done on-site. Sanitizing policies will be critical to recruit and retain workers. Chemical foggers are the nap-pods of the future and cubicles are about to make a big comeback. Smartphones will increasingly be standard issue and diligent employers will use them to set up internal track-and-trace programs.

Of course, all of this stuff is expensive, as is office space for that matter. For employees, working remotely will be both a privilege and a perk. For employers, particularly those who pay health insurance premiums, it's just good business.

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