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Work From Home: What Happens When COVID Fades in 2021?

REVOLUTION. Wait, maybe not.

If there's one overhyped thing about COVID, it's probably the revolution that's happening in workplaces and more importantly, the "location" of work. Read enough of Fast Company, Inc.com or whatever your flavor of progressive workplace trends is, and you'll swear that we'll soon have vacant office buildings everywhere.

That prediction is wrong for the following reasons:

1--Many jobs - including 100% professional grade positions - can't or won't be performed from a home office. These jobs are everywhere, and they include great careers in many professions (healthcare, retail, etc.)

2--Many companies and leaders value the impact of a team being together. That means that once the COVID fear has lifted, teams are getting back together in person more than you might think - as you put down that highlighted copy of Esquire about the 2020 revolution of work.

So what's the reality? How many jobs actually went from the office to home during the pandemic, and once this thing fades, are those jobs actually staying at home?

PRO TIP: If you want to get in the weeds about what happened and what's going to happen with Work from Home arrangements, cut through all the BS and start thinking about your total workforce and define the following - Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days.

Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days is your macro economic stat as an HR leader to measure this. Measuring it can be simple and hard at the same time. You basically need reporting or at the very least, estimates from across your workforce about who's working from home. Add it all up and apply your HR magic to it, and you get Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days.

I've been estimating work from home this way for awhile and it works. It takes you out of the anecdotal and into what's real. Rather than be caught in your bubble related to the professional grade positions around you as a leader, it forces you to think globally.

Now that we have a metric, what's actually going on out there in America related to work from home?  The Atlanta Fed does a great recurring piece of research called the Survey of Business Uncertainty (SBU) in conjunction with the University of Chicago and Stanford University. As a small part of this survey, they polled their business leaders and looked back at pre-COVID data and found the the following trends and realities about work from home across the USA (email subscribers, click through if you don't see the graph below:

Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 9.06.32 AM

To summarize the chart and findings:

--During Covid, the total number of Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days multiplied by a factor of 4X+, moving from 5.5% to 23.7%. That's killer, right? But that still seems low to some of you reading this. 

--More importantly, the SBU finds that while Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days won't be going back to the pre-COVID level of 5.5%, with respondents estimating that Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days will settle back to 13.6% after the COVID pandemic ends.

To summarize - WFH days across organizations of all sizes multiplied by x4 during the pandemic, but the SBU estimates that we'll see WFH days be cut by 40% post-COVID.  Still, a gain of 2.5x from pre-COVID levels.

So significant gains for WFH, but not the revolution many expected or the sustained level of WFH we thought we would see.  Here's a chart from the SBU related to the numbers by industry. Note that it's easy to view your corporate office numbers in the Business Services segment, where Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days currently sits at 40%, but it is estimated to be going to 28% post pandemic. Feels about right.

Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 9.07.02 AM

Most of this is common sense, but if you want to have a great post-COVID stat to add to your Talent Metrics Deck, Paid Working Days at Home as a % of all Working Days makes a lot of sense to show your Leadership Team you're on top of the trend and the workforce planning conversation related to COVID.


rich hake

Too many professionals read too many generalist articles and come up with too many theories that are irrelevant to the business they are in, and their employees. At the start of the COVID issue, we analyzed which positions could or should be able to be performed remotely, and which were essential to be "in the office". This was done independently of governmental bureaucracy and the night terror of COVID. We developed a clear sense of how functions and teams can work remotely, who needs to be "in the office", and how to staff for "coverage" of customer-facing services. We learned that "Paid working days at home as a %" looks very different depending on function and level. While we can generalize, we have to remember that these are only generalizations. One of the downfalls of modern G&A management approaches to the workforce is using published generalizations as benchmarks that fail to address business needs.

Cooper Garrett

The COVID-19 pandemic has given human resources professionals a great challenge for workforce planning. Simply defining who makes up the essential workforce created complications for both organizations and municipalities. Knowing work must go on within different industries firms made adjustments to ensure production continued. The focus in your post on the transition to and eventually transition from work from home positions is valuable to managers as vaccines roll out and we head toward the hopeful end of the pandemic. Every job that transitioned to a remote environment will not return to a campus however I agree with you that it will be a majority. The value created by having face-to-face conversations and working in a team setting is too great to lose. Employees in many office positions have the luxury today of taking days away from the office and completing their work from home without sacrificing any of their compensation. However, in my opinion, those paid working days at home are much less productive and limit the amount of value an individual can add. Although it is industry-specific, we will all be better off when individuals can safely return to on-site work on a regular basis.

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Collaboration and team dynamics can benefit greatly from face-to-face interaction. Brainstorming sessions, building rapport, and fostering a company culture might be more challenging in a purely remote setting.

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