When the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared in March, many companies and government agencies instituted working from home virtually policies instead of having employees come to a worksite to avoid infection but it appears teleworking, as it has become known, could become a permanent workplace fixture according to experts.
Brookings Institution scholars Katherine Guyot and Isabel V. Sawhill wrote a paper, “Telecommuting Will Likely Continue Long After the Pandemic,” that appeared on the think tank’s website on April 20. The scholars said the pandemic “is, among other things, a massive experiment in telecommuting.”
“Up to half of American workers are currently working from home, more than double the fraction who worked from home (at least occasionally) in 2017-2018,” they wrote. “Of course, some jobs can’t be done from home. But the outbreak if accelerating the trend toward telecommuting, perhaps for the long term.”
Guyot and Sawhill said that before the pandemic, employers acted slowly in implementing telework policies because of the cost of installing the technology and “sticky” workplace cultures that were slow to change. The pandemic has forced the change, they said, quoting economist Susan Athey, who said “people will change their habits and some of these habits will stick.”
“There’s a lot of things where people are just slowly shifting and this will accelerate that,” Athey told The Washington Post.
Guyot and Sawhill’s conclusions are confirmed by a survey conducted by Clutch.com indicating 17 percent of U.S. employees worked from home five days a week or more before the pandemic and presently about 44 percent telework as a result of COVID-19. On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended telework as an effective tool for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Valerie Fisher, who works for a federal government agency, used to enjoy going into her office to work. She cited the chance to mingle with co-workers and get her tasks completed in a structured work environment as reasons for coming in even though federal employees, like her, had the option of telecommuting.
“When COVID-19 hit, we were told we needed to work from home and I was surprised,” Fisher said. “I thought it would be a situation where I would sit at home in front of my computer for hours and hours and I had to endure the drudgery for the job. But when I started doing it, I found it is great. You don’t have to put gas in the car to drive to D.C., you can save money by cooking your meals at home and I actually found I finished my work quicker because I didn’t have so many distractions at home like I do at work.”
While Fisher cited some of the benefits of telework, including leaving the car at home clears the environment of auto emissions, Guyot and Sawhill cited some drawbacks. Those drawbacks include managing a teleworking staff can be challenging when people are on different schedules when they aren’t in one place and professional isolation can be counterproductive when it comes to getting work done in some cases.
Jeffrey Brown works at a District government agency and said the isolation works for him.
“I keep in close contact with my supervisor and I can get my work done without the distractions,” he said. Besides, I don’t want to be working and then not be able to come in because I get infected from being around co-workers.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered telework policies en masse for the city government workforce on March 16 as a result of the pandemic and has kept those policies in place for the safety of the employees.
Bowser expresses satisfaction at how the D.C. government has adjusted to the change.
“Our District government employees have done a remarkable job make the transition to a modified telework schedule,” the mayor said on July 1. “About 60 percent of District government employees are working in that manner. Of course, when things get back to normal, some jobs will require they come to their worksites but we have learned a lot about teleworking. We will review teleworking policies to see if some will be permanent for some agencies when things get back to normal.”