We have now been living with the coronavirus for many months. While it is still unclear how much longer we will have to wait for a vaccine and a return to normalcy, there seems to be little chance of returning to exactly the way things were. Because of this, we should try to understand what the new normal might look like, including what that means for the future of work.
The world has been thrust into a massive, forced experiment because of COVID. It is important to try to understand what the world will look like down the road. That is, what types of changes are likely to persist? What might we discover?
Just because things will be different, does not mean that they will be worse. Let us consider a simple thought experiment to illustrate this. Imagine you live in a large city and commute to work by subway. There is a surprise strike by subway workers and it completely shuts down. You, and many of your fellow citizens, are now forced to discover an alternative route to work. You might try biking, driving, or something else. When the subway returns, you may go back to your old route on the subway. However, you, and others, may have discovered that you enjoy biking to work. You may have realized there is a pleasant and surprisingly quick walking route, or that you prefer to carpool with a friend. This illustrates the potential benefits of forced experimentation — there may be a better way of doing things that is only discovered when the status quo is interrupted.
One significant area of our lives that is ripe for change is the way we work. Even after the coronavirus is long gone, many jobs will retain the option to work remotely. This is especially likely for jobs that only rely on knowledge — such as computer programming or writing. Indeed, Twitter and Square have already committed to making remote work permanent. The meteoric rise in the value of Zoom suggests many investors also expect remote work to remain.
If remote work becomes more common, then we can expect population centers to evolve as people move out of high cost-of-living areas. This will have two effects. First, housing prices will adjust to changes in demand, making some cities more affordable and other less so. Second, as people leave high cost-of-living areas, they may find they have more disposable income. This can lead to increased spending on consumer goods — a boon to local businesses and large retailers alike.
A secondary effect of remote work could be reduced demand for office space. If enough employees prefer to work remotely, at least some part of the week, then companies can save substantially by renting less office space and utilizing shared work spaces. This might result in a variety of long-run benefits. For instance, reduced barriers to entry and lower fixed costs may stimulate entrepreneurial innovation, leading to more jobs and new consumer products. Additionally, fewer commuters means safer roads and less pollution.
While there are still many uncertainties, eventually we will defeat this illness. While not everything will go back to how it was, I think there are reasons to believe that some aspects of our lives may change for the better. The many potential benefits from remote work and hybrid work environments is just one such example of a change for the better.