COVID-19

Home, Sweet Work

By KIM BELLARD

If you’re lucky, you’ve been working from home these past couple months.  That is, you’re lucky you’re not one of the 30+ million people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.  That is, you’re lucky you’re not an essential worker whose job has required you to risk exposure to COVID-19 by continuing to go into your workplace.  

What’s interesting is that many of the stay-at-home workers, and the companies they work for, are finding it a surprisingly suitable arrangement.  And that has potentially major implications for our society, and, not coincidentally, for our healthcare system.

Twitter was one of the first to announce that it wouldn’t care if workers continued to work from home.  “Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs,” a company spokesperson wrote in a blog post.  “So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”

Other tech companies are also letting the work-from-home experiment continue.  According to The Washington Post, Amazon and Microsoft have told such workers they can keep working from home until at least October, while Facebook and Google say at least until 2021.   Microsoft president Brad Smith observed: “We found that we can sustain productivity to a very high degree with people working from home.”  

The tech industry, of course, had been famous for its unconventional workplaces, with open architecture, free/low cost food, games, rowdy atmospheres, and, more lately, futuristic buildings.  It also led to concentrations of talent in areas like Silicon Valley or Seattle, with corresponding soaring housing costs and commuting sagas.  José Cong, a tech talent acquisition advisor, told The Wall Street Journal that, when it comes to increased remote work, the pandemic “is going to be the gasoline on the fire.”  

It’s not just corporate benevolence or concerns about public health.  It’s also about the money.  Short term savings in office energy use/upkeep and business travel, and longer term savings in real estate costs, make work-at-home attractive to companies.  Entrepreneur Hiten Shah told Cat Zakrzewski of The Washington Post: “Everyone’s doing the math.  Once you follow the money, it points to the fact that this is inevitable…The cost savings are just ridiculous comparing to have an office and all the things that come with that.”  

Tech may have gotten most of the work-at-home press, but the trend is broader than that.  For example, think also about IT more broadly, customer service, HR, or finance.  Nationwide Insurance moved 98% of its jobs to work-from-home due to the pandemic, and doesn’t see any reason to move them back.  CEO Kirt Walker told Fortune: “We’ve tracked all of our key performance indicators, and there has been no change.  We keep hearing from members, ‘if you hadn’t announced you were all working from home, we never would have known.”  

He sees the change as part of a historic, permanent mindset shift: “We think the world is changing. We’ve got to take cost out of the system. We want to enable sustainable growth.”

There are real questions about the shift.  “Companies will have to find ways to build culture remotely, which is really tough to do,” tech analyst Gene Munster told the WSJ.  Zoom calls are all well and good, but “People like to come in and collaborate with and work with their folks,” said Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s chief human resource officer.  Professor Andrew Hargadon told The Post, “there’s still value in being together in person.  Those accidental interactions in elevators and cafeterias or when grabbing coffee can still spark ideas.”  

In The WSJ, Rachel Feintzeig raises another consideration: when home is work, how do we separate home life from work life?  Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow noted: “You can’t get away from your family, can’t get away from your work.  You have no excuse ever. Where can you be?”  

In her NYT op-ed, Jennifer Senior predicts: “But over the coming months, I suspect that those of us who spent most of our careers in offices will grow to miss them.”  She mentions the camaraderie, the intellectual stimulation, even the prospect for romance as reasons.  

There are further ripple implications.  Business Insider reported how suburban office parks were already becoming more deserted, posing problems not just for their commercial real estate owners but also for the cities and municipalities that relied on tax revenue from them — not to mention for the restaurants and other small businesses that served all those workers.  

We’ve seen a urban-suburban competition for jobs, but now that fight has a new contender — workers’ homes — and no one yet knows all the implications of that shift.  

Healthcare is less able than most industries to work from home, but it is doing its best through increased use of telehealth.  Its problem is that its revenues are built around patients coming in for visits/treatments/procedures, and most aren’t.  As a result, telehealth notwithstanding, hospitals say they are losing billions of dollars, and healthcare workers are, for the first time in decades, undergoing massive layoffs — well over a million in April alone.  

When we think about all those deserted office parks and buildings, think also about hospitals and medical office buildings.  The healthcare system will need fewer of them both from the demand side — patients preferring to use telehealth — and from the supply side — healthcare professionals able to do more remotely.  Mei Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, warns of a long transition, telling mHealth Intelligence: “It’s going to take some time to sort things out…It’s going to get interesting.”

“Interesting” indeed.

————–

This pandemic will not last forever.  Ready or not, we’re already starting to reopen major parts of the economy.  Perhaps the sudden, massive work-from-home experiment will soon be just a memory, and we’ll all end up back to our offices.  

But that’s a sucker’s bet.  The prudent business leader would seriously consider, as Mr. Walker said, that this is part of a once-in-a-generation/once-in-a-lifetime, permanent shift.  The prudent business leader would evaluate how much of their business could be done from home (or other settings), and how to best support that shift.  The prudent business leader would be trying to drive and support the changes, not react to them.

The question is, how many such prudent business leaders there are in healthcare?

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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