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Coronavirus has lifted the work-from-home stigma. How will that shape the future?

"The views around work from home have completely changed," one expert said.
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The fast-moving coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of Americans to work from home, with no immediate end in sight. Dates for when employees will return to office buildings move later and later or remain uncertain for many companies.

On Tuesday, Twitter told its employees that many of them will be allowed to work from home in perpetuity, even after the pandemic ends. The move signaled a growing shift in attitudes in certain industries toward remote working — a change that could have lasting implications.

Gallup data from the end of April showed that 63 percent of U.S. employees said they had worked from home in the past seven days because of coronavirus concerns, a number that had doubled from 31 percent three weeks before.

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Even as dozens of states have begun to partly reopen months after the initial shutdowns, experts said that past stigma around working from home has largely been lifted and that they expected much more remote work to be incorporated into office life for the foreseeable future.

"The views around work from home have completely changed," said Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, co-director of the productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship program at the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. "There is no stigma around working from home now."

Bloom said that beyond the next year or two, he believes there could be "an explosion of working from home" in industries in which it was possible, "in part because we've all now tried it, we've got it up and running and invested our time and effort into it."

But future work-from-home scenarios would be very different from current conditions, Bloom said — not only would children be back at school, but it's likely that employees would still have the option of going into the office a few times a week.

"That, I think, will end up being the new norm, and that's a big step up, two to three times as much home working as we previously did," he said.

Barbara Larson, a management professor at Northeastern University, also said she expected a trend toward less density in the office for at least the next year or two in industries in which remote work was feasible.

"But who knows how that could play out over a longer period of time?" she said.

Image: An employee works from her home in Shanghai
An employee works from her home in Shanghai on March 9.Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A study Bloom published in 2015 found that Chinese call-center employees took fewer breaks and were 13 percent more productive when working from home. He said that in the long run, the move toward increased remote working would benefit employers and employees.

Bloom said that usually working remotely was done on occasion and by choice. It provides a quiet, stable environment for employees — a situation at contrast with the current reality, which is fraught with public health concerns and extreme isolation.

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Larson also said it was important not to "make sweeping generalizations" about remote working from the extreme conditions you're seeing during the pandemic.

"What you do want to be doing is looking for the bright spots in your workforce, what types of jobs are actually working out pretty well remotely," she said. "Where are there opportunities in deciding who comes back to the office first?"

Larson said it would be critical for companies and managers to be "very thoughtful and mindful of the way in which they are bringing people back into the office, not just from a public health standpoint.

"They need to be considering the nature of the jobs they have people doing and the individuals," she said.

Laurel Farrer, founder of Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association, said there was a very big difference between allowing remote working and adopting effective remote working strategies.

In the long run, companies will have to go a lot further to update their policies and communication to optimize their remote work settings and enhance their business operations, she said.

"They're not going to see that by just sending somebody home with a laptop. They really need to invest some intention and time into updating all their business operations to match this new way of working," she said.

Bloom said he believed the pandemic could also affect how we view sick leave.

"The stigma of taking sick leave, I think, will evaporate in part in the short run," he said, with companies terrified to have potentially contagious employees in the office. "How permanent that will be is hard to tell, but I think all of this is going to be a somewhat more permanent change. It will be more acceptable to take sick leave and more acceptable to work from home."

Bloom said that in the aftermath of the financial crisis, there were major pushes for regulation, which could happen in the years after the pandemic.

"There will be much more recognition that this is unlikely to be the last pandemic, so we want to make sure we're in better shape," Bloom said.

There could be "a massive regulatory push" to force companies to provide sick leave or health care, as the virus illustrates how low-wage, front-line workers without benefits have been forced to work, putting themselves and others at risk.

"It's the very group that you don't want coming in to work that tend to be those that don't get sick leave," he said. "A lot of the lowest-paid service-sector jobs that have the most contact with other people are the ones without sick leave."