The Biggest Winners and Losers From the Work-From-Home Revolution
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The Biggest Winners and Losers From the Work-From-Home Revolution

Remote or hybrid work has become the new normal for millions of people. We are only just starting to see the impact.

By NICHOLAS BLOOM
Fri, Dec 15, 2023 9:06amGrey Clock 4 min

The fivefold increase in working from home ushered in by the pandemic is perhaps the largest change to hit U.S. labor markets since World War II. It has touched just about every manager in America, reshaped industries including real estate and business travel, and led to an exodus from city centres to the suburbs.

And working from home is here to stay—at least in a hybrid model where a commute to the office is limited to just a few days each week. Tracking detailed survey data, we see working-from-home levels were rapidly dropping from 2020 to 2022. But by early 2023 they stabilised and have remained flat ever since. Hybrid working has become the new normal for millions of professionals and managers across America.

So, it’s time to tally up the impact. Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, who are the biggest winners and losers from the work-from-home revolution?

Start with the losers

The biggest losers are likely city-centre office and retail property owners. The massive shift to home working has created a doughnut effect in major cities around the world. Millions of employees are no longer commuting every day, leaving many offices half-filled and retail stores struggling for customers. The owners of this real estate—often pension funds, family firms and endowments—have collectively lost hundreds of billions of dollars of investments.

In the long run, the sector will slowly recover as supply contracts. New construction has slowed, some empty buildings are slowly being converted to residential accommodation, and some lower-quality offices will be torn down. But recovery will take years to complete. Winter has come for the office sector. One forecast that a major leasing company shared with me was it would take until 2033 for occupancy to recover to pre pandemic levels in San Francisco—perhaps the hardest hit city.

Another loser has been mass-transit rail systems. Ridership has dropped by 30% nationally as commuters shift from a five-day commuting schedule to two or three days a week. These commuter rail systems have high fixed costs due to inflexible track and train costs, alongside rigid union-controlled labor expenses.

Large drops in ridership revenue translate into larger budget deficits. To date these deficits have been bailed out by pandemic-era federal and state subsidies. But the fear is unless public transit costs can be right-sized, once these subsidies run out they will see devastating service cuts or outright closure.

Growing up in Britain, I heard about the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which cut station numbers by 55% and devastated rail travel. I fear something similar happening to U.S. transit for 2024 and beyond unless operators and unions can align cost with revenues.

The third big loser has been big cities. American cities occupy surprisingly small spaces. For example, San Francisco is less than 50 square miles, comprising just the tip of a peninsula. So, when city-centre residents fled for the suburbs, they took their tax dollars with them.

As we know from the experience of New York in the 1970s, cities can adjust by cutting expenditures. But this will be painful and risks a hollowing out of city centers if key services like police and education are cut. Indeed, bond markets have already cut the prices of many city municipal bonds, providing an ominous signal of the budgetary struggles ahead.

But there are winners

It isn’t all gloomy, particularly for the biggest work-from-home winners: the workers. In national surveys, employees report they value the ability to work from home two or three days a week as much as an 8% pay increase. Multiplied across the roughly 70 million Americans who are currently working from home, this is a perk valued at roughly $500 billion a year. This vast dividend has benefited employees through less commuting and lower stress, alongside more personal, leisure and family time.

One recent study highlighted how the typical U.S. home-working employee spends 40 minutes more a week on child care from the time saved from avoiding the daily commute. This will have longer-run effects ranging from higher labor-force participation rates—possibly pushing up growth rates—to potentially even a fertility dividend as parenting becomes somewhat easier.

Another winner is the environment, thanks to reduced travel and energy needs. A recent study found working from home two days a week reduces pollution by about 15%. This comes from lower commuting emissions alongside additional savings from lower office energy bills. A double dividend is the reduced congestion on emptier roads, with traffic speed data from Inryx suggesting the morning commute is 10% faster.

And perhaps the biggest work-from-home winner are companies. Research finds that hybrid working three days a week in the office has a net neutral on employee productivity, while allowing firms to save on recruitment and retention costs. Firms can save money by trimming office expenses while using remote working to lower labour costs by hiring employees outside major cities.

U.S. firms made about $1 trillion higher profits in 2022 than in 2019, an increase of almost 50%. While many factors likely contributed to this, including the strong economic growth, it is notable this happened alongside the fivefold surge in working from home. Indeed, the mass adoption of hybrid working by millions of firms across the U.S. and Europe is perhaps the strongest evidence of its positive impact on profitability.

Looking further out, the biggest change will almost surely come from the new technologies we use to work remotely. When I first started working in the 1990s, working remotely meant conference calls and emailing files. Now we telecommute and share files on cloud networks.

The future likely heralds similarly large changes. In discussions with startups and tech firms, I hear about systems for holographic meetings, wall-size screens and global connectivity. This technology means working from home hasn’t just stabilised but is now moving into its longer-run phase of expansion. Ten years from now we will look back at 2023 as the beginning of the long bull market in hybrid working.

Nicholas Bloom is a professor of economics at Stanford University.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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