Since last March, most major companies such as Salesforce have switched to a remote work model. This surge in employees working from home, driven by safety concerns during the pandemic, emptied previously clogged city streets of traffic and boosted the usage of cloud tools such as Zoom videoconferencing, Google Docs’s suite of productivity tools, and massive web storage platforms as Microsoft’s Azure databases. However, even though the pandemic now seems to be subsiding with vaccinations surging in the United States, access to shots open to all Americans by May 1, and President Biden recently promising a return to near-normal by July 4, some semblance of remote work looks to be a permanent feature of many private companies for a long time to come. In this article, we will explore the benefits and drawbacks of remote work policies, how companies can appropriately balance the flexibility of virtual work with the community of office spaces post-pandemic, and the long-term impacts of this shift on the legal industry and urban environments.
To start, working from home’s benefits have been extolled by companies and organizations such as Nationwide Insurance, Google, and even the NFL. They cite increased worker productivity— as employees are able to take breaks for exercise and food at their convenience and perform tasks around the clock, instead of being limited to the traditional 9-5pm timeframe. Individuals working remotely can also operate from anywhere in the world. This eliminates the need for sprawling office space, complicated technical equipment and network setups, and rideshare services and transit benefits that many companies previously gave to employees. All of these items are incredibly expensive for companies to set up, so their obviation by remote work allows many private entities to increase revenue. The fact that remote workers are not limited by geographic considerations also enables companies to draw from a far larger pool of talent. It eliminates moving costs and headaches for these prospective employees as well, enabling them to spend time in their preferred communities and with their families. This often increases happiness— which in turn boosts productivity. And another benefit: housing is often cheaper outside major metropolitan regions like Silicon Valley and New York— enabling workers to reduce housing costs while keeping large salaries.
However, working from home also has its drawbacks. While some companies cite flexibility as a benefit, many employees and firms have argued that the lack of a separating line between work and home actually decreases productivity, as it removes a firm separation between work and personal life. Employees may find themselves unable to focus due to the presence of other family members, child care considerations, or the stress brought on by self-isolation. Virtual meetings may also decrease the sense of community that employees working in-person have. The inability to hold natural side conversations within virtual meeting rooms, and the less personal nature of virtual after-work activities such as pub and movie nights may decrease the strength of personal bonds among employees. This could ultimately result in employees leaving companies sooner, thereby increasing the subsequent cost of needing to retrain and rehire workers. Issues with technology and a lesser ability to hold nuanced conversations over social media platforms may also affect a company’s ability to adequately interface with clients and employees— another factor that could decrease revenue and profitability in the long run.
As some semblance of normal life gradually resumes across the United States, companies are likely to take a hybrid approach. This will involve the option to work completely remotely for many employees who have already made moves to other regions. Even if offices reopen, many local employees will likely have the permanent flexibility to work from home when they would like to. This may accelerate a pre-pandemic trend of reconfiguring traditional office spaces lined with cubicles into more communal work hubs. With employees not needing an assigned desk since they are technically free to operate from anywhere, offices can be set up more like college campuses— with open tables and expansive meeting rooms for collaboration (likely equipped with large flat-panel screens for remote employees to join conversations), auditoriums and forums for presentations, and libraries for more private and quiet workspaces.
In the legal world, more court hearings may continue to be held completely or partially over videoconference, enabling people and entities to seek representation from a greater pool of attorneys across the country. This would also have the effect of broadening the convenience and availability considerations of forum non conveniens motions and venue when judges decide whether to transfer or dismiss cases. For associate attorneys working for large law firms in major markets, long hours may continue to be a fixture of life— but where those hours are worked (from home or the office) will likely be far more flexible.
Lastly, the effect of greater remote work flexibility on urban environments would be enormous. With fewer people taking commutes, roads are likely to have less traffic. Fewer pollutants are likely to be emitted, enabling normally smog-ridden cities like Los Angeles to have cleaner air. Moreover, public transit systems— many of which were strained to peak capacity prior to the pandemic— will be able to better accommodate passengers without the need for massive new fleets of vehicles due to lower overall ridership. And lastly, due to the decrease in traffic, city streets which became pedestrian-only to accommodate greater outdoor dining and activities in the pandemic may be permanently closed off to cars. This would greatly increase walkable urban space available to all people, upping mental and physical health for all.
Working from home may have been seen as a temporary necessity early on during the pandemic. But now that it has been a fixture of life that employees and employers alike have gotten used to over this past year, options for remote work may continue to stick around permanently after offices reopen. Finding and striking that appropriate balance between the flexibility of virtual work and the community of offices will be the key for companies throughout the world as the pandemic gradually comes to a close over the months ahead.