Working from home for more than a year may revolutionize some parts of business, but I think most people will be back at their desks in September.
Let’s talk numbers. Of the 150 million or so people who were employed in March, 31.6 million telecommuted, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about 21% of the pie. I refer specifically to the BLS’s “Supplemental Data Measuring the Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Labor Market.”
Some analysts and bond issuers fear that these people, having experienced the joy of not commuting or living in more-spacious digs in more-pleasant climes, will never return to the office, or will return only two or three days a week. This will have an impact on small businesses, rents, sales taxes, transit systems, toll roads and, ultimately, tax bases. Just how big an impact depends upon how many days a week these people remain out of the office.
These fears seem justified, even logical, but the very first thing you find out when asking about the number of days people will return to the office is, no one knows. Many big cities are just now relaxing restrictions on how many people can re-occupy office space, and employers have been very diplomatic in their demands, many couching their desires as “invitations” to return to office.
“There is much uncertainty,” Patrick Luby, senior municipal strategist at CreditSights Inc. put it to me in an email. “Will bosses really allow more WFH? Will employees really take advantage, or if everyone is at the office, do they feel like they need to be there, too?” He said a lot depends upon the big guys. “If Jamie Dimon says everyone comes back, then that’s going to ripple far and wide.”
Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer at JPMorgan Chase & Co., last week said he expected all U.S.-based employees to be back in the office by early July, on a consistent rotational basis due to federal social-distancing guidelines. His memo to employees, reported by Bloomberg, also said “with this time frame in mind you should start making any needed arrangements to help with your successful return.”
I took this to mean, in other words, no, you can’t work from your beach house in Maine.
Many employers, however, seem willing to give employees one more commute-free summer.
Witness, for example, Bill Stromberg, chief executive officer of T. Rowe Price Group Inc., who last week said the firm planned to bring back its workforce in September. But note how conciliatory he sounded: “We’re coming back with a commitment to additional workplace flexibility, more than we’ve had in the past,” Stromberg said. “Some jobs really do function better in the office than others, and some can be more independent than others. We’re in the process of working that out, job-by-job, right now,” Bloomberg’s Annie Massa reported.
We’ve never gone through a period of almost two years where a solid 20% of the workforce did all or most of its work from home. This has to have a profound change on the workplace, and on the municipality where the workplace is located.