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by Derek Loosvelt | May 12, 2020

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As the global pandemic continues, a growing number of top tech firms are telling their employees to prepare to continue to work remotely for the next several months—and at least one firm has told employees they can work from home indefinitely.

Slack told employees to continue to work remotely through September. Microsoft told employees to continue to work remotely through October. Facebook, Google, and Zillow told employees to continue to work remotely through December. And today, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey unveiled a new policy allowing certain employees to work remotely forever.

And it's not just tech firms telling employees to hunker down at home for the next few months, seasons, or years. Financial services firms like Capital One and Nationwide have also announced extended remote-work policies. Capital One's employees will be remote through at least Labor day, and Nationwide has announced several office closings, permanently transforming thousands of its in-office employees into fully remote ones.

As for why exactly these firms have extended remote-work policies far into the future, even as some states attempt to reopen amid the Covid-19 outbreak, a recent New York Times piece points to four specific reasons.

1. "No one is sure how the coronavirus pandemic will evolve."

If there's one thing you can be sure of when it comes to Covid-19 it's that no one's sure what's going to happen. Will the summer months stall its spread? Will the relaxing of social distancing measures cause a second deadly wave? Will there be a vaccine in eight months? Eighteen? Will the virus mutate? Will it increasingly affect children?

No one knows the answers to these questions, and if they tell you they do, they're not telling you the truth.

As a result, companies are increasingly realizing we're living in incredibly uncertain times, with facts and figures changing daily. Consider that, every day, there are still at least 20,000 new Covid-19 cases in the U.S., and total U.S. cases have surpassed 1.2 million. Thus, it's no surprise that many companies are playing it literally safe, doing as much as they can to keep their employees and others in their communities safe, even if it means the loss of business, or the appearance of loss business, in the short term.

2. "It is a pragmatic approach that helps workers with young children plan for a difficult summer, and gives management time to reconfigure open-office plans into something safer."

Across the country, schools are closed. In most cases, they're closed for the rest of the school year, requiring many parents (who are trying to hold down full-time jobs) to help their children complete their remote-learning assignments. This is no easy task for parents (full-time employees or not) and no easy task for children, who are having to learn remotely or the first time in their lives while keeping their distance from friends, teachers, and extended family members.

There's also the very good possibility that certain schools won't be able to reopen in the fall. Can you imagine thousands of small classrooms across the country, 30 kids in each, in the middle of a global pandemic? Right. And so, certain companies are getting the message that school closings might continue for some time, and are buying time to rethink and reconfigure their employees' work schedules, not to mention their workplaces—which will need to look a lot different for anyone to return safely.

3. "Working from home is working out well."

What some companies might not want to admit but others are embracing is remote work is working well, even better than well. According to the chief people officer of San Francisco-based Docusign, "Working from home is a great thing for the company and for the employees, who don’t want to get back in cars and commute for two hours. That’s lost productivity. I see it happening way more often in the future.”

Of course, saving time is one thing, saving lives is quite another. Consider that last week, for the first time in its 116-year history, the New York City subway system began shutting down each night (between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.) for a daily deep clean. This has commuters wondering: Does that mean the subway will be cleaner and safer? Or has it just reached such a low point in cleanliness and safety that it requires such a cleanse?

In any case, one positive of the Covid-19 pandemic is that remote work has proven to be sustainable—for employers and employees alike. Employers stand to benefit from lower costs and increased employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity, while employees stand to benefit from a better work/life balance. Of course, this won't be true of every employer and employee in every industry, but "a broad shift could have major implications for traffic congestion, office culture and corporate profits. Smaller firms could draw on a much larger pool of potential workers who live beyond the radius of headquarters. And for some, it would erase the boundary between work and home."

4. "Even if employees who are working remotely are less productive, companies can end up with a higher return."

A common management complaint of the remote-work arrangement is it decreases employee productivity. To that, Brian Kropp, a vice president at consulting firm Gartner, says to consider that “even if employees who are working remotely are 5 percent less productive, companies can save 20 percent on real estate and end up with a higher return.”

Another thing to consider is the case of Seattle-based real estate giant Zillow. Prior to the pandemic, 2 percent of Zillow's workforce worked remotely full time, and another 4 percent worked remotely part time. That is, the firm, more or less, frowned upon remote work. But now, all 5,000 of its employees work remotely—and will continue to do so until 2021—and the firm has discovered that remote work works surprisingly well.

According to Zillow Chief People Officer Dan Spaulding, the company is "not seeing any discernible drop in productivity ... Our bias against working from home has been completely exploded.”

A final note

No matter when U.S. governors decide it's okay for their respective states to reopen, a question inevitably facing all companies with respect to when to reopen their offices is this: Is our workplace and the commutes to our workplace safe (enough) for employees to return?

Likewise, irrespective of what their employers decide, employees will inevitably face the question: Is my workplace and commute safe (enough) for me to return?

It remains to be seen what the answers to these questions will be in one month, three months, and six months out. But, at the moment, the answer to the follow question seems pretty clear: How safe can employers and employees feel about their workplaces reopening when Covid-19 has penetrated what is arguably the safest, most secure, most tightly controlled workplace in the U.S., if not the world?

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