Working from home has been a growing trend; with COVID-19, it may become a requirement.
For more than a decade, the practice of supporting remote workers — particularly including those working from home — has grown among U.S. employers. More than 4.7 million Americans either worked remotely or telecommuted at least half-time by 2018 — more than twice the number who had done so just ten years earlier.1 Moreover, a study by Owl Labs conducted last fall projected that by 2025, half the American workforce would be working remotely for at least part of their week.2
Those findings focused on regular full-time employees who either worked from home or on the road. But the fastest-growing share of the workforce is actually part-time, or ondemand — those whose work is considered part of the gig economy, where unconventional workspace arrangements are standard. And, for both full-time and part-time workers, a growing variety of leading companies have embraced the remote work concept.3 As a result, some analysts have projected that by the end of 2020, 19% of the workforce will consist of contingent workers.4
There’s a hitch, however. That forecast was made last year in early 2019, before the global pandemic of COVID-19 was even on the radar. Although their projections anticipated a steadily rising curve of remote workers, those were rendered obsolete with the spread of corona virus threatening to infect millions — resulting in school closures, suspended transit schedules, closed work facilities and lockdowns of anyplace people could gather and infect one another. Major cities in China took on the appearance of ghost towns with eerily empty streets, stores, and offices.
Officials elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Europe and the Middle East, imposed municipal lockdowns and weeks of quarantine. Sick people were sent to isolation units. Healthy people were directed to stay home to avoid catching or transmitting the virus. Yet, the need for economic productivity and essential services never stopped.
There is, however, a key difference between the COVID-19 outbreak and earlier eruptions of diseases: the state of the digital landscape. Unlike prior episodes, which occurred in mostly predigital work environments, the outbreak of COVID-19 is happening in today’s highly digitized world where most jobs
Although no one is sure what direction the coronavirus outbreak will take, COVID-19 has cast a dark cloud over markets everywhere. If all goes well, it could pass quickly, without generating even more disruptions. And if it does, it will accelerate the adoption of remote work — a major workplace development that stands to benefit both employers and employees for years to come.
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