I am generally skeptical of arguments that COVID19 will permanently change the way we socialize, work, travel, seek out entertainment. If anything I think that once there is a vaccine for COVID (the creation of a viable vaccine is not a given but I assume it for these purposes) that people will return to many of these activities with a renewed gusto. The exceptions – and they may be very big ones – are those cases where people decide that new ways of operating are more efficient, cost effective or simply better. This may particularly affect how we work.
In the early days of the epidemic when major corporations were dramatically scaling back and then canceling foreign travel I discussed this with a number of TPM Readers. In a globalized economy big companies spend vast sums of money on business travel. Very little business travel has been happening anywhere in the world’s big industrial economies for going on three months. Now virtually all business meetings take place remotely. My reader correspondents predicted that when the pandemic was over businesses would look at the mix of cost savings and reduced productivity and decide that the cost savings greatly outweighed reduced productivity. Maybe they would decide that there was no reduced productivity at all.
It’s important to consider the knock-on effects of major changes in rates of business travel. First is that there are whole industries and niche economies that depend on it. Much of air transportation for instance is effectively subsidized by the backbone of consistent rates of travel for business, where relatively high costs are accepted. It sustains many hotels. It sustains various services and service industries in major cities.
It’s not just the obvious stuff. A lot of money goes into travel but the consistency of business travel has a financial importance to key industries that is well out of proportion to the absolute number of dollars involved.
Now consider working from home.
Many businesses have to operate in congregated physical spaces – manufacturing, much of retail, many services and entertainment. But many can be done remotely or from home. How optimally that can be done is an open question and even a matter of controversy. But they can be done from home. Companies spend huge sums of money renting offices. I know this from personal experience. TPM, a small and comparatively threadbare company, rents office space in two of the highest priced commercial real estate markets in the country – New York and Washington, DC. It costs a ton of money. We haven’t been in those offices for two months.
Do we need to be there? I have always been a big advocate of offices and newsrooms. But setting aside this deeper workplace philosophy question, it is certainly true that we’ve managed fairly well remote for a couple months.
This could end up being a pretty big deal for the commercial real estate market, but as with business travel, it’s not just the real estate. The part of Manhattan where our office is located is filled with office building and just as filled with restaurants that feed the people who work in those buildings. There are bodegas, salons, gyms and all the other stuff that caters to people who work there. Some of that is for people who live there; it’s also a residential neighborhood. My point is that these basic patterns of how and where we work sustains or undercuts whole parts of the economy which service our current work mores and practices.
Those things seem like they could change dramatically.
The other question is who chooses? At one level these questions will be decided by businesses that employ people, which is to say the owners. But the kinds of businesses where people can work from home tend to be industries where workers have relatively more bargaining power – regardless of whether they have union representation: lawyers, programmers, finance, advertising, PR, various kinds of consulting, research, journalism. They tend to be areas where there’s relatively more labor power to choose more desirable than less desirable places to work compared to many ‘essential services’ or in-person work or many service industry jobs. Indeed, a big move to working from home for those professions and industries who can work from home will likely lead to disruptions in the service industries that can’t, since many of those service the workplace culture of those other wrok-from-homeable industries.
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