One of the biggest economic impacts of the Covid-19 epidemic is not the second quarter economic decline, but the longer-term ways it could transform our global economy—potentially for the better. The world has been forced to go digital on an unprecedented scale, and more companies are now accepting a teleworking environment that many have resisted over the years. We are all experimenting with potentially a more efficient work modality, and it’s possible that we—workers and corporations—won’t ever go back.
A study by Global Workplace Analytics found that 3.6% of the U.S. workforce has been working from home half time or more before the crisis—and you can see from the graph that the numbers are pretty evenly distributed. But more interestingly, the analysts estimated that 56% of employees have a job where at least some of what they do could be done remotely, and 89% of employees wanted to work from home at least some of the time.
This is remarkably good news for today’s current economic activity. Economists may be assuming that work throughout the American economy will grind to a halt as we practice social distancing. These statistics suggest that in many companies, a high percentage of the essential work will get done via telework even if the offices are empty.
Among the advantages of teleworking: workers don’t have to spend as much time commuting to work, and therefore they can (theoretically) devote more time both to their jobs and to enhanced leisure time. Their travel costs go down, and they experience greater work time flexibility to take care of family in emergencies.
On the corporate side, when a high percentage of the staff is working remotely, it forces management to define clear objectives that need to be accomplished, rather than a nebulous “face-time” environment that prioritizes simply being in the office. Meetings, which can be terrific time-wasters, are cut back as people are assigned projects and held accountable for completing them. And, of course, teleworking can also reduce a company’s infrastructure costs: it reduces the need for office space, consumption of electricity, heating and computer equipment.
One field that might see significant permanent change is education. Schools and universities have been forced to close their doors, which in the past would have meant an extended vacation for students, teachers and professors. Today it means online coursework at the university level, and K-12 teachers organizing reading and homework assignments which are submitted virtually. At the more advanced level, a company called Ahura AI has found that online training can be significantly accelerated by algorithms that analyze users’ real-time frustrations and distractions, and adjust the lesson plan or degree of difficulty on the fly. Will colleges find ways to incorporate these insights into English, Business or Biology curricula?
The digital experiment we are going through now is going to give all of us a look at our teleworking options, and revise everybody’s assumptions about the benefits and drawbacks of digital work technologies. As telework and remote education go mainstream during the social distancing period, the result could be a new balance between in-person and at-home workplaces that might make our economy more efficient and productive.