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Could working remotely last forever?

Whether you love working from the living room or hate it, we’re all curious if it might be here to stay.

WASHINGTON — So many people have been working from home for nearly a year now as the DMV hits the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases in the area. 

Whether you love working from the living room or hate it, we’re all curious if it might be here to stay. WUSA9 reached out to an expert on remote work from Harvard University to get his thoughts. 

QUESTION: First of all, how work-from-home friendly is the D.C. metro area?

ANSWER: Even before the pandemic, working from home was a little more popular in the D.C. area than on average. Associated Press data put the number of remote jobs in D.C. at over 6% in 2018, slightly above the national average. 

Months into the pandemic, in December 2020, vacation rental company Outdoorsy analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and researchers at the University of Chicago. They found the D.C. area had one of the highest percentages of remote-work-friendly jobs in the country. We were in second place at over 47%, right behind San Jose, California.

Q: So will remote jobs be here to stay even after the pandemic?

A: “Yes, I think remote work is here to stay, and I see this pandemic, you know, however unfortunate it is, as being an accelerator to this future work phenomena. It's probably accelerated this whole process by 10 years,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, said. “In my research, and in my discussions with companies, I've seen across industries a lot of interest and enthusiasm for adopting work from home and also work from anywhere.” 

Q: What’s the benefit of working remotely?

A: Although working remotely may take some adjusting to, Choudhury said it has clear benefits. Through his research as a remote work expert, he zeroed in on the U.S. Patent Office based out of Alexandria — an office he described as an early pioneer in the “work from anywhere” telework movement. 

“They adopted work from home in 2007 and they adopted work from anywhere back in 2012. I studied that in detail and I found that that transition led to higher productivity,” Choudhury explained. “When people were allowed to move to a town or city that they wanted to live in, they exerted more effort. And the reason they exerted more effort, I believe, is they felt this loyalty towards the U.S. Patent Office; this incredible organization has allowed them to move back to wherever they wanted to go.”

Q: A massive change like foregoing the office forever can’t just benefit employees - employers will likely want reasons for why this change might be sustainable on their end. What are some of the reasons employers might decide to keep employees working remotely indefinitely?

A: “The biggest reason is attracting and retaining talent. You don't have to worry about immigration, you don't have to worry about dual careers; you don't have to worry about women being sidelined, because they cannot move because their spouse doesn't want to move. You can now become a magnet for talent and then you can also retain your talent and develop your talent much better,” Choudhury explained. “The second reason is you can save on a ton of real estate costs, and a ton of utilities cost because you don't need to invest in expensive big office buildings.” 

Q: What about those coworkers among us who enjoy working in the office and miss seeing colleagues every day. What’s the future hold for that group?

Choudhury said the future isn’t all doom and gloom if that’s your preference. There are creative ways the future of work could accommodate you, too. 

A: “I think the future of work is definitely not one where we are all isolated working in our tiny corners,” he said. “Even if you're working from anywhere, or working from home, there are occasions maybe a few times of the year, when the entire team needs to come together in a physical location. You can do fun activities together and really bond as a team. So temporary colocation is key.”

In addition, Choudhury explained that socializing online will always be an option he recommends, including virtual watercooler-style chats where coworkers connect regularly to get to know one another in a more casual setting.

Plus, if you’re especially in need of a space to share with others in the future, Choudhury has one unique suggestion that could become commonplace over time. “If you are an office kind of person and you have moved away from the location where the company has an office, you can always go and work in a co-working space,” he said. Co-working spaces are office buildings where people from different organizations opt to come together and work in the same space, Choudhury shared.

One example he cited is an organization called WeWork, founded in 2010 and based out of New York City, with spaces already available for use in the D.C. area, as well as across the county. The self-described “global workplace provider” writes of their mission on their website: "We're constantly reimagining how the workplace can help everyone, from freelancers to Fortune 500s, be more motivated, productive, and happy—because that’s how tomorrow works. "

Choudhury also mentioned the emergence of rent-an-office business concepts, similar to Airbnb when it comes to individuals sharing their homes with travelers. “You have a vacant office in your home, you can rent it out by the hour for people who don't have a decent home office. They might be in your neighborhood, they come and work in your home office for a couple of hours and pay you by the hour.”

Regardless of how companies decide to deal with remote work policies in the future, Choudhury shared his excitement at the prospect of more work from anywhere allowances across the country. He explained it could provide a benefit for the nation as a whole, even beyond the employer or employees. 

“Work from anywhere could help these smaller towns all over the country, which have been losing talent for decades, attract talent back,” he explained.

Q: But if people are moving to more towns in middle America, potentially chasing a lower cost of living, would this lead to challenges for cities in the future?

A: Choudhury said he doesn’t believe so. “I don't think the cities will be irrelevant. It's just that the cities will be less crowded, which is good for the cities as well,” he shared. “if you are raising a young family and you cannot afford a large apartment in New York or D.C., then now you can move to a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you can raise a young family very affordably. So I think it's a win-win for the cities, as well as the small towns.”

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