COVID-19 Is a ‘Forcing Function’ for Remote Work—What It Means for Your Future Office

September 18, 2020

Laptop setup on table in living room for remote work

In the first in a series of virtual discussions on The New Future of Work, the San Francisco Fed brought together a panel of experts to speak with SF Fed President Mary C. Daly about how COVID-19 is a “forcing function” for remote work. The pandemic rapidly accelerated changes in businesses around the country. Ways of working and collaborating many thought would take more than a decade to change were accomplished in a few days or weeks.

“From my vantage point here at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, I’ve learned that many more people can work from home than I thought was ever possible. Over 90% of our workforce is now at home,” said President Daly during the one-hour event.

Joining President Daly were Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global; Erica Brescia, chief operating officer at GitHub; and Nick Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford and co-director of the NBER Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. The panelists answered viewer questions and focused on what’s next for employers and employees once the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us.

Here are our top takeaways for business leaders and human resource professionals. The following quotes are lightly edited for clarity.

1. Plan for the future you want, today.

“If we want a future that is inclusive, productive, and sustainable after the pandemic, we have to start to build it. We only get the future we want if we start talking about it today. Intentionally and together, we can make the new future.”

– Mary C. Daly

2. If you want productive workers, let them recharge.

“For the human operating system, downtime—the opportunity to recharge, to connect with our hidden capabilities—is a feature, not a bug. We are now discovering that because we have to, to tap into that resilience in order to function during these unprecedented times.”

– Arianna Huffington

3. Recognize that remote work may not be ideal right now.

“It’s really hard working from home with kids at home, and 57% of Americans have kids under the age of 18 at home. A second issue is having access to your own room, but only 49% of Americans do. A third issue is having working equipment, including broadband and a laptop.”

– Nick Bloom

4. Address the human layer.

“How do we show up at work? What state are we? There’s some amazing research that just came out of Yale that shows that when we are stressed and anxious, which the majority of people—according to every survey—are right now, whether you’re working at home, or working in the office, you are not going to be as productive because your prefrontal cortex is weakened and stress interferes with productivity. What we need to do is expand the conversation to address this human layer.”

– Arianna Huffington

5. Respect that everyone has different challenges.

“We have people who are in apartments with tons of roommates, and everybody’s fighting for space. I had a video call with somebody who was sitting on the floor of a bathroom one day because all the other rooms in their apartment were being used. Conversely, there are people who are alone and feeling very isolated. Some folks, unfortunately, are struggling with depression or addiction. Then there’s, of course, childcare responsibilities on top of that. I have a seven-year-old and adjusting to having everybody at home, everybody working from home has been challenging.”

– Erica Brescia

6. Fight burnout culture.

“Bringing your whole self to work is not a cliché. It’s essential for productivity. We bring to the skeptics a lot of data and examples from athletes because they demonstrate that results—winning on the field or on the court—are connected to recovery, and recovery for athletes is part of performance. We need to change the culture so that HR leaders, executives, boards, and everyone else can recognize the terrible impact that burnout-fueled cultures have on business metrics.”

– Arianna Huffington

7. Realize where you might be perpetuating inequities.

“If you look at people that work from home, they’re five times more likely to have a university degree than high school or less. The types of jobs that are easier to work from home are more managerial, more professional. They’re basically based on computers while 30% of people on business premises tend to be more face-to-face, or work with equipment, machinery. They, on average, are lower paid—not entirely, for example, surgeons or dentists or pilots have to be on the business premises, but this is a big issue for increasing inequality. We’re going to have to think very hard about how we’re going to address this, and I’m not sure there are any easy solutions.” 

– Nick Bloom

8. Expect the rise of the Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO).

“We are seeing many companies prioritizing volunteering, inclusivity—things, which in the past perhaps, were part of commencement speeches but not business plans. One of the things that has happened since the pandemic is the CHRO has become the most important executive next to the CEO. The CHRO is looking at how can they really enhance the wellbeing of their employees, knowing that this will have a direct impact on productivity and business metrics. We’re finding that volunteering, expanding our circle of concern beyond ourselves and our family to include the community, is critical both in closing income inequalities and in helping us be more connected with something deeper than ourselves in our lives.”

– Arianna Huffington

9. Acknowledge where processes are improving.

“A lot of things that are forced by remote work are healthy anyway. One of them is written communication skills. A lot more happens in writing when you have folks working remotely and learning to document things, to document business cases, to document when decisions are made to make that information as available as possible within a company. That’s incredibly important for advancing your business, regardless of whether people are working remotely.”

– Erica Brescia

10. Full-time remote work may not work for everyone.

“Before COVID, most people who worked from home, did so for one or two days a week. That’s a fantastic thing. In the data, we see working from home for one, two, three days a week can be very effective at increasing productivity. It’s much less obvious on full-time working from home. There’s concern over creativity. Can you create new ideas if you’re permanently working from home? Motivation. Is it hard to stay engaged and focused if you’re at home? Loyalty to your company. The other side of it is not so obvious: Not everyone wants to work from home full time.”

– Nick Bloom

11. Post-pandemic, promote remote and in-office workers equitably.

“If people get promoted more frequently when they’re in the office, then post-COVID, we’re going to leave behind people who make a different choice. Those people might be parents with kids or people who live far away because it’s too expensive to live near work. That would end up as a less inclusive future, not a more inclusive future.”

– Mary C. Daly

Watch the full discussion.

Please check back for information on upcoming New Future of Work events.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.