COVID-19 has, to put it mildly, altered our way of life. Most of these changes—like only leaving the house for essential reasons and staying at least 6 feet away from nonfamily members—will quickly dissipate.
But some changes could stick around, at least in part, for the better.
Hopefully we'll all wash our hands more regularly than we did before. Some people will probably stick with their daily walks outside, or keep checking in on elderly neighbors.
And there's one other potential benefit to many workers: a shift toward more flexible work schedules and increased telework.
Most businesses have been forced to close their doors and limit their operations to what can be done remotely.
This is obviously easier for some businesses than others. But many businesses and individuals, as part of a services-dominant economy that has experienced rapid growth in technology, have been able to continue working remotely, at least in part, even amid citywide and statewide shutdowns.
Prior to COVID-19, remote work and increased workplace flexibility were already on the rise in the U.S. This was due in part to improvements in technology that make such arrangements possible.
But worker demand was also a driving force. According to a survey by Zenefits, 77% of workers say flexible work is a major consideration in their job searches, and a FlexJobs survey showed that 30% of workers have left a job because it didn't provide flexible work options.
And 51% of people who enjoy the flexibility of freelance work (including the self-employed, contractors, gig workers and other independent workers) say that no amount of money would definitely cause them give up freelancing for traditional employment.
Parents especially value workplace flexibility and work-family balance—even more than salary and benefits—with over 80% of parents listing these as their most important factors in a potential job.
And as an increasing number of workers find themselves caring for aging baby boomer parents, they too want increased workplace flexibility. According to 2019 Freelancing in America Report, 10.5 million workers (18% of all freelancers) say they freelance because their family obligations prevent them from working for a traditional employer.
Flexibility is also extremely important—often essential—for individuals with health issues or disabilities. According to the same Freelancing report, 11.4 million workers (20% of those who freelance) say that their health condition prevents them from working for a traditional employer. But they are able to perform flexible freelancing jobs.
Fortunately, employers are responding to workers desires. According to a 2019 Survey of hiring managers by USA Today and LinkedIn, offering more flexible work schedules was the most common way employers were competing to attract workers amid the then-record-low 3.5% unemployment rate.
Yet many employers remain skeptical of flexible and remote work for a number of reasons.
For starters, there's innate value in face-to-face interactions with co-workers, and that's not going to change. If anything, the current situation has clarified the difficulty of performing certain functions remotely, and the value of personal interaction.
It can also be hard for certain employers to monitor workers' productivity when they don't see them in the office or know when they are working. Some workers are more productive with flexible and remote options, while others do better with structure, which can make it hard, particularly for large employers, to make flexibility and telework uniformly available.
Today's forced telework experience provides an opportunity for workers to prove if they can maintain their productivity and responsiveness from home, and an opportunity for employers to learn what type of work can be done remotely, and what is still difficult or impossible.
In many cases, what was difficult or impossible before is now possible because businesses have been forced to adapt and implement new technologies.
Some of those changes will stick, and some won't. But one benefit of forced remote work could be an increase in workplace flexibility and teleworking options.
There will be some costs for employers of implementing such policies, yet the benefits could be significant. And not just for individuals and employers—but for the entire economy, because it can mean more individuals participating in the labor force.
That's a triple-positive-whammy for the economy because it means more output, higher incomes and that workers can keep more of what they earn because fewer taxes are needed to support government safety net programs.
COVID-19 has brought tragic losses of lives and enormous economic disruptions. But it will likely also result in life-saving and life-improving changes in medicine and lifestyle.
A potential silver lining could be increased workplace flexibility that will could help many Americans—particularly individuals with disabilities and caregivers—better manage, and enjoy, both their work and personal lives.
This piece originally appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star