The world is well into the greatest “natural experiment” in WFH ever seen. No one glided into this; it came as abruptly as an on-off switch. I’m sure the experience at Adam Smith, Esq. was fairly typical: One week (spanning the end of February and the start of March) we were giving a keynote at a Penn Law conference, proceeding down the Northeast Corridor for a retreat with a Washington, DC firm, returning to New York for lunch with a client, and then hitting the brick wall of self-imposed lockdown over the next 36 hours. (State and city-imposed lockdown followed shortly thereafter.)
Now, almost five months in, what have we learned?
Voices like McKinsey (“Reimagining the post-pandemic workforce”) and Harvard Business Review (the seven-part “Do we really need the office?”) have had the time, and in some cases the luxury of preliminary research, to begin discussing, “where to from here?”
As we all went through the looking glass from our sleek skyscrapers to bedrooms, dens, dining tables, kitchens, basements, and attics, universally everyone realized that (a) almost all of us were well prepared for it (the technology armamentarium to keep working; (b) people and businesses adapted with lightning speed, and (c) productivity barely suffered a hiccup and may be on a permanently higher plane.
If you believe research from MIT and NBER (I do), the share of employed Americans working from home went from about 5% to half, pretty much overnight. And while the experience of other countries, especially those in Asia, has substantially diverged from those in the West, what does it all mean for our future efficiency, capacity for collaboration and social cohesion, and, obviously, real estate spend.
James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, summed up succinctly where we are: “If you’d asked me beforehand whether I would have tried the experiment of sending the entire firm home overnight, I would have said, are you crazy? But now, we have shown we can operate with virtually no footprint.”
Now, if you ask me to predict what new equilibrium WFH vs. the office will settle down on after this is all over, I would echo Mr. Gorman’s first remark: Are you crazy?
And yet, we know a lot we didn’t know in January and February. For example, based on an extensive, and ongoing, survey of over 600 US-based white collar professionals, some developments I wager no one would have predicted back then are evident: