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Is Work From Home Forever?

The stay-at-home order upended the way Chicagoans do their jobs — possibly for good.

Illustration by Ileana Soon Illustration: Ileana Soon

On March 11, nine days before Governor J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order, ShopRunner CEO Sam Yagan ordered all 200 of his employees to leave the company’s River North headquarters and begin working remotely. Yagan had been following news of the coronavirus’s spread — the day before, the number of cases in Illinois had jumped from 11 to 19, and then that morning, the first positive test of a worker in a major downtown office building was reported — and he realized “we had to consider obligations much larger than just us.”

Even for a company whose gimmick is offering members free shipping from more than a hundred retailers, suddenly conducting business remotely, with little warning, took some major adjusting. Though ShopRunner had let employees work from home when they needed to, its operations were largely face to face. Yagan had long held monthly all-hands meetings in the office, addressing the entire staff. During the COVID-19 crisis, he began conducting them weekly, over Zoom. And instead of talking business with clients over drinks and dinner, they began wooing them via videoconferencing.

Yagan hasn’t seen a drop in business, but he also can’t wait to get back to his daily walks through the office: “It’s super hard to provide empathy over video,” he says. “I think we have some people working harder than ever. On the other hand, it’s really hard to be at full productivity. If this was the optimal way to run a company, people would have already done it.”

COVID-19 is going to make working from home more common, Yagan believes. Workplaces that have been forced to operate over the internet — and have seen that it can be done — won’t be able to go back to demanding their employees work exclusively in the office. “I think ultimately everyone will find a way to incorporate this into their business. It’s going to accelerate existing trends.”

Increased remote working, once employed by only the most progressive companies, will make it easier for professionals to advance their careers without uprooting their lives and families — and for companies to recruit talent. “It means you don’t have to convince someone to move to your city,” says urban policy expert Aaron Renn. “Or it could mean you already have a worker who likes being in Chicago” and can now take a job somewhere else. “The workers become an even bigger commodity. The workers have more leverage.” On the downside, he notes, the trend could threaten Chicago’s position as a centralized hub for professional services firms: “If there’s less demand for flying in consultants [for short-term assignments in other cities], that would probably negatively affect Chicago.”

Basecamp, a Chicago-based company that helps offices set up remote work networks, increased business by 25 percent during the early months of COVID-19, CEO Jason Fried says. (Also during that time, Fried’s Remote: Office Not Required became the No. 1 office management book on Amazon.) Fried expects to see even more interest as companies discover that working from home is less expensive and more efficient — something Basecamp has already found from its own operating policies. Its employees have autonomous schedules, allowing them to put in eight hours a day where and how they see fit. Information is exchanged through emails, text messages, and phone calls. “The office is a shitty place to work,” Fried says. “It’s full of interruptions. Companies have a lot of money tied up in them. This is a moment when everyone has to experiment.”

Work that can only be done in person is going to change, too. Many of the employees deemed essential during the crisis were low-paid grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and short-order cooks. Previously invisible members of the workforce turned out to be “heroes … putting themselves in harm’s way [which will result in] a reevaluation of the moral estimation of what work counts,” says John Paul Rollert, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In March, Amazon began offering paid sick leave for part-timers, a benefit for which workers at a fulfillment center in McKinley Park had long campaigned.

As COVID-19 changes workers’ relationships with employers, it will also reshape government’s role in the workplace. “We’re having a universal experience of the kind we haven’t had since the Second World War,” Rollert says. “After this, we’re going to have a conversation about the types of social insurance we only see in northern Europe. Everything is going to be on the table.” We’ve already seen one example come to pass: The $1,200 checks mailed out as part of the $2 trillion stimulus package were a form of the universal basic income Andrew Yang called for during his presidential campaign. “Medicare for All” was 3rd Congressional District candidate Marie Newman’s No. 1 issue. She won the Democratic primary on March 17, days before the stay-at-home order went into effect. Now that COVID-19 has made Americans understand that illness is a social problem as well as an individual one, Newman thinks the program has a good chance to pass in the next Congress. “People who were on the fence are starting to warm up to this,” she says. “People are saying, ‘We don’t have a safety net.’ ”

Plenty of folks were already having those discussions before COVID-19, just as plenty were already working from home. But think of the pandemic as a one-way portal to the future: Now that people have experienced the other side, there’s no going back.

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