When stay-at-home orders became widespread back in March, there was a tentative nature to office closures for most companies. Five months later, with clearer indication that the coronavirus pandemic will be embedded in daily life for a much longer and indefinite time frame, a number of companies are planning to abandon in-person work for another full year.
Google recently announced that it won’t bring workers back to U.S. offices until next July, while Facebook is implementing a plan to permanently embrace remote work for half of its workforce within the next five to 10 years. Some companies, like the New York Daily News last week, have permanently closed physical offices as they stare down a precarious economic forecast.
Without being tethered to any one office or city, the shift to working from home has opened the door for widespread migration — from both major metro areas and surrounding suburbs, to different regions of the country altogether. A Wall Street Journal report from June illustrates just how rapidly Americans were relocating at the start of the pandemic, with maps tracing where residents from six major cities ended up. Although the data firm Cuebiq detected that Americans in April were relocating at twice the pace as a year prior, the report underscores that it’s still too early to tell how many of the relocations are permanent.
The pandemic conditions have created an untold number of new workers who aren’t tied to any one location, which could drastically alter how companies approach remote work.
A Return to Offices
Although some of the largest tech companies in America are committed to remote work in the long term, an increasing number of office workers have returned to in-person labor. According to a recent CivicScience survey of over 2,700 U.S. adult office workers, more than half of Americans polled are already back in the workplace, with nearly a third facing no definite return date. Higher earners are both more likely to be back in the office or indefinitely remote than any other income bracket. Just 4% of Americans surveyed will now be permanently remote.
As the country has moved forward with reopening in the face of a summer surge in new COVID-19 cases, Americans’ comfort levels in returning to the office have also gradually risen. According to August polling last week, 60% of adults are comfortable with going back to work now, with less than a quarter (19%) of Americans not ready for at least six more months. It’s a fairly wide chasm between these two extremes, with just marginal support for any time frame in the next several weeks or months.
Is it Urban Flight or Suburban Flight?
Family or long-established roots to an area are obvious reasons for determining where you live, but the pandemic has really clarified how many people only live in a given place for work. Nearly one third of adults surveyed by CivicScience say they would absolutely move to a different city or state if they could always work remotely, with just 38% certain they’d stay put if work permitted them to leave.
So where would they go? The Wall Street Journal article mentioned above conveys the prevailing narrative of adults fleeing cities to less densely populated, perhaps less expensive areas. However, the data doesn’t necessarily reflect a unified flight of city residents to the suburbs. An equal percentage of city and suburban residents surveyed have thought about relocating during the pandemic. Urban residents are just 1% more likely to have somewhat considered a move. While this may seem counterintuitive, the type of area in which a person lives isn’t incredibly predictive of how likely they are to stay put.
Remote Work — But At a Cost
In addition to providing workers the chance to live in a more appealing, cost-effective area, a permanent pivot to remote work can be beneficial for companies saddled with expensive corporate rental space. There are the obvious cost-cutting measures — not needing to pay rent or own brick-and-mortar office buildings — but some companies have proposed a sliding, location-based wage scale. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea of Facebook adjusting pay based on an employee’s work location to much controversy. The plan, which one commentator went so far as to call “barbaric,” would effectively reduce the salary of a worker living in Kansas for contributing the same labor as someone based in Silicon Valley.
Just over one-third of adults surveyed by CivicScience would be at least somewhat willing to accept a lower salary for the option to work from any location, but 26% are not willing at all to take the pay cut. That rigidity is far more prevalent among urban residents, who are 8% more likely than suburban workers to not accept a pay cut. Generally, city, suburban, and rural residents are all about as likely to accept a lower salary.
The past five months have thoroughly upended American workplaces, in ways both temporary and permanent. While a significant portion of offices have brought employees back for in-person work, the coming months and years could irreversibly change the way companies think about remote work.