Rise Of Remote Work May Spell End Of The Offices : The Indicator from Planet Money Not every job can be done remotely, but will those that can stay remote? Today on the show, we discuss the current trends in remote work with an economist.

R.I.P. Office

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Are American workers going to go back to the office? That is the question that we have been grappling with, Greg Rosalsky. And we actually have pretty different opinions on how things are going to shake out.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: We do, Stacey. I think the office is going to win the day and that after the pandemic is finally passed, work will look a lot like it used to.

VANEK SMITH: And I have to say that you made a very compelling case for the cubicle farm yesterday. However, today it is my turn.


VANEK SMITH: And I am going to be making the case for the end of the office.



ROSALSKY: And I'm Greg Rosalsky.

VANEK SMITH: And today on the show, R.I.P. office. Greg, I'm going to give you three indicators that will prove, that will convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the office, as we know it, is dead.


VANEK SMITH: So Greg, to start out, we should say that we are not talking about all workers here. There are a lot of jobs that cannot be done remotely. If you are a dentist or a barista or a chef or a carpenter or a surgeon, you basically have to show up in real life to do your job.

ROSALSKY: That's true. It's estimated that about half of jobs in the United States can be done remotely. So that's kind of what we're debating here - the fate of that one half of working Americans.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And to help us figure out this fate, I called up an economist who has a foot in several different parts of the job market.

ADAM OZIMEK: Hello, my name is Adam Ozimek, and I'm the chief economist at Upwork.

VANEK SMITH: You are also a business owner.

OZIMEK: Yes, I have a couple businesses. I am one of the owners of a bowling alley restaurant arcade. I am one of the partners in Joycat Events, which runs beer fests. And I am one of the owners of Kepner Scott Shoes, which is the country's oldest children's shoe company.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God. Adam, like, what do you - do you have free time?

OZIMEK: You know, my secret is I don't like sports. And so...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) There you go. Secret to life - don't like sports. So we asked Adam, are we going back to the office? I mean, things have changed radically over the past year and a half, but the office - you know, it evolved over decades. It is powerfully entrenched in our culture and in our psyches. Not only that, Adam points out that traditionally, there has been a kind of stigma around remote work and remote workers.

OZIMEK: There's a great paper by Emma Harrington at Harvard about how remote workers were sort of viewed at firms before the pandemic and how often there was sort of a stigma associated with it. I mean, you can certainly see it in media portrayals. Like, there was the episode of "The Simpsons" in the '90s where Homer was trying to (inaudible) worker.


DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Working at home.

VANEK SMITH: You've got a guy. He's, like, at home taking breaks whenever he wants, like, drinking beer in the middle of the day.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter).


CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) What happened to my bird?

ROSALSKY: No, Homer.


CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Explosion imminent.

ROSALSKY: TLDR (ph), the nuclear plant almost has a total meltdown.

VANEK SMITH: See, Greg? You have people working from home and it almost destroys the world.

ROSALSKY: Yeah, wow. Homer's really making a case against remote work there.

VANEK SMITH: But Adam says a lot of those negative assumptions around remote work and remote workers have changed.

OZIMEK: We did a survey last year where we asked managers whether they thought productivity had gone up or gone down. And more thought it went up than went down. And that's important...


OZIMEK: Yeah, like, 32% to 23% thought it had gone up.

VANEK SMITH: That is my indicator for R.I.P. office, Greg. Thirty-two percent, 32% of managers thought people were more productive when they worked from home. And notably, only 23% said they thought that productivity went down. So, you know, most managers did not think productivity dropped when people were not physically in the office. And I think, Greg, that that will make them far less likely to push workers to come back to the office or, you know, especially to, like, lay down ultimatums. Because remember, Greg, the labor market's really tight right now. Workers have a lot of options. A lot of companies are kind of desperate for workers. Workers want to work from home, so much so that they are willing to pay for it. And I mean this literally. Adam and his team at Upwork did a survey that found that around a quarter of workers said they would consider taking a pay cut to stay remote. Not only that - a big chunk of the people they talked to who were already working remotely said that they would be willing to go to economic extremes to leave the cubicle farm behind for good.

OZIMEK: And we have some research that we just put out looking at the percent of people who are looking to quit because they want to stay remote. And we found that 17% of people are considering quitting their job to stay remote.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. Like, their job that they have right now, they're considering quitting.

OZIMEK: Yeah. So...


OZIMEK: ...That's a lot of people who place a serious economic value on working remotely.

VANEK SMITH: So indicator No. 2, Greg - people are willing to make sacrifices to work from home. And, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, but, like, where are you working from right now?

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) San Francisco.

VANEK SMITH: You and I worked in the same office for years in Manhattan.

ROSALSKY: That's right. That's right.

VANEK SMITH: And if and when our offices open back up in New York, are you going to come back to the office?

ROSALSKY: I hope not because my family and friends are all out here. This is where I grew up, so I hope they don't force me back.

VANEK SMITH: Would you, like, take a pay cut or anything? Would you consider it?

ROSALSKY: If our manager is listening, absolutely not. I'm going to drive a hard bargain.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Fair enough. Well, I just wanted to put that out there before I got to indicator No. 3 - Isaac Newton. So the delta variant has indefinitely postponed office reopenings for everyone from, like, Amazon to Wells Fargo to Apple. Like, it was just all over the news last week and this week.

ROSALSKY: It's been a huge bummer.

VANEK SMITH: I know. I know. The delta variant part is really hard. But I also do feel like the longer we stay away from the office and from, like, crazy rushed mornings and, like, eating your breakfast on the way to the subway, you know, putting your face into some stranger's armpit for 35 minutes...

ROSALSKY: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...Like, on a packed subway car, like, only to get to work and find that you can't get anything done because your cubicle-mate is being too loud, and then there's a fire drill, and then, like, someone steals your yogurt out of the communal office fridge and all of the other, like, annoyances that come with working in the office - here is where Isaac Newton comes in. You know, he was the guy who identified inertia, right? Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The more inertia that we get in working from home, the longer we stay away from the indignities of the office, the harder it's going to be to go back. And so, Greg, that is my argument No. 3 - Isaac Newton. This is why I think we're not going back to the office.

And there is, like, an economic upside also to the idea that we might not go back. Economist Adam Ozimek told me that he really thinks the shift away from the office could have a really positive impact on the U.S. economy. He says the rise of the so-called superstar cities, which is just a handful of cities where just so much of the country and really the planet's economic activity is concentrated - Adam says that that has been really hard on a lot of the country, a lot of small towns and rural areas.

OZIMEK: You have a falling tax base. You have falling house prices. You have rising vacancies. You know, when the tax base declines, the government cuts back services. That just is one more thing that pushes people away. So you get into this pretty negative downward spiral.

VANEK SMITH: Adam says if workers have a choice of where to live, that a lot of them will pick small cities and rural areas and bring a lot of economic activity into those areas, places where giant companies are not concentrated.

OZIMEK: Economically speaking, I do think that there is potential for that to help a lot of places that have been losing population and to sort of rebalance the economy away from superstar cities and towards the rest of the country.


ROSALSKY: I hope Adam's right because I want to stay remote, and I want to see economic activity more fairly spread across the country.

VANEK SMITH: And, like, I'm actually also really curious to hear what people think, so we would love to hear from you. If you happen to be on Twitter, you can go to our Twitter feed. That's @theindicator. And we have a little poll there. And just let us know if you think that people are going to go back to the office for the most part or if you think remote work is here to stay. We really want to know what you think.

In Brooklyn, I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ROSALSKY: And this is Greg Rosalsky in San Francisco.

VANEK SMITH: And this episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods in Queens, N.Y., with help from Jamila Huxtable in New Jersey and Gilly Moon in Los Angeles. It was fact-checked by Michael He, also in Los Angeles. It was edited by Kate Concannon in Seattle. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR, which is based in Washington, D.C.

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