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Get A Comfortable Chair: Permanent Work From Home Is Coming


Indefinite or even permanent - those are words companies are using about their employees working from home because three months into this huge, unplanned social experiment, working from home works. NPR's Uri Berliner reports.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Twitter and Facebook made headlines with announcements about permanent work from home. But the news from a 94-year-old company in the heartland - Columbus, Ohio - may have been even more significant. Nationwide insurance is shutting five regional offices because remote work has gone so smoothly during the pandemic, and thousands of employees will permanently ditch their commutes for home offices. Nationwide's CEO Kirt Walker says it's been a popular decision at the company.

KIRT WALKER: Overwhelming - hundreds of emails and cards and letters and phone calls - thank you for doing this. So I think we got it right.

BERLINER: Right for employees, customers, the environment and, Walker says, Nationwide's finances.

WALKER: As a private company, we've elected not to share what the savings are. But they're significant.

BERLINER: Saving money - it's always an attractive proposition for businesses, especially these days. And that's likely to drive the shift to remote work. Kate Lister consults with companies on the future of work at Global Workplace Analytics.

KATE LISTER: Going into a, you know, recession and economic downturn, you know, those CEOs are laying awake at night thinking of all those buildings that they're, you know, heating. Productivity is continuing without being at the office - and saying, wow, I think we could use for a change here.

BERLINER: Companies including investment banks Morgan Stanley and Barclays and food giant Mondelez all expect to use less real estate as more employees work from home. But remote work all the time isn't popular with either bosses or workers. Workplace consultant Lister has done a survey showing that the sweet spot for employees is splitting the workweek between home and office. And that would suit Matthew Shultz just fine.

MATTHEW SHULTZ: If I were to have it my way, I would probably work from home three days a week and go into the office two.

BERLINER: Shultz is a plumbing designer who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Normally, he drives an hour each day to get to an office in Dallas. But these days, he pads over it to a guest bedroom at home and fires up his computer.

SHULTZ: You know, I'm sitting here wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and I've got, you know, my two cats just running around all through the house. It's kind of weird. But at the same time, it's more comfortable. And I feel like I'm a lot more relaxed here than I am in the office.

BERLINER: Shultz says he gets at least as much done from home as in the office, and that tracks Lister's survey showing 77% of workers say they're fully productive at home. And managers are largely satisfied with their work performance. Now the caveats - more than half of working Americans can't do their jobs remotely at all. And before we get giddy thinking that work from home is a cure-all, it's worth listening to Judy Olson.

JUDY OLSON: I've been studying distance work for about 30 years now.

BERLINER: Olson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine. She says there are significant downsides to remote work. Collaboration with colleagues often suffers. You can feel lonely and isolated.

OLSON: The hardest thing for somebody to deal with long distance is silence.

BERLINER: And it's easy to feel like you've disappeared from the action - the casual chats and the important decisions.

OLSON: Basically blind and invisible - so you have to take all kinds of extra effort to make sure that you coordinate well with the people that you're working with.

BERLINER: Oh, and one other thing - Olson says it's important to have a good chair if you're working from home. You don't want to throw out your back.

Uri Berliner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 28, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
Judith Olson's area of research is distance work. In a previous version of this story, we said it was distance learning.
As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.