People will increasingly go to the office for more creative tasks and to ensure they get promotions, as the white-collar world gets a better grasp of the costs and benefits of working from home, economist Edward Glaeser said on Tuesday.
The productivity gains which many people and employers had found when COVID-19 forced them to work from home were real, but in time they would be offset by the loss of the ability to learn more and to progress, Harvard-based Professor Glaeser told a Committee for Sydney webinar.
“For many jobs, [working from home] can enable people to do the same job they’ve always done, but it doesn’t enable them to learn,” he said.
“It creates static advantages but has dynamic costs.”
The analysis by Professor Glaeser, whose latest book, Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation, charts how cities have responded historically to pandemics and public health crises, explains survey findings that workers were keen to get back to the office despite feeling more productive at home.
As vaccination levels rise, restrictions ease, and east-coast Australia returns to the office, his comments also give a boost to warnings made by some corporate leaders – such as former UBS managing director Tim Church – that it is “hard to get promoted from home”.
The arguments also raise a challenge for employers to make sure they measure the output and quality of work employees are performing, to overcome the problem of presenteeism that can disadvantage the career progression of part-time workers, particularly working mothers.
“The promotion impacts of going remote are real,” Professor Glaeser said.
Personal contact was crucial because it was the best way to judge whether other people understood new ideas, he said.
“Anyone who’s ever taught knows the hard part about teaching is not knowing your subject material, it’s knowing whether or not anything you’re saying is getting through to your audience,” he said.
“Face-to-face contact makes that possible. Face-to-face contact enables young, entrepreneurial people to work together in teams to creatively produce new ideas that shift the world.”
Remote working increases inequality
The US experience had shown that remote working could increase inequality. At the height of working from home during the pandemic, almost 70 per cent of Americans with postgraduate qualifications were working remotely, in contrast to just 5 per cent of high school dropouts and 15 per cent of people with only a high school education.
“Skilled people can do it; less skilled people can’t do it,” Professor Glaeser said.
“If your future is virtual, it is a future that is even more awfully unequal than the future we had in 2019.”
One consequence for employers – and cities – was that a white-collar workforce comfortable with Zoom was an international one and this would become apparent once global travel restrictions eased, he said.
“Zoom means the competition for global talent just got hotter,” Professor Glaeser said.
“We’ve been spared seeing what that does because of the barriers to mobility during the pandemic, but it will happen.”
This required cities such as Sydney to think about how they would position themselves to remain competitive. Ensuring a greater supply of affordably priced housing was one factor, as was creating opportunities for entrepreneurs – especially those without much money who aspired to move upwards socially – to succeed, he said.
“The things that seem most obvious to me are to continue focusing on ground-up entrepreneurship, to make sure it is as easy as possible to start a new business in Sydney,” Professor Glaeser said.
This would require buildings that were flexible and could easily be converted to different uses, he said.