Office workers continue to display reluctance to return to their workplaces, despite encouragement from the government for them to head back.
The immediate consequences for the service jobs in cities which depend on people commuting into the office are apparent, hence the government drive. But is office work a good thing for the workers themselves?
An important concept in economics is that of revealed preference. Economists believe that preferences are revealed not in surveys, but by the decisions which people actually make.
So could it be that the Covid crisis has given office workers the chance to reveal their true preferences in terms of work-life balance?
This is almost certainly true for the senior staff who make the decisions. They will typically live in large houses in agreeable surroundings, with space to dedicate a room as an office.
It is much less obviously the case for many younger staff. Working with your laptop on your knees in a bedsit, unable to socialise with colleagues, may lead you to prefer the commute instead. But there are constraints on being able to reveal this preference, such as potentially annoying your boss who enjoys working from home.
Furloughed workers, meanwhile, have merely revealed a preference to be paid a large part of their regular pay and not work at all. This is particularly true of public sector workers, who receive their full salary regardless. They have no incentive to change their work patterns.
An obvious incentive for companies is that, if working from home persists, they can save on office costs. They may even be able to adjust salaries downwards, especially for staff who commuted long distance from cheaper locations.
In the very short term, there will be little, if any, loss of productivity to offset this. Most office jobs consist of performing routine, well understood tasks. Within the discipline of an established framework, some people may even be able to do their jobs more efficiently at home, encountering fewer distractions.
This is true even for jobs which require analytical skills. The business model of a number of large consultancies, for example, can be thought of as follows.
The company hires bright young graduates, who come equipped with a stock of the latest ideas — what economists call human capital. The short-term pressures in the big consultancies to make money are so intense that they have little chance to refresh this during their careers. Essentially, they run down their human capital. By the time they make partner or director in their forties, they are operating on half-remembered ideas from graduate courses.
This is why the company requires a steady flow of new recruits, to refresh the business. The challenge with remote working over time will of course be to not only integrate new young staff into the organisation, but to ensure that their ideas percolate.
Productivity will grow more slowly over time if extensive homeworking persists. In part, this will be due to factors internal to the firm. The tacit knowledge and creativity sparked by informal exchanges will be lost.
The real loss, though, is through factors external to any individual company. A huge amount of evidence shows that the higher the density of employment in an area, the higher its productivity.
The drive to get people back into their offices, therefore, is about far more than saving city cafes and restaurants. The government should incentivise firms to get staff back to work, in order to avoid lost productivity — for the entire economy.