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Why Working from Home Will Stick (nber.org)
71 points by barry-cotter 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 99 comments

I know so many people in the bay who will quit if they are forced to return to work... There's no way people are going back to working at the office.

I personally used to commute 3 hours every day to get to work from SF... I'm never doing this again, no matter how much you pay me.

> I personally used to commute 3 hours every day to get to work from SF

Honest question: at that point why not move closer to work? Or get a job at any number of companies closer to home that are desperate for talent?

The whole point of enduring SFBA rent is that there’s dozens of tech jobs at every corner.

>Honest question: at that point why not move closer to work?

Because everyone thinks this first which is why a 1 bedroom in SF is like 5k a month.

Yea, the valley commute felt pretty brutal and incredibly stressful for me when I did it for a year or so. Not sure what it is, but traffic here seems really cut throat and there isnt much courtesy out there (e.g. merges here are hilarious, there is no such thing as a zipper merge here, you get everyone trying to cut ahead and merge at the last second).

Walking a few blocks to the office is an amazing way to start the day without incurring stress.

When I drove a bigger truck, I used to force people into zipper merges. Some of the would-be cheaters got really upset and some people cheered me on. It was a mixed crowd. Not sure I would do that these days. People are on edge and I don't have an armored vehicle.

I could have definitely been one of those cheering you on as I flipped off one of the people you were blocking. The road is similar to the internet in the way it allows some people to dehumanize others.

I lived two hours each way from work. Lived in a van mid week way before it was a popular thing. Used to joke that I was just waiting for the next pandemic then I'd have it made. Not so sure about that now, sometimes I miss the van.

That seems so economical and honestly if you can pull that off with a FAANG salary, you are so set. Sometimes I wish I could do that. If you work at Google, the van would pretty much be for sleeping. Only thing I would worry about is a late night break in.

It was a white cargo van with a steel bulkhead. Difficult to break into where I was sleeping. I wanted my family to grow up rural close to our recreational activities. The work is/was in a Canadian city. I'd typically be at work or at the gym or just in the van sleeping. I still pay mortgage on a house in the sticks but at least I wasn't getting into leases in the city that would be far away from the next opportunity. Someone tested my door once and another time a snow plow pushed a drift into my bumper. That was the extent of it over the years. I'd never camp anywhere residential. Commercial and industrial areas were the best.

> Honest question: at that point why not move closer to work? Or get a job at any number of companies closer to home that are desperate for talent?

Just one person’s view: My Bay Area commute is about 2 to 2.5 hours each way, depending on traffic. I make pretty decent Bay Area money but not even close to enough to live in an equivalent house near work. Not by a long shot. Changing jobs means starting back at the bottom. Re-build relationships, re-learn new company’s tribal knowledge, start at zero in the promotion treadmill. I’m too old for that shit. And at my age, (45+) you’re not getting a +10% raise when changing jobs, like what was do-able in your 30s.

So changing jobs is mostly downside and moving closer to work is not financially do-able. Stuck!

What level are you at that you have to stay forever at your current place to get a promotion but aren’t able to afford a place closer to work? If you’re trying to go from E8 to E9 (or vp to president/CTO), I’d understand but at those levels you should be clearing nearly 1mil/yr or well past it. If you’re below that, you could easily switch workplaces and likely get a lot of money.

Maybe joining a startup on the hyper growth track would be good financial returns. Only need one of those to do well to buy the house with cash at your likely experience range and the compensation they would be rewarding you.

Yea if I was at those nosebleed salary levels, I'd move right next door to work! Salary progression after your first 10 years or so in the industry is pretty flat when you're an IC, even if you change jobs. First couple of company moves I made back in the 90s boosted my comp 50-100%. My last two company moves were basically flat. Moving from IC to management has proven to be a tough nut to crack, the typical "need experience in that role to get the role" catch-22.

Your startup advice is decent, I just don't have the stomach for it anymore. Been there, done that, have 600,000 worthless stock options to prove it. I feel like I have better odds at the poker table.

> Your startup advice is decent, I just don't have the stomach for it anymore. Been there, done that, have 600,000 worthless stock options to prove it. I feel like I have better odds at the poker table.

I understand. I'm just saying I did it and got $1m+/yr out of it. I've done startups before that lead nowhere - so I understand the feeling... It's not like joining startups at seed stage or something - I'd only join one with a $XXXm dollar valuation or greater. (And one that has gotten that valuation very quickly hopefully - not over 10 years) I left because of the horrible environment before I vested everything. I decided if I can find a job at $350-400k/yr with some minor upside and a much better culture then I'd probably be happier in the end. (I have about 8 YOE)

SO didn’t want. I also don’t want to live in a suburb (it means death of social life to me).

With that kind of commute (assuming it's 1.5 hrs each way), OP is probably in the Vacaville/Fairfield/Davis/Sacramento area, where there are not actually a ton of great tech jobs. Some to be sure, but it's pretty different from SF.

OP says he's coming from SF. Must work in SJ or around 237.

> I personally used to commute 3 hours every day to get to work from SF

Menlo park

I live in MP, and it doesn't take nearly that long to get here from SF. Maybe Mountain View, on a bad traffic day. But nothing north of Palo Alto could take that long, IMO.

That sounds terrible! I work at a nice office with nice people , 10 minutes commute by bike, and most of my colleagues are eager to get back to work, at least part of the time.

I never thought I would feel that way - there were times in my life I dreamed of unlimited home office. But honestly there are things which work better in person, like solving problems on a whiteboard, or picking up on subtle cues in a meeting, or laughing with colleagues over a coffee.

For me, I think 2 days/week in the office would actually be the preferable split.

It seems like there is going to be a big generational divide where the older execs want everyone to come to come back, but the younger employees feel they were more productive and want to stay remote.

I’m pretty sure my company’s surveys were almost exactly the opposite.

The older generation with their families, homes in the suburbs with the bad commute, and already established networks in the office have no interest in coming back, while it’s the younger generation that wants to be in the office.

I read the GP's comment as referring to 55+-year-old "older execs"—Boomers, basically—and late-20s to mid-40s "younger employees". Those are the ones with families.

I can see a certain subset of recent college grads and young techbro-types who would want to be in the office so they can hang out with each other, but it's definitely the boomer and older gen-X crowd who believe that it's only "real work" if it's done sitting in a cubicle where your boss can loom over your shoulder any time he wants.

What are they going to go do instead? I feel like this is what everyone says to try and hope it stays that way. The whole world may not be able to work from home.

All those people in the Bay may have a tough time with bills when they quit...

Not just existing bills, but health insurance paid individually is usually more expensive. That has been one of the few things keeping me at work. Companies have incredible purchasing power with insurance and this usually also bypasses insurance companies setting a rate based on a persons health history. This is one surprise some will get when they exit the workforce early. I've heard that there are some non profit groups that also have group purchasing power, like some religious groups. Maybe there are other big groups that do this as well. Anyone know of other big groups that can get the same discounts as corporations?

An organization is not only top down, enough people having the same opinion confers a great amount of power over the direction of the organization as a whole.

You didn’t have to do it, you know it right?

I’m really curious how it is going to play out. I’m a bit concerned that our salaries will be slashed, especially if engs from other countries enter the wfh market

Yup, I did that. As soon as they announced at work we were going back to the office I started looking and got a remote job. Never liked the office life

Is that 3 hours one way, or total 3 hours for to and fro?

Good point, since it says "to work". But I can't imagine anyone could live in SF and drive three hours one way. I would assume it's round-trip, and that it's to the South Bay. Netflix is in Los Gatos, for example. (But then anyone who's had NFLX options for more than a couple years can probably afford to have two houses in the Bay Area....)

Anecdata: I know of multiple people that drove 3+ hours each way to work in the Bay. ~10% of the commuters I know there. It's not a majority, but it happens with frequency.

Until all jobs return to full-time on-site and there's no where else to go.

Not all will, the ones that won't are salivating at the chance of getting a significant competitive advantage.

Why did you do it before?

Not OP, but sometimes if something sounds like it sucks but I'm unsure exactly how much, I'll do it just to see how bad it is.

I don’t feel bad for the person who chooses to work 3 hours away from where they live.

Maybe move closer?

And thank you for that. That will surely drive down supply of engineers and inflate salaries - a great outcome for those of us willing to to into an office.

Anecdotal, but here in Australia (NSW anyway) we didn't have major lockdowns. Offices mostly shut, public transit was limited to 1/3 capacity, the city was empty, and everyone was saying "we'll never go back into the office".

Our office is back to about 70% capacity. Traffic has returned in the morning. Public transit isn't as full as it used to be, but there are lines to get onto the busses in the morning where I live. Again, probably 70% of what it was before.

That reduced 30% has made the commute in quite a bit quicker I'd say. Price for parking is equal to public transit (I can't say if it was like that before because I didn't have a car before covid).

Sure, lots of offices won't return, but I think not as much as you expect. Our company is 3 mostly introverts. We'd likely be the first people to say "screw it, I don't want to be around people, I'd rather just wfh", but we're all really enjoying being back in the office. We know we're more productive this way too.

Also anecdotal, but down the road here in Melbourne we did have some major lockdowns. I'm the only person from my team in the office. It would be an exaggeration to claim this floor is at 15% of capacity. On the 2 days I week I come in I get my pick of seats on the train, whereas it was sardine standing room only previously. My go to cafe is gone. As are my second, third and forth gotos.

I expect most offices will reduce their floor plans. Most white collar workers will WFH a yet to be determined proportion of their time.

I really wish WFH sticks. Mainly because it reduces a lot of pollution and energy use.

It will stick if people refuse to go back to offices. I started working 100% from home nearly seven years ago and wouldn't take a job that involved commuting unless an astronomical amount of money was delivered up front. Simply no comparison in terms of quality of life.

I’ve worked remote for 12 years. There are drawbacks, but the quality of life improvement is huge.

I appreciate your comment and the GP for tactfully expressing feelings similar to my own. Pollution from automobiles, the health impacts of long commutes, the economic and social costs of high paying jobs concentrating in relatively few places; it’s just sad to see how desperate everyone is to get back to the unhealthy normal.

People are by and large not going to refuse. They say they are going to refuse, but when push comes to shove and their cushy FAANG job says “return to office or you are fired” they are not going to call the bluff. It’s easy to talk but not easy when you are faced with being handed your hat.

I was the same, and ended up accepting the 3h per day commute for lots of money. Never again. I'd rather be poor.

Before the pandemic hit my wife had been looking for a remote accounting job for about a year or so with no luck. We live in a rural area and don’t want to move, and there aren’t any real options in the area other than where she currently works.

People can only say no if there are options for them.

Not just WFH but now that everyone is ramped up for large remote meetings, this could/should dramatically reduce the need for business travel.

Pre-pandemic I traveled cross country somewhat regularly for meetings that could easily be done remotely. Sure there's some value sometimes in hallway conversations, but not enough to justify flying around whimsically blowing vast CO₂ in the middle of a climate crisis.

Someone should just make a more random hallway-conversation feature in Zoom or whatever. Or maybe we could normalize doing lunch together and casually chatting on zoom for certain important remote meetings (but not even close to all, please lord).

On this note, can we also have some regular phone meetings again?

I mean, I've worked remote for 13 years now. Although it has been available for most of that time, we almost never used video during calls in the past. When covid hit, suddenly calls I've been having for 10 years require everyone to be on camera.

Video has its benefits of course, but it's not always necessary and it's more exhausting than a voice call. If I'm talking to people I've worked with for 10 years, I actually think it's worse to always do a video meeting. We're not looking at each other anyway, we're looking at what we're working on, and being on camera is so much more draining.

Does anyone else feel like a step back to more voice calls would actually be a step forward in happiness?

We do our daily meetings audio-only and it's definitely less stressful. Less is more.

Car parks are the worst, we'll see a lot of land go to much better use than a dry and void cement lot.

there is more than this over simplification. My home power bill went up, i all of a sudden had to heat/cool my house in time when i normally didn't. I know for a fact that the office continued to heat/cool the office because there was a skeleton crew there.

I think there are going to need to be a lot more research into this.

The only reason there's an office kept acclimatized somewhere is because the WFH was a temporary measure. If it's definitive, the office will shrink quite quickly.

I’d like to check the math though because I imagine heating and cooling a building with hundreds of people in it is much more efficient than heating and cooling all their homes all day.

>I imagine heating and cooling a building with hundreds of people in it is much more efficient than heating and cooling all their homes all day.

What about the 20 mile commutes most of them have? That infrastructure and fuel use has to be added into the equation.

Sure but I thought we were just talking about office heating and cooling.

Let’s add the medical costs of everyone being morbidly obese from work from home and the Covid 15 becoming the Covid 50 lbs. :)

What about everyone who is suddenly running at lunch because they have a shower at home?

Hard to work out on the commute unless it's by bike of course. All the extra free time makes it much easier to stick to the workout plan.

Also, apart from building thermal management, energy is consumed in commutes. Associated energy costs of infrastructure maintenance, vehicle maintenance, energy costs for transport of fuels, etc.

If you have someone living in your home, then your house is heated/cooled anyway. In those specific cases, energy use for office is a waste.

I imagine atleast 50% of people working have someone at home while they are working.

Don’t tell me they are paying you enough where your spouse doesn’t have to work!

There's actually an interesting point hidden in here, which is that in some areas the electricity billing is priced progressively.

Your first X units are cheap, the next Y units are pricier, and anything after that are expensive. This is what we have with PG&E. It means that families like mine, where my wife and I work from home (including before the pandemic) pay a higher bill because we're treated as if we are consuming irresponsibly.

But we don't actually use that much energy considering the fact that we are home all day long. Energy companies will hopefully adjust their tiers or find some other way to treat people who WFH equitably, not punitively. My understanding is that PG&E has done this to some extent already, but I don't know what they plan to do after near-global WFH ends.

Sounds like a good solar panel system will be economical for you.

I've been working from home for a better part 15 years and I second this. I bought Nest thermostats when we built our home a few years ago...In hindsight - I'm not entirely sure why: someone is almost always home (working or otherwise)!

Have you considered looking into better insulating your home or alternative ways of staying warm than blasting the heat? I wear a sweater, socks, and sweats while I’m working from home. I guess this is heavily dependent where you live, though.

That's great when it's cold. Not so much when you live in an area that will soon have temperatures >100° every day for the next few months. I will deal with being a bit warm but I do not enjoy sweating all day while I'm just sitting at my desk. Even now with Temps getting into the 90s it would be very uncomfortable to not run the A/C even with fans spinning at full speed.

Some jurisdictions will let you deduct that from your taxes.

I've heard that in the US, federal deductions related to a home office are a very common trigger of audits.

If your home power bill went up by more than you saved on transportation costs you have a severe insulation problem. Like, ten foot hole in an outer wall severe.

That explains how the grizzly bears keep getting in...

wow getting downvoted because of ?

Yes it costs less to heat my home than to drive in, but thats not the point.

I have two cars because we have to drive into work and drop/pickup kids. if we're WFH we dont need two cars, but i cant just dump one of then on a whim when WFH might end.

Also the energy costs measurements are just mine. they're universal. We wasted so much energy in this scenario. Its just that the energy/resources were now both mine and the companies resources.

> COVID-19 drove a mass social experiment in working from home (WFH). We survey more than 30,000 Americans over multiple waves to investigate whether WFH will stick, and why. Our data say that 20 percent of full workdays will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5 percent before. We develop evidence on five reasons for this large shift: better-than-expected WFH experiences, new investments in physical and human capital that enable WFH, greatly diminished stigma associated with WFH, lingering concerns about crowds and contagion risks, and a pandemic-driven surge in technological innovations that support WFH. We also use our survey data to project three consequences: First, employees will enjoy large benefits from greater remote work, especially those with higher earnings. Second, the shift to WFH will directly reduce spending in major city centers by at least 5-10 percent relative to the pre-pandemic situation. Third, our data on employer plans and the relative productivity of WFH imply a 5 percent productivity boost in the post-pandemic economy due to re-optimized working arrangements. Only one-fifth of this productivity gain will show up in conventional productivity measures, because they do not capture the time savings from less commuting.

My company is planning on moving to 4 days in, one day optionally remote near the end of the summer. It sounds like google will return to the office as well [0]. I think its tough to define a permissive WFH policy when there are some individuals that don't work from home well and have had issues with productivity while working remotely this past year or so. I don't think there would be an easy/drama free way to require some individuals to come to the office more often while letting others come in less often without severely impacting morale for those that were required to come in.

[0] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/14/google-ceo-email-delays-retu...

> when there are some individuals that don't work from home well

The interesting question is, will this ultimately become an expectation and if you "don't work from home well" then that's equivalent to simply "not working well". There are individuals who don't work well in an office and they were previously just considered poor employees. Now the tables are turned ...

Yea, I could definitely see that becoming a new requirement. Wondering how you would go about trying to tease out how well someone works remotely versus in the office...

Really early in my career, I recall being incredibly unmotivated after an acquisition by a private equity company and the subsequent cost cutting. Going to the office was just some check box that I needed to cross off in order to get a pay check. When I did work remotely, I found myself somehow being even less motivated and doing less work. If I had to identify key traits to figure out whether or not someone could work well remotely, I would probably try to understand their motivation level and their desire to grow, learn, and execute. But I guess that wouldn't be too far off from what I look for now when I interview.

I don't believe that Google will do a return to the office, they have too many employees who would rather quit. Wait for it...

I wonder if there's a correlation between those who are most anti-office, and people who have barely any actual work to do.

I bet Google collected a ton of really interesting data and made their decision based off of that. Would be interesting to know whether they had enough metrics to show that definitively as well as just how much less productive employees were when remote (am assuming they were less productive, I don't see how they could push everyone back to the office if the productivity numbers were better).

Wishful thinking.

Reminder that there are many forms of remote and in-office work (not just 2, 4, and 6):

  1. work only possible in-office. (e.g. retail, hyper-secure jobs)
  2. in-office 5 days a week (e.g. pre-pandemic office jobs)
  3. in a remote office some weeks a year. (e.g. traveling consultants)
  4. remote 1-4 days a week, in-office 1-4 days. (e.g. Google's hybrid pilot)
  5. remote except for some weeks a year. (e.g. team visits or retreats)
  6. WFH, shared work hours (e.g. working from the Americas)
  7. remote async/time-zone independent (e.g. global digital nomad)
(Please add any categories I missed.)

It's also possible for new forms to emerge throughout this.

For instance, I can imagine that remote workers might attempt to move into a college campus amongst students, or if a college campus shut down for remote workers to move to it, and eventually for campuses that would be created for the sole purpose of hosting remote workers, that might be filled with 4+1's with more space for adults instead of dorm rooms. People who want a home could move close to campus instead of being on it.

This would give the people that need to be outside of their home a place to be, would give adults a nice shared third space. It would be filled with remote people from many companies, not one company per campus.

This is just one idea amongst many that are possible.

Working from home will stick for some, in some regions, and it most definitely is not going to stick collectively.

my employer has demanded that all US employees (over 30k of us) return to their respective office by the first week of August. no non-medical exceptions. and that is AFTER a full year of being told how successful we are holding the company together, and keeping the lights on for our customers, etc.

"working from home will stick" my white butt.

Personal theory (with varying amounts of evidence):

Companies that can make Work From Home (WFH) happen are ones that actually do something with their employees. Companies that are Asses in Seats (AIS) are companies that mostly do not have people that actually do something. This will vary by team and division in a company as well. Some managers that do not do as much 'real' work will want AIS more so than WFH, and it may change as projects come on and off the schedule. It's a spectrum.

The reason is emotional. AIS managers and companies feel that if they can see the employees working, getting coffee, hear the typing, etc, then their knowledge that no one is actually doing anything is calmed down. Their monkey brain gets a bit more quiet as they have a bit more 'cover' for their boss. 'Look, see, all my people are doing something. I know it's not really anything, but my boss may think it really is something. Phew!'

WFH managers know that their employees are really doing work and therefore aren't worried about the next promotion. Stuff actually does get done.

It's not the full reason, by any means, but I feel it accounts for some of the discrepancy.

I think WFH choice is a spectrum. At one end its "I will work remote only" and the other end its "I want to be physically present in office". And then there are in between like 80% wfh but 20% for important meetups/discussions.

All this is fine but what happens when in a team of 5, 1 person prefers WFH all the time and 2 want in office and others in-between. Its really awkward to have meetings where majority team is in a room white-boarding and one guy/gal joining in remote. Also the person working from home will miss a lot of ad-hoc conversations/corridor talk.

Offcourse all of the above does not matter if one's nature of job is not dependent on others to large extent and then that person can definitely wfh much more effectively.

I’m not sure if it’s me, but most “corridor talk” ends up being a complete waste of time and usually not related to what I’m directly working on. Will you miss fringe stuff that someone on some other team might be working on? Maybe. But it’s just my experience that those “random run-ins” with people is just trivial small talk and doesn’t really amount to anything substantial.

>"Its really awkward to have meetings where majority team is in a room white-boarding and one guy/gal joining in remote"

I've been participating in such meetings ( me being remote, sometime others as well ) for the last 20 years. I find it great time and mental energy saver. Way less bullshit. At least from my experience.

It might not be "fair", but I believe in most cases, if one person chooses to be physically absent they will gradually be marginalized by the team. It's just human nature that you will care more about and think more about people you physically see and spend time with.

Interestingly I’ve always worked in teams that were either fully remote or had at least a few remote workers. So I’m not sure how much more efficient we could have been but I feel like it didn’t bother us much.

Those are all good reasons but there's one potential flaw: people, and companies, don't always behave rationally. I predict an awful lot of people are going to be going back to the office for no better reason than "the pandemic's over therefore we're going back to normal".

Maybe its time to implement a system where WFH is for 4 days a week and on the 5th day, you (your team / managers / higherups) meet at some place, say a coffee shop / park.

The key problem at least for me, is living in the bay area. So that wouldn’t work. I’d be totally into “WFH for four weeks and fly back to the office for one week” though. That would be very nice!

I think system76 was doing something similar, but even on a longer cadence than 4 weeks.

I like this setup also, as "the office" could also be a villa on the coast of portugal where the team goes for face time

I’d rather do 4 day work week and full remote.

Anyone else have a pattern where a nice well researched article turns into 'save on pocket' click and never come back to it? This is a classic target of such for me.

Like someone once said "I don't often bookmark a page, but when I do, I never look at it again."

Yes.i have multiple chrome folders with bookmarked interesting articles (some of them with more folders inside).

Stuck for me! Dropped the W2 for an LLC and don't see myself looking back.

Not advice, just what happened. Definitely not for everyone.

Obligatory comment: not everyone likes working from home. Personally I loved my old office and my commute wasn’t bad. I have an ideal wfh situation now and I would still rather go to the office. Maybe I’m weird.

Nope, not weird; there are lots of us. I liked my 20 minute bicycle commute, liked going downtown, liked talking to my coworkers in rich, high-def face-to-face and liked big white boards.

I would prefer a split honestly. I would be in about half-time if I could. Sometimes it's nice to work from home, but I miss my colleagues and the office environment.

As long as people like you don’t force me to go to an office I think it’s fine.

I always liked going to the office. Get to hang out and chat with some fun people and make friendships in ways that I can’t do remotely.

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