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Is the Five-Day Office Week Over?

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ImageThe Box office in Los Altos, Calif., in 2015. The company designed it, complete with couches and a slide, to make people want to come to work. Now it will let them work from home part of the time permanently.
Credit…Matt Edge for The New York Times

Most American office workers are in no hurry to return to the office full time, even after the coronavirus is under control. But that doesn’t mean they want to work from home forever. The future for them, a variety of new data shows, is likely to be workweeks split between office and home.

Recent surveys show that both employees and employers support this arrangement. And research suggests that a couple of days a week at each location is the magic number to cancel out the negatives of each arrangement while reaping the benefits of both.

“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-Covid half time in the office.”

According to a new survey by Morning Consult, 47 percent of those working remotely say that once it’s safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14 percent would return to the office every day.

The group of workers that is able to work from home is likely to have more education, with higher incomes, and so far they have escaped the most severe job losses from the pandemic. That could change as the economy continues to suffer, which analysts said could affect work-from-home policies in different ways: Employers might panic and revert to their old ways, or encourage remote work to cut real estate costs.

In the Survey of Business Uncertainty — by the Atlanta Fed, Stanford and the University of Chicago — employers predicted that post-pandemic, 27 percent of their full-time employees would continue working from home, most for a few days a week. Other surveys of firms have shown that they expect at least 40 percent of employees to keep working remotely.

Across organizations, work was most effective when employees were home one or two days a week, found research by Humu, a tech company run by Google’s former chief of human resources.

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Updated 2020-07-02T14:08:56.041Z

“It creates a shift, where office time is for collaborative work, for innovative work, for having those meetings, and home time is for focused work,” said Stefanie Tignor, director of data and analytics at Humu, which makes tools to nudge people to improve their time at work.

Some past experiments in remote work in the United States, like at Best Buy and Yahoo, were ended because managers decided remote workers weren’t accountable enough and missed out on in-person collaboration.

But in research on remote work, it has been hard to prove that workers’ location caused certain effects, and to know if the effects would have been different had their competitors, partners and customers also been working from home. Also, only in the last few years has technology for video calls and virtual collaboration become more seamless.

Now, the pandemic has forced corporate America into a large-scale experiment on remote work. And so far, the results have largely been positive — even with the enormous stresses of the pandemic, including shuttered schools.

In the Morning Consult survey, conducted June 16 to 20 with a representative sample of 1,066 Americans who said their jobs could be done remotely, nearly two-thirds said they’d enjoyed working from home, and just 20 percent said they had not (the rest said they didn’t know or had no opinion). Three-quarters are happy with how their companies have handled the transition; just 9 percent are not. Fifty-nine percent would be more likely to apply to a job that offered remote work.

Of the 87 percent who want to keep working from home some number of days a week, even after it’s safe to return to the office, the most favored choice across all demographic groups is working remotely one to four days a week. People 18 to 44 are slightly more likely to want this arrangement, as are people with college degrees and higher incomes. Women are slightly more likely than men to say they want to work from home every day.

The past few months suggest that some of the assumptions about the trade-offs of working away from the office aren’t always true.

One example is the belief that workers are more focused and productive at home, but more creative at the office. Ideas bloom, the thinking goes, when people start impromptu conversations at a whiteboard or in the cafeteria.

The productivity piece was demonstrated in an experiment by Mr. Bloom at Stanford, in which call center employees at a Chinese travel agency were randomly assigned to work from home or not. Those who worked remotely had a 13 percent increase in performance, and higher work satisfaction.


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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


In the Morning Consult survey, 49 percent of respondents said they were more productive working from home — even with distractions related to the pandemic — compared with 32 percent who said they weren’t (19 percent didn’t know).

But whether in-office work leads to more creativity is harder to measure. Studies of patent data have suggested that inventors benefit from being near one another, but some experts argue that remote work is good for idea generation, too, because it allows people to take breaks, exercise or think in silence.

Forty-four percent of respondents in the new survey said the quality of their work had improved while working remotely during the pandemic, compared with 27 percent who said it hadn’t and 29 percent who didn’t know.

Current circumstances may be so different — with most office workers working remotely at once, and with modern tools like Slack and Zoom — that some downsides of remote work have been ameliorated.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, which makes cloud collaboration software for businesses, said remote work had increased both productivity and innovation at his company. Instead of generating ideas with small groups in conference rooms or when people happen to run into one another, he said, the company is having conversations with larger and more diverse groups on Slack.

He gave the example of a new company project. “We’ve taken what would have been a five-to-10 person project to a 300-person idea generation machine, with people who never would have participated in this project, even interns,” he said. “It might have been the equivalent of 20 meetings in conference rooms when in reality, a Slack channel with a few good ideas might make up for all the meetings.”

Box has announced that post-pandemic, the company will have a hybrid approach, with both remote and in-person work.

Some downsides of remote work persist. Most people miss the social connections at work, the survey found. In Mr. Bloom’s study of the Chinese travel firm, half of the remote workers wanted to return to the office when the experiment ended. Their reasons were loneliness, stigma and penalties in terms of being promoted. These and other reasons are why Box and other firms want workers to eventually return in some capacity.

An ideal work setup, several say, may be one in which everyone works from home or in the office the same few days each week, and everyone knows which days are for collaboration and which are for focused work. That may be hard to achieve while the coronavirus is still a severe risk because staggered schedules are recommended to achieve physical distancing in offices.

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