Rick Haglund: Offices may open again soon, but work will never be the same

March 13, 2021 7:34 am

PNC office building, downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

A coalition of powerful business lobbying groups is pushing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to allow offices to reopen, citing a variety of harms to workers, employers and communities from people doing their jobs at dining room tables during the pandemic.

They’re likely to get their wish soon. Whitmer said Monday she hopes to allow workers to begin returning even before the April 14 expiration date of her executive order banning in-office work that can be performed at home.

But lifting a government edict is not going to quash remote work — also known as telecommuting — a trend that was growing before the COVID-19 pandemic turned homes into offices, small businesses and school classrooms.

The burgeoning knowledge economy has resulted in the creation of many jobs that can be performed by workers typing on laptop computers while wearing their sweats and slippers.

A February study by the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives found that a third of all jobs in the state, accounting for 43% of total wages, can be done from home. 

The pandemic “has sped up the normalization of telework, and it is even possible that it may become a more permanent fixture of workplace culture for some companies even after the pandemic ends,” said study author Ashley Tarver.

Top Detroit business executives agree. Eric Larson, chief executive of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, told Detroit News that employment in the central city is likely to drop by 20% from pre-pandemic levels once offices are allowed to reopen.

There are about 25,000 workers in Detroit’s central city, down from 80,000 workers in March 2020, the News reported.

Empty offices have devastated businesses that serve office workers, including restaurants, dry cleaners and retail shops. 

About 3,000 restaurants employing 200,000 workers have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

Detroit and the 23 other Michigan cities that collect income taxes from nonresident workers are seeing revenues plummet during the pandemic.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said the state’s second-largest city could take an income tax hit of as much as $20 million this year from employees working in their suburban homes.

State gas tax revenues fell by $128 million last year during the pandemic, in part because fewer people are making the daily commute to offices, according to a new House Fiscal Agency report.

And while many workers might be enjoying the freedom from soul-killing office politics while working at home in their jammies, their careers could ultimately suffer, said urban researcher Joe Cortright.

“While everyone’s Zooming it in, you’re not at a disadvantage,” he said. “But when most, or even some, of the people are in the office, you have less information, connection, and power than they do. That’s true immediately and becomes even more important over time.”

In their letter to Whitmer, the business groups argued that remote work is damaging productivity, collaboration and the mental health of employees who miss interacting with coworkers.

But many workers are enjoying the flexibility of working from home and are in no hurry to return to the office.

A Pew Research Center study in December found that 54% of remote workers want to continue working from home after the pandemic ends.  Nearly 25% of U.S. employees were working from home in February.

And research published last year in the Harvard Business Review found workers are more productive at home, in part because they’re focusing on tasks that really matter and spending less time on “tiresome” office duties.

Employers have taken notice. More than 80% percent of company leaders surveyed nationwide last year by research firm Gartner said they planned to let employees work from home at least part time upon reopening from the COVID pandemic.

Remote work has even become a recruiting tool for communities and employers seeking talent.

Cities and regions across the country, including Berrien County in Southwest Michigan, are offering thousands of dollars to lure remote workers from larger, more expensive cities like Chicago and San Francisco.

Remote work allows companies to recruit talent globally. That can be an advantage for employers in Michigan, which is experiencing little population growth and has difficulty in attracting young, educated workers.

“We’re looking at candidates from out of state more than we did in the past,” said Angela Thompkins, chief diversity officer at Jackson-based Consumers Energy. “We are saying that people can work remotely” and come into the office as needed. “It’s another part of our diversity, equity and inclusion effort.”

There have been breathless predictions that remote work will empty out office towers, killing cities.

Nonsense, said urban researcher Richard Florida. But cities will have to change in order to thrive.

Young people don’t want to go back to cubicle farms, he said, but they will continue to cluster in cities where they can interact, and not necessarily in the office. Some downtown office towers will be converted to housing.

“People will gravitate to places where they can meet and interact with others outside of the home and outside of the office,” Florida said.

Remote work is here to stay. Merely lifting restrictions on office work won’t bring back the good old days of 2019.

Correction: This column originally had an incorrect title for Bliss.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.