Not only will the office of the future look different on the inside, it might be a very different shape altogether as businesses look to relocate to more open, rural locations, according to a Stanford economist.

The COVID-19 lockdown has lead many organisations to rethink the modern workplace, particularly around how traditional office life can be sustained while sticking to new rules around social distancing and hygiene. Many organizations are already looking at innovative solutions to the issue, with some predicting radical changes to post-pandemic office life and the way we go about our daily business.

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But these changes could be far more sweeping than simply spacing out workstations and sticking hand sanitizer stations throughout the office. According to research from Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) led by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, growth in city centers could also stall as businesses look away from high-density offices in metropolitan hubs and seek out rural and suburban locations where social distancing guidelines can be more easily followed.

The resulting exodus of the office workforce will result in sharp falls in income for local businesses such as bars, restaurants and retailers – “by more than half”, according to Bloom.

Despite this, Bloom told TechRepublic that the tech sector was likely to remain in good shape through this upheaval, even if it meant high-value tech workers – such as developers – leaving behind the glittering tech hubs of Silicon Valley and New York and relocating to more open pastures.

“I think tech is generally in a very strong place right now,” said Bloom. “Obviously demand for outputs is booming [and] in terms of inputs, its workforce can mostly work from home, so have not been impacted.”

This perhaps make sense: technology has been central in enabling businesses to continue keeping the lights on as physical locations were shut down. By its very nature, technology can be delivered without a lot of face-to-face interaction, Bloom says.

At the same time, Bloom pointed out that many of the large tech companies had already established hi-tech, “campus”-style hubs outside of dense metropolitan areas. In his SIEPR research, Bloom predicts that many businesses will follow suit in the post-pandemic world, relocating from high-rise buildings to low-rise industrial-park complexes or Silicon-Valley-style campuses. Struggling businesses out in the sticks could be well-positioned to benefit from this by converting underused shopping malls, gyms or hotels into new office space.

“The businesses that have office-park set-ups – basically the high-tech campuses – are in great shape,” Bloom added. “All their workers can drive to work on the days they are in the office, they can socially distance in the spacious offices. If they need more space, these firms can easily add one or two floors and they are in low-rise [buildings], so can avoid elevators.”

“Indeed, right now, tech is honestly the only genuine bright spot for the US, and the main reason the US stock market and economy will outperform Europe,” said Bloom.

But with flexible remote working set to become a common fixture in the post-pandemic world, the shifting dynamics of the modern workforce could mean more bad news for city centers and those without the necessary means of working from home – something Bloom referred to as “a time bomb for inequality”.

The sudden shift to working from home has been testing for both businesses and their employees, throwing up a range of new considerations for employee wellbeing, cybersecurity and other IT headaches. SIEPR’s study of 2,500 Americans found that around 42% of US workers are now working from home full-time, with 25% continuing to work on-premises and 33% not working at all.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Of those working from home, only 51% said they were about to carry out their roles at an efficiency rate of above 80% – indicating that many lack the resources they need to do their jobs as well as they could in an office.

The hurdles are both logistical and technical in nature. Under half (49%) of respondents said they had a private space to work in outside of their bedrooms, and only two-thirds said their internet connectivity was good enough to support “workable” video calls. The remaining 35% had either no internet or internet that was too poor to support telecommuting, the study found.

In his research, Bloom points out that many of those who were able to work at home comfortably tended to represent higher income professions who could carry out their jobs using computers, video-conferencing software and email. The remaining half, meanwhile, represented jobs that usually demanded some form of on-site premises, such as retail, healthcare, and transportation. These workers, therefore, face a “nasty choice” between putting their health at greater risk, or else losing out on potential pay packets.

The silver lining? Policy makers and business leaders can make working from home a “change for good” by adopting a “thoughtful approach” in post-COVID society, Bloom concluded.

“The simple advice is to let employees choose, within limits. Nobody should be forced to work from home full-time, and nobody should be forced to work in the office full-time. Choice is key — let employees pick their schedules and let them change as their views evolve,” he said.

“For WFH to succeed, it is essential to have an effective performance-review system. If you can evaluate employees based on output — what they accomplish — they can easily work from home. If they are effective and productive, great; if not, warn them, and if they continue to underperform, haul them back to the office.”