More companies likely to keep employees working from home until 2021 due to COVID-19

Google, Twitter, Zillow lead the way, but other businesses are also considering the strategy.

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The list of major companies announcing that employees can solely work from home until at least 2021 due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic remains small, but the number is likely to rise. In recent research conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), about 17% of the HR leaders in some 2,284 US companies reported their organizations will move to permanent work-from-home policies in the future for their employees.

Workplaces haven't been the same since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders began across the US in mid-March to try to slow or stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Several large US companies, including Facebook and Zillow, have announced that workers can stay home to do their jobs until at least 2021. Twitter has gone even further, telling its employees that they never have to return to their offices and can do their jobs remotely "forever," according to a company blog post.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same--here's what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Capital One has announced that employees can work from home until after Labor Day, while Amazon has said that many of its employees can continue remote work until at least October, according to a New York Times report. Nationwide Insurance will permanently shut five offices around the US in response to the virus, which will leave about 4,000 affected employees permanently working from home, the story said.

Even more drastic, Sagicor, the largest insurance company in the Caribbean, announced in April that its employees will be working from home until possibly the end of 2021.

Alexander Alonso, the chief knowledge officer for SHRM, said the group is hearing from many of its 300,000 global business and HR members about how they should handle the COVID-19 situation, but only a small percentage have been looking at implementing work-from-home policies that would continue until 2021. About 3,000 member calls came into its call center in the last month, with about 300 asking for more information about that possibility, he said.

Other recent feedback from members shows that the idea of more companies moving to permanent work-from-home policies could be gaining steam, he said.

"In our research, we actually see it's a bigger number talking about this, with about 17% of organizations planning to implement work-from-home policies permanently," out of 2,284 HR professionals who were surveyed recently by the group, Alonso said. About 10% of those respondents were large enterprises, 30% were medium-sized businesses and 60% were SMBs, he said.

SHRM is doing the COVID-19-related membership studies (PDF) every two weeks through June in conjunction with global advisory firm Oxford Economics.

In direct conversations with about 10 chief HR officers from Fortune 200 companies in the last eight weeks, two leaders said they are looking at mandating work from home until 2021, but no final decisions had been made, said Alonso.

The work from home moves have even been inspiring manufacturing companies to experiment to see if they can put employees to work remotely making products, Alonso said. "If I start to see manufacturers move toward that model now I'd say, 'OK, now we're starting to see something we haven't seen before.' Companies like Proctor & Gamble, believe it or not, there are certain products they make that could be built at home."

The overall situation will likely remain fluid for the next several years, he said.

"You see hyperbole on both ends of the spectrum," said Alonso. "On one end, you have Elon Musk who dares the government to arrest him for reopening his [Tesla] plant and bringing people back. Then you have [Twitter's] Jack Dorsey on the other side saying that employees never have to come back to their offices."

Andy Challenger, senior vice president at outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas (CGC), said the decisions to keep employees working from home through 2021 or beyond are not easy for companies to make, especially for large enterprises that have significant investments in pricey custom-built campuses and real estate.

"They've invested so much money in these offices that people want to stay in them," Challenger said. "It's such a component of their identities in some ways."

Recent survey results from CGC found that about 28% of HR managers, at a diverse group of 301 companies across the US, said they'll be moving at least some of their employees into permanent work-from-home arrangements, said Challenger. Previous to the pandemic, working-from-home arrangements have been progressing at only a trickle for most companies. "This crisis accelerated the adoption in a world-changing way," he said.

Challenger said he does eventually see employees returning to their offices in 2021. "Offices will not disappear and if a vaccine allows people to return to the office more quickly, it will likely stunt the work-at-home evolution that workplaces are undergoing at the moment. A vaccine would engender real confidence in returning to offices."

At the same time, even an effective coronavirus cure won't revert work situations back to the way they were in the past, Challenger said. "This pandemic will have lasting effects on working arrangements regardless of a vaccine." 

Rebecca Wettemann, principal analyst with people and productivity analyst firm, Valoir, said the shifts to permanent work from home for more companies is partly a reaction to the physical realities in many workplaces.

"The idea of the open office, which has become so popular, is just not realistic now," she said. "I think we're a long way off from that. It may change to a certain extent once there is a vaccine," but for now it is a reality. "Companies are weighing the costs and the potential disruptions of one worker coming back to the office and being diagnosed with COVID-19. Companies are definitely looking at this.

For companies that think about opening offices back up in 2020, they'd need 10 to 20 times their existing space to safely house their workers and that's expensive," Wettemann said.  "Nobody wants to be the first employer to bring people back and get them sick. This is going to challenge managers moving forward. No managers have dealt with this kind of crisis before and few have really managed in a downturn where they're going to have to not just be cheerleaders, but also communicate around bad news and uncertainty."

Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a consulting firm that develops remote working strategies for clients, agreed that many companies have no choice when it comes to keeping their workers at home until at least 2021.

"We've been densifying office space for years and now, in order to afford proper social distancing, we are going to have to de-densify that space," said Lister. "Literally, they just don't have the space to bring everybody back to their offices."

Legal liability issues arise if someone gets sick in offices if they return to workplaces, while participation in federal and state payroll protection loans and other recent business loan programs could be impacted if companies make the wrong decisions, she said. "People are still going to sue" if that happens. "That becomes the whole 'who is responsible' and those legal issues that are on the minds of companies. We don't have all the answers yet."

A global survey conducted by GWA in April found that about 70% of some 3,000 respondents whose companies have implemented work-from-home strategies due to coronavirus feel their efforts have been successful so far, which has buoyed Lister. The survey included respondents in a wide range of locations, company sizes, business types, age groups, job roles, and more.

About 88% of the respondents reported they are working from home five days a week, and 77% said that after the pandemic ends they would like to continue working from home at least once a week. Previous GWA research before COVID-19 showed that less than 4% of respondents had worked from home half-time or more at least part of the time. "To get 70% of the respondents feeling successful with their work-from-home efforts is really surprising since most had never done it before." 

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