With the spread of the novel coronavirus shuttering offices around the globe, most white-collar workers -- including the normally office-bound, stock-and-bond-trading types -- are getting a crash course on the pitfalls (and benefits) of working from home. The debate over whether employees perform better or worse when they work from the spare bedroom than from a cubicle has been raging for as long as technology has allowed people to do it. As with open offices and standing desks, everyone has an opinion, but there’s been little clear-cut research to back it up. The definitive experiment is now underway in the real world, and the experience could reshape the workplace -- and the real estate landscape -- for decades to come.

1. How has the pandemic changed things?

Offices in Asia, Europe and North America were shut down as part of efforts to reduce contact between people and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Millions of people are now working from home. Governments in many areas have restricted people’s movements. Workers are scrambling to adapt; companies are buying and dispatching equipment such as computer monitors, keyboards and webcams to make it easier.

2. How common was remote work before the pandemic?

About 56% of companies globally said they allowed remote work and 16% were fully remote, with no office option available, in a 2018 survey by OWL Labs, which makes video conferencing equipment. Managers were permitted to work from home in 40% to 50% of medium manufacturing companies researchers surveyed in 2012 and 2013 in the U.K., Germany and the U.S. A quarter of all employees in the U.S. worked at home at least occasionally in 2017 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifteen percent of them had days they worked only at home, and among those, 1 in 7 did so five or more days a week.

3. Who can and can’t handle it?

According to an analysis by the company Global Workplace Analytics, which promotes flexible working arrangements, 56% of workers in the U.S. have a job where at least some portion of what they do can be done remotely. They’re disproportionately found among those who work in information, finance, science, the professions, administration and services. The pandemic has exposed the divide between those who can work from home and those who can’t, such as waiters, factory workers and truck drivers. The latter skew toward lower-paid workers who may lack savings to fall back on when work dries up. Still, some well-paid employees face challenges, particularly those in highly regulated workplaces, such as people who work in financial services.

4. How are traders coping?

People who trade securities, such as stocks, bonds and currencies, face myriad issues. Some home computers and residential internet services can’t handle the huge amounts of data and advanced software needed to manage and execute millions of transactions daily. And working remotely raises compliance concerns, as it’s difficult to replicate the close monitoring of phone calls and computer traffic that’s required as a precaution against misconduct. Banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. are splitting up teams with some at home and some on backup trading floors.

5. Will the crisis lead to a more permanent change?

Employers are expected to take advantage of what they learn during the lockdown. Those with a good experience may decide that offices can shrink, reducing overhead at a time of economic uncertainty. Even before the pandemic, Global Workplace Analytics estimated that as many as half of desks in many offices were unoccupied on a given day as workers have adopted more flexible schedules. At the same time, permanently reducing workstations means employees have to share them when they do come into the office, a practice that can spread germs. Reductions in office space would depress the commercial real estate market, which is already under pressure given that numerous businesses are expected to fail in the economic slowdown precipitated by the pandemic.

6. How long has remote working been around?

It was first proposed as an alternative to commuting that would cut down on pollution, traffic and oil consumption. In a 1973 book, former NASA engineer Jack Nilles imagined a world where workers reported to smaller offices closer to their homes than downtown headquarters. His scheme envisioned a “sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications and information-storage system.” The arrival of that system—the internet—accelerated the trend through the 1990s and the dot-com boom. The mass migration to the home office provoked by the pandemic occurred as more data was moving into the “cloud” and new tools such as Slack, Trello and Dropbox made it easier to collaborate. The spread of fiber-optic cable has delivered internet to many homes at speeds of 1 gigabit per second, helping to eliminate the choppiness that can make video conferencing from home a chore.

7. How productive are remote workers?

Studies have found that they’re just as productive as—if not more productive than—people in offices. But that might be true only for certain types of workers. One widely cited study looked at call-center employees, whose jobs don’t require much teamwork. A review of studies suggested that the employees best suited to telework are those whose work relies less on others and who have the autonomy to make decisions and choose how and when to complete tasks. Best Buy, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard are among companies that have eliminated or limited remote work in recent years out of concern it staunches collaboration and innovation. The argument is that members of teams work more productively in the same place than scattered across different locations. Some company leaders also dislike remote work because they suspect that staffers abuse the privilege to take it easy.

8. What are the best practices?

Most experts agree that it requires a dedicated space, good equipment and sufficient home bandwidth. A rule of thumb is that about 20 megabits per second of bandwidth is needed for each person in a home using the internet. It helps to shut off everything that’s online and not being used, such as an unattended movie on a streaming service; it’ll eat up bandwidth that could be used for a video conference. Workers should set a start and finish time and avoid the lure of household chores during the workday.

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