It has been eight weeks now since the Great Shutdown began. Humanity has not been forced to sit this immobile for this long since the 1951 movie classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that time it was just science fiction.
We are getting edgy about it, at home and as a country. The national unity of April has given way to the disunity of May, as protests erupt demanding a “return to normalcy.”
Here is an interesting fact I learned: In the state of Michigan “normalcy” means you can legally march into the state capitol carrying an AR-15 rifle, but not a sign that reads, “Please reopen, I just really need a haircut.”
We now begin the national debate over how to reopen a shuttered economy that has plunged the nation into deep recession and tossed tens of millions of people into unemployment. In a nation obsessed with our divisions, what gets attention are the most crazy things, but beyond all these we should not lose sight of an opportunity to take one of the most practical and positive things from the Great Shutdown of 2020 and make it last. As we go back to work, let’s start giving more people the ability to work part-time from home.
Working from home does not fit a lot of jobs. You can’t restock a grocery shelf from home, or test equipment, or care for a sick patient. But as the entire nation has learned these past eight weeks, there are a lot of jobs that we actually can do remotely from home over a computer screen and smart phone. It isn’t for everyone and working from home doesn’t mean you do it every day, but it is time for employers across the country to look at offering employees the option of working part-time from their living rooms.
Here are a few things many people have learned about working from home the past eight weeks. First, it means you don’t have to get up crazy early in the morning, take a shower, skip breakfast, get in a car, drive through crowded traffic and sit at a desk in a crowded office staring at the same thing on a screen you could have stared at from your living room. It means you aren’t spending all that money on gas and that you might not have to spend as much of a fortune on day care for your kids and not see them all day.
It also means if you are feeling a bit sick, you don’t have to risk spreading it to other people, or have sick people at work spreading something to you. Now, more than ever, that is no minor thing. And in the near future it also means spending less time sitting in an office wearing an uncomfortable mask over your face all day.
If you don’t have the option of working from home part-time and think this doesn’t affect you, think again. More people working from home means fewer cars on the road during your commute, fewer accidents and cleaner air, because of all those people who walked to work in their slippers instead of driving there in a two-ton automobile.
Many employers have been reluctant to give their employees the option of working from home, worrying that they might not be as productive sitting in their pajamas at their kitchen table. My daughter works for a major corporation and, before COVID-19, she had to fight to convince her bosses to let her work from home just one day out of five. Now her whole office has been doing it every day since March.
In fact, the studies that have been done indicate that people who work from home are actually more productive. Apparently it is just easier to concentrate when there aren’t so many other people around. A lot of businesses are finding this out now through real experience, that having employees work from home works for them as well. That’s not new. For years, anytime you called Jet Blue airlines, the reservation agent you speak with is most likely sitting in their house.
To be clear, not everyone wants to work from home and it doesn’t mean only working from home. We still need contact with one another on the job for other reasons, such as planning, innovation and team building, among others. But that doesn’t mean getting out of bed before dawn five days a week and driving through traffic. It can mean having some days set aside for meetings in the office and others set aside for getting work done, from wherever employees want to do that work, including at home.
The Great Shutdown of 2020 has come at a great cost to millions of people and it is understandable why Americans are anxious to get back to work. But as we do, let’s be sure we take advantage of what we have learned to build a new normal that is smarter than the old one. Giving workers who can the opportunity to work part-time from home ought to be a part of that.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center in Cambridge, Mass., and a resident of Lockport, New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.