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Working from home poses risk for workers

In March 2020, most employers sent workers home because working from the office was too dangerous. Nearly two years into the pandemic, legions of office workers are still working from their kitchen tables, bedrooms, and basements. And they like it. In fact, they like it so much that 4 in 10 report that they would quit their jobs if their employer required them to return to the office. For Gen Z workers, that figure is more like half.

The Great Return to Work isn’t so great at the moment. First, coronavirus variants make the prospect of cramming people into offices unattractive. Second, workers are making good on their promise to walk. OSHA’s guidelines on maintaining safe workplaces aren’t helping much, either. The guidelines, which include vaccinating workers, staying home, physical distancing among employees in a communal workspace, requiring masks, educating workers about the spread of COVID, maintaining ventilation systems, and cleaning will make returning to work hard.

Workers took full advantage of working from home while the pandemic raged. Many even moved out of high-cost areas, after having demonstrated that working from home was entirely possible. Moving away from high-cost areas (like Ann Arbor) resulted in an effective pay raise for WFH workers.

While OSHA may be well versed in workplace-based hazards, a hidden hazard now exists for WFH employees. Employers may become so comfortable with remote work that they adopt it as the company standard. And if workers can work from anywhere, and customers don’t need to be present to receive the company’s services, why shouldn’t an Ann Arbor employer hire workers living in lower cost areas?

Working from home is a double-edged sword

Taken to the extreme, an Ann Arbor employer could hire fully remote workers from India, for example, where the average annual salary is less than $5,200 US dollars. Those workers, who could be treated just like contractors, are unlikely to receive expensive benefits like healthcare and retirement. They’re also unlikely to join unions. That would represent a huge savings for an employer whose personnel costs approach – say – 80% of its operating expenses. It would also enable an employer to replace their full-time local employees with a virtual army of remote, part-time workers. There’s also ample opportunity to introduce additional operational savings through the use of technology and automation.

Embracing a fully (or largely) remote workforce has implications for the physical size of an institution, too. Since March 2020, US corporations have dumped nearly 140 million square feet of office space. Not having as much workspace eliminates costs – like maintenance. And not putting workers in the workspace means not having to upgrade and maintain ventilation units to OSHA standards, either. It also reduces the need for certain types of employees whose jobs are mostly centered on in-office work.

Working from home is the proverbial double edged sword that cuts both ways. It has the power to fully reshape the way some employers do business.

WCCEA, are you paying attention?

Photo Credit: Ross , via Flickr