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Could the pandemic usher in a new era of working from home?

Many Americans are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s unclear when people will or should return to the workplace. The shift toward more remote work could have significant repercussions for employees, companies and the marketplace. Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores these transformations -- and their advantages and drawbacks -- in a two-part series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many of us, including me and most of our "NewsHour" staff, are working from home these days. And it's far from clear how soon people can, will or should go back to their workplace.

    This could have significant repercussions for workers, for companies and for the marketplace.

    Paul Solman is going to explore these transformations in a two-part look, beginning tonight, for our series Making Sense.

  • David Kenny:

    This has worked for other things, but it's not working for you.

  • Paul Solman:

    That's CEO Dave Kenny, our first interview for this story about working from home.

  • Man:

    You got to move the mic.

  • David Kenny:

    Yes, I'm used to having people to do this.

  • Paul Solman:

    That'll be a unique angle on the work-from-home problem.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Kenny:

    Exactly.

  • Paul Solman:

    The CEO of Nielsen…

  • Narrator:

    Any time you tune in or turn on…

  • Paul Solman:

    … the company famous for measuring television audience ratings, Kenny used to think working from home was a bad idea.

  • David Kenny:

    When I came to Nielsen at the beginning of last year, which had a work-from-home option, I was really quite opposed to it.

    The people who were in the conference room were talking to each other. Those who were working from home and phoning in or even videoing in were largely not in the conversation.

  • Paul Solman:

    I don't mean to use this phrase lightly, but has it been for you, in a sense, a conversion experience?

  • David Kenny:

    It's been a big event in my life, because I was forced to look at a total system change, as opposed to an incremental change.

    I don't think I would have had the courage to go big and have everyone try this if we weren't forced to. But it did open my eyes. And it did tell me some things, if you do them big, they actually work.

  • Paul Solman:

    And it's not just Nielsen, of course. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook's 45,000 employees:

  • Mark Zuckerberg:

    I think that it's quite possible that, over the next five to 10 years, about 50 percent of our people could be working remotely.

  • Paul Solman:

    Nielsen's policy?

  • David Kenny:

    Most people will work remotely as long as they can, allowing people to have much more of a hybrid model in the future, where they're really only coming in when they need to.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, for now, the third of the U.S. work force that can work from home is doing so, full time.

  • Economist Nick Bloom:

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    Maybe a year or two from now, when firms relax and say, look, you can come back into the office if you like, you can come back in two or three days a week, and spend the other couple of days at home, that's, you know, the promised land. But that's definitely not where we are now.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, work from home has long had a surprisingly bad rap, as Bloom illustrated in a 2017 TED Talk.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    If you go to Google or to Bing and you punch in working from home into image search, what do you get? A lot of pictures of basically…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    … naked people, cartoons, people juggling way too many babies to actually be doing anything constructive.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Bloom, wanting to actually study the economic effects, found a willing partner, Ctrip, China's largest travel agency.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    Here's a picture of their headquarters in Shanghai. They're interested in working from home because Shanghai is a phenomenally expensive place to run a business, very Dilbertesque, lots of desks and cubicles, and thousands of people working, taking calls.

  • Paul Solman:

    Two random groups of 500 workers each were studied. The results?

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    We found, amazingly, that the working-from-home employees were 13 percent more productive, which is huge. That's almost a day extra a week.

    And when we looked at the data, it turned out about a third of that was, it's quieter. They said they don't get distracted. My favorite anecdote was, I spoke to a woman that said: You know, the person in the desk next to me, she clips her toenails. I see her leaning below the desk, and I hear that clip, clip, clip. It's horrible.

    And then the other two-thirds of the gain was actually people working from home work more hours. They also took less sick leave.

  • Paul Solman:

    The 500 work-from-home employees were so much happier, in fact:

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    Quit rates dropped by 50 percent. Ctrip, they reckon they'd made about $2,000 more profit per person at home. They were super positive. They rolled it out to the whole firm.

  • Paul Solman:

    And the U.S. experience mirrors Ctrip's, says remote work consultant Desmond Dickerson.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    Welcome to remotopia.

  • Paul Solman:

    Working from home himself for five years.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    Reports show that folks are more productive and take less sick leave when they work remotely.

    And a huge advantage — and I think this is going to be a game-changer — is that the pool of applicants grows. Now we have folks that traditionally couldn't make it into the office. Maybe they have a disability or a chronic illness, or they're not in these places where these high-tech companies or major corporations are based.

    So, that could be, you know, minority folks, or it could be folks that live in rural areas.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    And now they have basically the same access to the types of working-from-home jobs that everyone else does.

  • Paul Solman:

    No wonder, then, that Nick Bloom estimates working from home will increase three- to four-fold post-pandemic.

    But wait just a second. He, himself, a Stanford professor, is hardly working in a remote paradise.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    You can probably see I'm in a bedroom. I had a call with two different people that were working in clothes closets. I could see a shirt hanging behind somebody's ear, kids coming in all the time.

  • Paul Solman:

    As if on cue:

    You can bring her in. Bring her in.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    You want to say hi?

  • Child:

    Hi.

  • Paul Solman:

    Hi.

    Now, what do you call your daddy? What do you call him?

  • Child:

    Doo-doo.

  • Paul Solman:

    Doo-doo?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    But that's not nice.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    Post-COVID, kids will be back in school. But now — I mean, I don't need to say anything else, I don't think.

  • Paul Solman:

    As for the childless?

    So, you're the typical young worker who must love working from home, right?

  • Jamie Andes:

    It has its ups and downs.

  • Paul Solman:

    Jamie Andes works for a New York real estate brokerage.

  • Jamie Andes:

    Mostly it's difficult to find the work-life balance, because it's really easy to continue to work into the night, and then it's bedtime, and you have had no time to yourself.

    Folks will burn out if they're working those additional hours.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then there's the bugaboo most remote jobs now entail:

  • Jamie Andes:

    Meetings, meetings, meetings, that's all we do every day.

    It's difficult to pay attention to everybody, talk when you're supposed to talk, listen when you're supposed to listen. People talk over each other, all of that kind of stuff. So it's a lot more mentally draining than you would think.

    I'm craving human contact right now. So I want to go back into the office. I want to be communicating with everybody in person.

  • Paul Solman:

    And that might actually help her career, since work-from-homers are promoted less, for two reasons says, Nick Bloom:

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    One is, out of sight, out of mind. They get passed over, potentially forgotten about.

    The second is, you may genuinely need to be in the office to develop the kind of skills to manage people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Skills that just aren't that easy to hone at home.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    I probably should have locked the office door, I think is the thing to do.

  • Paul Solman:

    This is Paul Solman, working from home, for the "PBS NewsHour."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cute daughter.

    Well, there is no doubt there's going to be a lot more working from home when all this is over. And that has implications for, among other things, the value of commercial office space.

    That will be Paul's next Making Sense story.

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