By: Cristy Lytal
Professors at the USC Price School of Public Policy are beginning to address the far-reaching consequences of remote work on where we live, how much we travel, who cares for our children, how much we are exposed to a potentially deadly virus, and how we advance in our careers.
By April of last year, 62% of employed Americans were working at home, compared to 25% a few years prior, according to a report by McKinsey & Company. And while some of these employees will resume working in their offices full-time after the pandemic, others will not—with big impacts on real estate, transportation, and social and economic equity.
The Siren Song of Suburbia
In the real estate sector, remote work—and the elimination of commutes—may have been one of many factors luring some people out of city centers and into suburbia, where they can enjoy paying lower rents for larger homes.
“If you look at apartment vacancy in San Francisco, which is usually less than 2 percent, it’s now 15 percent,” said Professor Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. “Manhattan, too. I don’t think they’re at 15 percent, but they’re much higher than they’ve been in many, many, many years. That’s pretty direct evidence that people have left.”
Green suspects that these changes will be temporary, but adds that “by temporary, I mean, like five years, because so much damage has been done to the amenities that make cities wonderful.”
The Only Thing Constant is Traffic
When it comes to transportation, even if remote work remains more commonplace, Professor Genevieve Giuliano foresees the return of the typical traffic jams.
“The question is if we’re going to see a really significant change in travel demand,” said Giuliano, director of the METRANS Transportation Center. “That means it’s not just people going to work. It’s people shopping less. It’s people going to see Grandma less. It’s people going to the doctor less. It’s people going to school less. You have to think about all the things that people do. And in those areas, what would be the incentive to not do that travel?”
At the same time, remote work and safety concerns have undermined public transit, cutting ridership in half in major cities across the U.S. For public transit to recover, Giuliano says that we’ll need to “do something more”—whether that means charging steeper parking fees for cars, granting right of way to trains and buses, or streamlining the public transit user experience with a single access pass across different agencies.
An Increaser of Inequalities
Remote work has also deepened many divides, raising alarms for how workplaces, as well as local, state and national governments, will address ongoing inequities.
While some people work safely from home, other essential workers risk daily exposure to a potentially deadly virus in factories, retail, service, and health care industries.
Professor Marlon Boarnet points out that even after the virus is no longer a concern, these essential workers won’t enjoy the same benefit of flexibility as those who work in industries that allow for remote work.
“If we don’t actively think about how we could take the flexibility of work-at-home and move it into different industries, there will be a continued inequality of lifestyle, which we’re already starting to see,” said Boarnet, who chairs the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at USC Price. “People talk about two different Americas: a more office work setting that may have all kinds of flexibility, and people going into factory and warehousing and retail jobs who don’t have that flexibility. There would be labor policies that might be able to deliver some of that, but no one’s bringing that up.”
At the same time, remote work isn’t optimal for everyone, even in industries where it will remain prevalent. Professor Christine Beckman points out that remote work has magnified gender inequalities, and working mothers are reducing their hours and dropping out of the workforce at higher rates than working fathers. Just this month, the U.S. saw a job loss of 140,000 – and all of these were held by women.
“Not everyone wants to work remotely,” said Beckman, who is the Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy. “In the early work on telecommuting, it wasn’t that women with young kids were the ones that were wanting to work from home. People liked to go into work. It was a respite from the chaos that was their home life. There was a coffee machine where there was coffee that was made. There was more infrastructure to support them. And they were able to be more productive.”
Ongoing Conversation is Key
Despite the pressing urgency around addressing these systemic avenues for inequality, it is vital that decisionmakers take the time to have real conversations before making concrete changes at a large scale. Professor LaVonna Lewis hopes that companies will engage their employees in the decision making process about whether or not remote work makes sense in a given set of circumstances.
“What you can’t do is to make decisions for people that you’ve never taken the time to talk to, assuming that it’s working,” said Lewis, the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at USC Price. “On a surface level, it may be, but then it’s that second tier of questioning that’s really going to get to what we lost this as a result of it.”
Director and Chair of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate
Chair, Wilbur H. Smith III Department of Real Estate Development
Margaret and John Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government
Director, METRANS Transportation Center
Chair, Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis
Teaching Professor of Public Policy
Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy