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COVID-19 Forces More People To Work From Home. How's It Going?


About a third of Americans are working from home these days because of the virus outbreak, and that includes me. I'm speaking to you from my home in Los Angeles. Although it took a pandemic to force so many of us into remote work, the technology has actually been around for many years. Greg Rosalsky from our Planet Money podcast team has been exploring why it still feels off.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: I don't know about you, but this is getting old.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can't hear you...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If there is a...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You also have a power cable...

ROSALSKY: The daily video calls.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Wait, I want to learn from you guys, but there's feedback happening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Robert - can you mute, Robert?

ROSALSKY: The online group chats.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Addie (ph), please mute.

ROSALSKY: I miss the office.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Can you say that one again? What was that?

ROSALSKY: Ever since the birth of the personal computer, people have been predicting that communication technology will kill the office. The Stanford University psychologist Jeremy Bailenson has thought a lot about this.

JEREMY BAILENSON: Think about what an office job tends to be. You get in a car. You drive for an hour. Fight traffic. Get road rage. Burn fossil fuel. You get to your office. You pound on a computer for nine hours. And maybe you have one or two 15-minute meetings.

ROSALSKY: But the office has proven hard to kill. An estimated 37% of American jobs could plausibly be done full time from home. But before the pandemic, the total fraction of American workers who worked at least half the time from home was only about 4% - That is, until coronavirus.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: This is why I'm trying to troubleshoot it.



ROSALSKY: This shift to remote work hasn't proved easy. According to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, over 70% of employers report struggles with shifting to remote work. Another survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers finds that about half of companies believe they are witnessing a dip in productivity with this shift. For professor Bailenson, a lot of the problem is the limitations of technology. Zoom calls, for one, aren't like being face-to-face in an actual office.

BAILENSON: And so face-to-face, we don't stare at each other right in each other's eyes for that often. But the default setting on a lot of these videoconference technologies, you know, gives you a "Brady Bunch" grid. Everybody's staring you right in the face.

ROSALSKY: Bailenson's research suggests this has real cognitive effects. It does make us focus more - for a little while, at least. In a series of experiments, Bailenson found that the gaze of a teacher in a video call did make students temporarily pay closer attention. But it also stressed them out.

BAILENSON: So I believe that had we run our studies over, you know, days, weeks and months, that the productivity would have a very steep decline.

ROSALSKY: And for many types of jobs, not being in an office limits valuable forms of communication and things like social bonding, mentorship and career development. We are social creatures with a gazillion nonverbal microexpressions we use to communicate, and Bailenson's research suggests a lot of this is lost online.

BAILENSON: You know, we are so evolutionarily tuned to just a quick flick of somebody's eyes and where they're pointed.

ROSALSKY: That said, research has found that some types of work and workers benefit from ditching the distraction of the office. Like, for example, one study in China found that call center workers were actually more productive when working remotely. Bailenson is hopeful we'll see more flexibility for remote work after the pandemic, but he says a seismic shift to a world without offices would require major leaps forward in technology.

Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SUPER LOVE GRAVITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.