Gas prices, crime and health concerns fuel work from home model

With Covid-19 vaccines widely dispensed and masking requirements mostly lifted, will “work from home” end?

Will workers return to the office at pre-pandemic levels?

Probably not! It is expensive to drive, and it is a waste of time and fuel to idle in traffic jams. Safety is another factor.

Gas prices continue to skyrocket. Last year, the average cost at the pump was $2.62 per gallon. By early April, Tri-Cities gas prices averaged $4.39 a gallon, up from $3.09 a year ago, according to AAA.

Higher energy costs are driving up prices for everything including public transit. The annual inflation rate in the United States was 7.9% for the 12 months ending February 2022 — the highest since January 1982, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

Safe places to work are an added problem. Amazon temporarily closed a Seattle office building with 1,800 employees after a series of attacks in the neighborhood. Many returned to working from home.

In February, MyNorthwest reported Seattle’s overall crime rate increased by 10% from 2020-21. Violent crime increased by 20%, property crime went up 9%, aggravated assaults were up 24%, and robberies rose by 18%.

It isn’t just Seattle. The Kennewick, Pasco and Richland police departments all reported increases in aggravated assault and other crimes in 2021.

“Working from home will be very much a part of our post-Covid economy,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor and co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship program.

“(T)he sooner policymakers and business (employers) think of the implications of a home-based workforce, the better our firms and communities will be positioned.”

Reuters reported that U.S.-based Enterprises Technology Research surveyed 1,200 chief information officers who indicated more than one-third of their workers are “permanently remote” in 2021.

The logical follow-up question: Should employers (business and government) get rid of offices altogether?

“No, but you may want to move it,” Bloom said.

The pandemic reversed an urban growth pattern that started in the 1980s, when business and retail flocked to revitalized downtowns.

Occupied office space in Seattle has grown 34% since 2010, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.

Many of those towers sat hollow during the pandemic. Roughly 90% of the 47 million square feet of leased Seattle office space was vacated because of the pandemic.” (That survey was last year).

Regardless, whether offices are in tall buildings, strip malls or industrial parks, they must be reconfigured. They need to be roomier and arranged for social distancing. So will lobbies, elevators, breakrooms, transit buses and commuter trains which often were crammed to capacity.

Working from home is not for everyone.

Bloom found only half of the people surveyed were able to work from home at an efficiency rate of 80% or more.

“These are mostly managers, professionals and financial workers who can easily carry out their work on their computers by videoconference, phone and email.”

The other half cannot carry out their jobs at home and include employees in retail, health care, transportation and business services.      

Forbes pointed out the decade between 2020 and 2030 will see the number of Americans eligible to work at its lowest point since the Civil War.

“So, it is a good thing that remote work makes many employees happier and more productive because companies will want to hold onto those employees.”          

Remote vs on-site work is a complex issue requiring creative inclusive problem-solving.

Over the last two years inflation, public safety and soaring gas prices complicated the issue; however, those factors must be considered.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

The Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business contributed to this column.

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