COVID-19 may have changed the way we work, permanently

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic started closing businesses and forcing many workers to learn how to work remotely, is there any going back to business as usual? Changing the status quo promises to create a fundamental workplace challenge with pros and cons for workers and employers, say two Northeastern researchers who study virtual work and urban landscapes.

“The broad trend seems to be that people want to go back to the office, but they also want to remain working from home at least two or three days a week,” says Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern, who conducts research on virtual and remote work.

A recent survey by accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers  indicates that less than 20 percent of executives expect to return to pre-pandemic work schedules. Larson says that splitting time between the office and home has advantages for employees and employers both.

Left, Sara Jensen Carr, assistant professor of architecture. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University. Right, Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Employers may be able to save on their bottom-line real estate costs by moving to smaller office spaces, she says, and employees may be able to move out of expensive urban areas if they’re commuting only a few days per week.

“Companies that I’ve talked to over the last year have realized that at a higher level, some form of remote work also has positive environmental benefits—their carbon footprint is reduced to the extent that they have fewer employees coming in day to day,” Larson says.

And, for some employers in highly competitive industries, offering a “work-from-anywhere” benefit may be a way to entice talented employees considering a number of different companies.

“Work-from-anywhere” gives employees greater geographic flexibility when considering where to live—whether that means choosing a home close to a beach, or close to a hospital for families with chronic illness, Larson says.

“It’s a model that can increase what we call ‘residential satisfaction’ in ways that don’t necessarily have to do with cost of living,” she says.

Of course, a hybrid work model doesn’t work for all employers. David Solomon, chief executive  of investment bank Goldman Sachs, said in February that he’s eager to bring people back to the office. 

“I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,” Solomon told Forbes, adding that a remote work system “was not the new normal.” 

Solomon isnt alone. Companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays, Cisco, and Netflix also plan to bring all of their employees back into the office.

Asked by The Wall Street Journal whether he sees any positives to working from home, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings replied, I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.

There are potential downsides to remote work, as well.

If the number of daily commuters remains lower than its pre-pandemic levels, public transportation routes and frequency could change, says Sara Jensen Carr, assistant professor of architecture whose research explores connections between landscapes and human health.

“We didn’t have a particularly robust public transportation system in the U.S. to begin with, and if there are even fewer people riding it, what will the long-term effect be?” she says.

Carr is concerned that decreased ridership may force some municipalities to limit the number of trains and buses running each day, a move that would be detrimental for workers who don’t have the option to work from home, she says.

For employers, a decentralized workforce (where employees may even be in different time zones) means creating more intentional social and hiring practices, Larson says.

“There is certainly concern about how to create a strong corporate culture when you have employees who are largely or entirely remote,” she says.

She suggests that employers take a page from the robust online communities that can be found on social media platforms or community forums—online spaces in which people have likely never met in person that still maintain a strong sense of shared culture.

“It’s not that this is impossible, it just takes a different set of practices to on-board and communicate with new employees, and an intentional approach to creating social events that are run differently than what may be possible in person,” Larson says.

As people settle into some measure of permanent remote work, it’s likely that our natural and built landscapes will change, too, Carr says.

Public open spaces were essential for well-being during the 1918 flu pandemic—and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Large urban parks were an idea that grew out of health crises,” Carr says. “Seeing how important places like the Back Bay Fens or the Emerald Necklace were here in Boston, I’m hoping that we rethink the importance of open space in the future, as well.”

The 1918 flu pandemic also changed the way architects designed buildings, creating spaces that were better ventilated and had more natural sunlight.

“As we became more dependent on artificial heating and cooling systems in the mid-20th century, we lost those lessons,” Carr says. “I’m hoping that the coronavirus helps us remember.”

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