Entrepreneur | Home Alone

Is full-time work-from-home really a sustainable option?

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

It used to be that opening up a brick and mortar business was one of the first great milestones for an entrepreneur. Whether a shiny new shop or formal office, the act of securing a location made a statement that a fledgling endeavor had finally reached beyond the boundaries of its creator’s home to become a “real” endeavor.

How things have changed.

Even as pandemic restrictions are easing, companies large and small have begun making what has been a temporary work-from-home situation into a permanent change, while others are reducing the number of days employees will be in the office.

With everyone from law firms to tech firms to ad agencies shifting at least partially to home-based operations, what does this mean for the future of the office building?

Recently I spoke about this with Pamela Meyer, community director of The Shop at the Contemporary Arts Center. A co-working space, The Shop offers private offices, communal work areas, shared meeting rooms and other shared facilities.

“Things are definitely changing,” Meyer said, adding that she feels virtually all types of businesses – including her own – are going to seek and implement considerably greater flexibility than existed pre-COVID.

“People may not come into the office every day, but most need more than just what they can get from working at home,” she elaborated. “They need meeting space. They need to network. They want some social interaction.”

Meyer said that since it’s only been a few months since the move to work from home, there is still a certain novelty to it for many people which may peter out as time goes on.

“The productivity may not sustain after the crisis stage has passed,” she said.

Meyer said The Shop is considering more options for its tenants, or members as they are referred to. One example may be offering access to meeting space on an as-needed basis. Another would be allowing two businesses to effectively share a membership, with people trading off days of working in the office space and at home.

Even in more traditional offices and office buildings, more flexibility is going to be the hallmark for at least a while. Staggered shifts to reduce the number of employees in the office at any one time are now common. As noted above, many firms are allowing staff to work at home part-time.

For some startups and smaller businesses, reducing or eliminating office costs is an attractive option. That said, there are many questions to be answered as this shift takes place. How does a company monitor employee productivity? If employees are using their own equipment and supplies (i.e., printer and paper), will they be reimbursed? How will this be tracked? Can employees who work at home claim certain tax deductions? If a small business becomes home-based but employees join the owner at his/her house to work, is this compliant with city codes? Both tax and land use regulations may need to be revisited to accommodate this new paradigm.

Ultimately, Meyer anticipates “less density in the workplace, with people working in shifts or on alternate days.” She said she is confident in the long term that co-working spaces like hers will benefit from the fact that people will want to get out of their houses soon, and small businesses in particular will see the benefits of low-cost, full-amenity workspaces.

While businesses continue to weather the challenges of the pandemic, the advantages of flexibility and cost reductions provided by options like a co-working space are substantial. How many will opt to take advantage of them remains to be seen.