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Placeholder work from home

Some estimates say a hybrid workforce could improve productivity because of reduced commute times.

Labor Day is as good a time as any to contemplate the dynamics of the workplace.

Union vs. nonunion? Manufacturing vs. white collar? Local company or multinational? Those issues have been debated for years, in the boardroom and at the kitchen table.

In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its 18th month, there’s another workforce dividing line that deserves discussion. Are you working in the office or working from home?

The coronavirus, and the ensuing stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns, upended the ways that we work. Zoom took the place of face-to-face meetings. Brainstorming was conducted via group chat. Child care wasn’t an issue but self-motivation was.

The big question isn’t whether you liked it or found working from home to be productive. The question is whether this will last or become a COVID-related blip, like a restaurant that only offers takeout and then suddenly opens again for in-store dining.

Time will tell, but the National Bureau of Economic Research weighs in with a study called, “Why working from home will stick.” With a title like that, you can see where things are heading.

After the pandemic ends, remote employees will be responsible for 20% of all labor in the United States, according to the study. These findings were based on interviews with major employers and surveys conducted over a 10-month period. Before the pandemic, about 5% of people worked from home.

This is a change in work patterns that’s almost as significant as labor moving from small shops and rural areas to large factories during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also a change that won’t be applied evenly. Studies show that home-based work tends to go to high-paid and highly educated brainiacs, not those on the lower rungs of the workplace. Some employers, like Apple, are leaning toward hybrid models that involve two days of working from home and the rest in the office.

Maybe remote work, if widely applied, will break the trend of economic prosperity being concentrated in a few urban clusters — like the Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas — while the middle of the country falls behind. Big city brainiacs might relish the lower cost of living and shorter commutes in a place like St. Joseph. Corporations wouldn’t mind it because a lower cost of living means you can pay people less money. Sorry, but it’s true.

What it takes, however, is cleaning up some of the mess in this city and providing better broadband and 5G infrastructure. We’re not sure if city leadership sees the connection. The Treasury Department’s guidance for COVID relief lists broadband infrastructure as one of the preferred uses for cities, but St. Joseph came up with a list that seemed to include everything but technology.

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