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Thursday, September 23, 2021

OPINION:

A recent study by product review site Digital.com claims that 69 percent of businesses in the U.S. have “permanently closed” some or all of their office spaces since March 2020, and 37 percent have permanently closed all of their office space. Wow! Do you believe that? I don’t.

Then there’s the study from earlier this year by researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago, which predicts that after the pandemic, the share of people working from home will be 20 percent – a number four times the amount of remote workers in 2017 and 2018. Maybe.


In the U.K., more than a third of workers say they would take a pay cut if they could work remotely, and a recent analysis of job searches from Glassdoor found that searches for remote work are up more than 460% over the past two years. Of course, employees love staying home with their kittens and coffee instead of battling traffic and sitting in an office cube all day. Who wouldn’t?

So yes, remote working is a trend.

But even the big companies that keep pushing back their return to office dates are tacitly admitting that this work from home thing is way overhyped.  Microsoft recently revealed that remote work is making productivity and innovation harder. Its U.S. employees spent less time communicating with colleagues outside of their immediate business teams after making working from home mandatory in 2020. One Microsoft scientist admitted on local TV that there is “an absolute and even divide over which work location is more productive.”

A Stanford professor says that working from home is a “productivity disaster” and a “ticking time bomb for inequality.” The CEO of Goldman Sachs says that remote work is “an aberration.” Facebook has acquired more than 2.2 million square feet of office space in New York City for thousands of its employees in just the past year.  Google just bought an office building in New York City for $2.1 billion. To house what, 2.1 billion Chromebooks?

Oh, and remember the Digital.com study mentioned above about all those businesses closing their offices? That doesn’t seem to be the case in most of Texas and Chicago, Oklahoma, Boston, and many other parts of the country where commercial real estate is in high demand.

Working from home is a popular topic, and the media loves to cover it (perhaps because they like working from home too?). But propaganda aside here’s what I’m seeing: while big firms keep pushing back the dates for employees to come back to the office, small businesses are not.  If you work for a small business, you’re coming to the office.

How do I know? Because at the moment, I’m writing this column from a client’s business – a 100 person manufacturer — that’s located in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and the owners are here. All of their employees are here. They’ve been here throughout the pandemic.

This is not unusual. I drive to clients in the Philadelphia area and notice full or mostly-full parking lots at corporate centers, industrial parks, and individual establishments. I go to stores and restaurants. I had my air conditioning system repaired, my lawn mowed, and my roof fixed. I ordered products online, played squash at my local club, and sat in traffic every morning this week commuting to clients in New Jersey, Norristown, and the Lehigh Valley.

Whose cars are in all those lots? Who’s in the car in front of me? Who’s in the store, mowing my lawn, checking me into my club, and fixing my A/C? These would be the employees at the small businesses I pay or get paid by. Maybe that’s why the Philly suburban commercial real estate market is so “hot,” according to local reports.

Why are so many of my small business clients and community ignoring this work-from-home trend? Some of it has to do with demographics.

According to the Small Business Administration, more than half of U.S. small business owners are over the age of 55. That generation — my generation — has grown up coming to work. We have been less cowed by COVID-19 and expect to see the smiling faces of our employees not on a Zoom call but in our offices.

Another factor is liability. Big companies don’t want to get sued by an employee they made to come to the office or go to a conference and then get COVID-19. They certainly don’t want the media attention associated with that either. Small businesses don’t worry about that kind of thing.

But most importantly, small business owners don’t get a paycheck unless their businesses generate profits. We know that work can’t get done as profitably and productively when everyone’s working from home all the time. We know that people don’t innovate, share ideas, talk about customer issues and respond to problems as well when they’re removed from the premises. We can’t monkey around with work from home policies. We have businesses to run. We need butts in seats.

Of course, my smartest clients are now offering work-from-home policies because they know that this is a good benefit to be competitive. But these benefits are limited to maybe a day or two a week and need to be earned.

Is working from home something that’s here to stay? I believe that. Have 69 percent of businesses shut their offices because people are working from home? Sorry, but I don’t believe that. I have eyes. And ears. And I see what the employees at my small business clients are doing. They’re coming to the office.

• Gene Marks is a CPA and owner of The Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm specializing in small- and medium-sized companies.


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