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How coronavirus could force the work-from-home movement

Amid fears of a global pandemic, working from home is gaining more acceptance.

A worker disinfects an office space in Shanghai.
Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

A strain of coronavirus could be reaching pandemic proportions, having killed 2,700 people and infected more than 81,000 people in more than 40 countries. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, is sending ripple effects around the world, including a push for more people to work remotely, while health organizations work to contain and treat the outbreak.

After a recent spike in cases outside of China, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to ask their schools and workplaces about contingency plans, like working from home, in case they have to shut down over coronavirus. Companies from Wuhan to Silicon Valley have altered how and where they do business as the virus rages on.

In February so far, 77 public company transcripts mention “work from home” or “working from home,” according to financial data platform Sentieo. That’s up from just four mentions of the phrase in the same month a year ago. The vast majority of those documents also mention coronavirus.

“The crisis is a very, very big challenge to the society,” Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang told investors on a recent earnings call, but it also gives people a “chance to try a new way of living and new way of work.”

Remote workers make up anywhere from about 5 percent (those who typically work from home) to nearly two-thirds (who sometimes work remotely) of the workforce, depending on the measurement. What’s certain is that the trend has been ticking up and a pandemic like coronavirus has the potential to fast-track the move by making it more universally accepted and prominent.

“What these temporary uses tend to do is show companies that a) it can be done, and b) having people already accustomed to working remotely makes the transition much easier,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told Recode.

Steve King, a partner at small business consulting firm Emergent Research, agrees.

“When trends or shifts are already growing or gaining strength, shocks — like the coronavirus — tend to increase their growth or strength,” King said. “So we think the potential pandemic will have a positive impact on the growth of remote work [and] working from home (at an obviously very negative human cost).”

Working from home is quietly remaking the lives of knowledge workers, people who complete their high-skill jobs online, but it’s also increasingly affecting people whose jobs haven’t historically been mediated by computers. Of course, there’s a lot less choice for people in jobs like food service or manufacturing. Foxconn, a giant electronics maker, is trying to tempt employees back into its factories in China with large bonuses.

Whether the bump in remote work will last depends on how long and how severe the pandemic is.

“Assuming the pandemic passes fairly quickly, most workers will go back to working where and how they worked before,” King said. “However, if the pandemic happens and lasts for a while it could cause a stronger, longer-term shift to remote work.”

In the meantime, the virus is wreaking havoc on the stock market.

During any natural or manmade disaster, it’s typical for the stock market as a whole to tank while certain industries thrive. A spike in stock price for companies that specialize in “health care, bunker food, and gold is fairly typical when people are running to safety,” Nick Mazing, director of research at Sentieo, said.

At this time, stocks for workplace software like Zoom and Slack, which aid in remote work, also seem to be doing well, though it’s always difficult to tell if that might be due to other factors. Slack, for example, recently signed a big deal with Uber.

Remote work is here to stay, pandemic or not, but the coronavirus may force the transition more quickly than expected.

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