JPMorgan Chase & Co last week announced that at least some employees — largely those in sales and trading — would be expected to be back in the office tomorrow.
Although many organizations have encouraged employees to come back, JPMorgan’s move was notable, because it was framed not as a choice, but an expectation. Exceptions are to be made, but this is an opt-out, not an opt-in.
Other employers are wondering how hard to push people to return and employees are wondering if their at-home time is ending.
There is some feeling of abruptness to this. If it was not safe to go back last month, why is it safe now? In some locations — for example, Texas and Georgia — cases have dropped in the past month, so it is possible to see why returning to work might have become a better idea.
However, JPMorgan’s announcement was about its offices in New York. Cases there have been stable and low since the middle of June. This makes the decision seem arbitrary; that employers have just decided “it’s time,” rather than evaluating the risks to employees.
One hallmark of good decisionmaking is consistency. Changing your decision when nothing has actually changed is not consistent.
In my view, though, something has changed, but it is not the facts about the virus. Instead, it is how we are thinking about the alternatives. The choice of whether or not to open a workplace — or to open a school, or to go to the hairdresser — depends crucially on defining what will happen in the “or not” scenario.
For months we have been, either explicitly or implicitly, operating under the assumption that — pretty soon — this will “end.”
That is: If we just wait until a vaccine is approved, or rapid antigen tests are available, we would be able to reopen everything normally. Decisions not to reopen workplaces over the summer were, I think, rooted in the expectation that if we just waited a bit longer, things could be more normal. Employers would not have to go through all the work of setting up a COVID-safe workplace.
Investing in this sort of office homecoming really would not make sense if everything is going to return to normal in a few weeks.
When we ask what has changed, I think the answer is that we have started to realize that it is not a few weeks, or even a few months. Employers have realized they need to plan for the long term.
It is dawning on all of us that there is not an “end” in sight.
I think US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci might have said it best when he said that we will be dealing with this in some way for the next 18 months, at least.
With that realization, employers face the choice of opening “COVID-safe” now or waiting perhaps 18 months to open “normally.”
Although a few companies — tech firms, largely — have decided that work from home is a long-term solution, others are realizing that simply will not work for them.
JPMorgan has said its internal data show that workers are not as productive from home. The result is a decision to make the investments to bring people back as safely as possible in this new normal. These investments in safety make a lot more sense than they would if we were going to return to normal in a few weeks.
We must acknowledge that the outcome is uncertain. It is possible that cases will increase if we open workplaces. Employers would need to be diligent about monitoring, open to backtracking and willing to learn from what works and what does not. This learning, too, has more value as we acknowledge a longer road ahead.
This logic extends to other types of reopenings. Schools are one obvious example, but so are things like gyms, restaurants and other businesses.
Keeping schools closed under the assumption that you would be able to open normally next month might make sense; once we realize that we are looking at an entire academic year at least, it might make sense to invest in ways to conduct in-person instruction more safely.
I can hear the howls of protest already. People would object that this is privileging the economy over health, and it is morally reprehensible to consider asking people to return to work until we are sure it is 100 percent safe.
I see this point, but staying closed also has serious risks in terms of employment, income and, yes, health — both mental and physical. There are no perfect options here. Making good choices among the many imperfect options requires realism about how long this pandemic is likely to last.
Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University. She is the author of Cribsheet and Expecting Better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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