Twitter may have once again changed the world.
On Tuesday, CEO Jack Dorsey emailed the entire company (interestingly opting not to Tweet it) effectively telling all employees they could continue working from home, if they so desired, forever. Jobs that require people to be present — like server maintenance — will still need to come in. But by and large Twitter’s workforce will now be allowed to telecommute full-time, even in a post-pandemic world.
Dorsey’s email was first obtained by BuzzFeed News and went on to say the company’s offices would likely not open until September, and that all in-person events would be canceled until the end of 2020. Twitter began allowing most of its workers to work from home in March, like many companies, and hinted at a permanent shift later that month when HR head Jennifer Christie told CNBC, “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way we used to operate.”
Other Silicon Valley heavyweights have also embraced the work-from-home ethos for the long term, as both Google and Facebook have announced their offices won’t reopen — even for limited staff — until early summer. Facebook upped the ante saying employees who didn’t require physical presence could work from home until the end of the year.
Twitter may be the first domino in a WFH chain reaction
This announcement isn’t just huge for Silicon Valley. It also represents the first major American company to move to an all-remote workforce following COVID-19 and may serve as the first example of a major shift in the way we work. And even where we live.
Twitter won’t be the first company to have a remote workforce. Countless startups looking to avoid commercial rent, and diversify their workforce, also have staff operating from their living rooms or on the road. As do many online media companies, including Matador Network.
But Twitter’s example shows large companies both in tech and other fields that remote working is a viable option, even for organizations steeped in in-person tradition.
“People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” Christie told BuzzFeed News in March. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective.”
And though tech companies have long been on the forefront of workplace innovation, this may signal the largest shift yet.
Not that remote working was a new concept at all; it has been growing in popularity steadily for 15 years. A 2017 study from Global Workplace Analytics showed that nearly four million people worked from home at least half the time, up 44 percent over the previous five years. That number was also 91 percent higher than 10 years before and 159 percent higher than it had been in 2005. Still, many traditional corporate companies have resisted change.
Working from anywhere means we might not need to live in expensive cities to find jobs
With more Americans realizing they don’t need an office to do their jobs, and the cost of living in job centers growing every year, the move to working from home may also signal a shift in where we choose to live. Whereas at one time you had to live in Silicon Valley to make a Silicon Valley salary, now you can live in places where $100,000 gets you more than an improved garden shed in someone’s backyard. It also means that companies could hire more people with mobility issues or other disabilities, people who need to balance childcare, or simply those without the privilege to bet big on a move to the big city for an entry-level job.
Assuming travel opens back up, this also means people can move even more freely throughout the country than they have before, with things like commute times and proximity to work rendered relatively meaningless. That may also go on to affect housing costs and property values, as anyone who’s played excessive hours of SimCity probably already knows. Expensive real estate won’t be limited to areas close to commercial centers, and we may see a new wave of affordable housing hitting our cities. Or, possibly, a mass exodus to smaller, more livable communities.
With less demand for commercial office space, rents in office buildings and commercial zones may also drop considerably, causing a market correction in many densely populated urban areas.
None of this is an impossible extrapolation, though it’s also not a guarantee. Expensive, large cities still offer amenities people don’t have in more-affordable places. And simple economics would dictate that if employers in Silicon Valley, New York, and other expensive cities no longer need to factor in cost of living in their salary offers, they won’t. But it’s nice to think, for a fleeting minute anyway, that our generation might be able to have a job that pays well and an affordable mortgage. And maybe even do something as crazy as save for retirement.
So as Twitter has gone from a microblogging site for one-liners to where our president announces foreign policy, you may be able to add “demographic shifter” to its resume as well. Whether a wave of working from home overtakes the country post-COVID-19 remains to be seen. But given that that same Global Workplace Analytics survey showed 9 percent of people reporting increased morale with flexible work arrangements, it may be the most likely of all the premonitions we hear of what the uncertain future to come.