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As coronavirus crisis pushes more to work from home, some see an end to 'office centricity'

Javier E. David
Editor focused on markets and the economy

The ranks of companies allowing employees to work remotely is getting longer and longer.

Over the last week, a number of tech giants including Shopify (SHOP), Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) announced generous telecommuting policies for staffers.

While industry professionals are debating the implications of the new normal, one thing has become abundantly clear: The worldwide coronavirus crisis that have locked many citizens indoors is also rapidly diminishing the allure of shiny trophy office towers.

On Thursday, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke joined the growing number of companies embracing the broad shift to working remotely, telling its employees they can do their jobs from home for the remainder of the year, even as coronavirus lockdowns gradually relax.

In a series of posts on Twitter, Lutke declared his web commerce platform a “digital by default” platform that was heralding the end of “office-centricity.” As a result, most of Shopify’s 5,000-plus workforce would be allowed to stay remote “permanently,” the billionaire added.

Just last year, Shopify unveiled a massive office building in Toronto, as part of a plan to double its employees there by 2022. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the company would remain committed to that strategy in the post-COVID era.

As the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic gradually come to an end, a growing number of private businesses are allowing workers to tele-commute indefinitely — some permanently.

And Shopify’s move is yet another proverbial nail in what could become the coffin of the traditional office ecosystem. There is increasing doubt about the viability of companies maintaining large commercial footprints — particularly with no viable coronavirus treatment or vaccine on the horizon.

“Until recently, work happened in the office. We’ve always had some people remote, but they used the internet as a bridge to the office. This will reverse now,” said Lutke.

“The future of the office is to act as an on-ramp to the same digital workplace that you can access from your [work from home] setup,” he added.

‘Onsite is the new offsite’

On Friday, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Yahoo Finance that commercial real estate wasn’t entirely going away, but would “just be reinvented.” What that means is more companies will use their office space to facilitate certain activities, but the center of gravity will be wherever the worker can best do their jobs.

“They'll be designing these spaces not for day in, day out workers but for people to come in and make use of it for specific tasks,” Ohanian said, quoting his business partner’s words that “the onsite is going to be the new offsite.”

While working remotely will be key, “companies are just going to have to be really mindful and thoughtful about the cultures they build going forward because they're going to have to work extra hard to create...social dynamics. But I think it can happen,” Ohanian added.

Sanjay Rishi, the CEO of JLL (JLL) America, told Yahoo Finance recently that companies and workers are actively trying to consider how to commute safely with the coronavirus spread still a factor, which means “re-imagining” office space.

By dint of post-coronavirus de-densification and social distancing, office buildings will likely have fewer workers, he acknowledged.

“People have become very comfortable with the idea of productivity. A month ago, people would worry about productivity loss when people were working from home.” Virtual work “really is functional and works just fine is something people have embraced,” Rishi said.

The tension between companies allowing companies to work remotely, and those willing to come in, will determine whether the two sides “balance out...but we’ll have to see. We’re in uncharted territory.”

Last month, Barclays (BCS) CEO Jes Staley told reporters that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” And already, companies are reconfiguring existing offices to conform to the imperatives of preventing the spread of the deadly virus, and planning for more to work from home.


Javier David is an editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @TeflonGeek

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