Work from home: some thoughts on the tradeoffs

Thinking about the economic trade-offs in the pandemic, I'm reminded of a line from Marx's Theses on Feuerbach: "All social life is essentially practical". While I'm sure this isn't strictly true, it gets at an important relationship between economic and social life. Most economic activity is social. This is true both on the supply and the demand side: most work is does with other people, and an awful lot of consumption is social consumption. The problem is, social activity is also precisely what leads to viral transmission. This, in short, is the square policy makers are trying to circle. How do you reduce viral transmission in a way that is least economically harmful, when one side of the equation seems to demand less socialising and the other more?

Note that this is distinct from the question as to whether we should accept short term economic costs in order to suppress the virus, or whether the in the long term suppression is in fact economically beneficial. Viral suppression is the stated objective of the UK government, and almost all governments in rich countries. So we can take it as a given that at least in the short term, some (but presumably not any) costs are worth it for viral suppression. The question is, then, how do we minimise these costs, for any given level of suppression we wish to achieve? Which activities can we reduce most whilst having least economic impact?*

On one level, therefore, the government's eagerness to end work from home seems bizarre. We are essentially talking about a shift the way in which an economic activity is done which allows you to minimise viral transmission without restricting that activity. It seems to square the impossible circle of reducing social interactions without a direct economic cost. Of all the measures that can be taken, this is surely the easiest, at least in terms of the stated tradeoff. All other things being equal, if the choice is between shutting one thing down or shifting another to a different work setting, it's surely easier to do the latter than the former. 

Now, there are admittedly knock on effects to work at home that are quite significant. No doubt work from home has been devastating for those businesses which cater to office workers in cities. But there are knock on benefits too, in the form of increased demand for businesses located closer to where people live. Now the former may well be outweigh the latter, and outweigh it quite significantly. But that in and of itself does not tell us work from home is not worth it. Rather, we have to ask, do the knock on harms so greatly outweigh the knock on benefits that we should minimise work from home given that the alternative is minimising social interactions in some other way, presumably with more direct economic impacts (i.e shutting down pubs, closing workplaces where there are cases discovered). And the knock on effects of office work aren't just economic: people have to commute to offices in cities, and public transport is a major viral vector. 

Put concretely, as case numbers in the UK trend upwards, we are, as Chris Whitty says, quite likely at or above the limit of the level of social interactions which allow viral suppression. We are also about to open schools and universities. Assuming that we want to continue to suppress viral transmission, we will have to do less socialising, not more. Yes, work from home has some unpleasant knock on effects. But are these worse than the impact of shutting other things down? Given the enormous impact office work, commuting. indeed more eating out in cafes near workplaces is likely to have on virus transmission, one will presumably necessitate the other. I haven't seen the government modelling, but I would be surprised if the one big response available that does not involve directly stopping people from doing work is amongst the most harmful. 


* This is, admittedly, quite a miserable calculation, as it seems to suggest that social activities with no economic element are superfluous. It does seem to miss the best bits of life.