COVID-19 response creates policy options

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – Although working from home provides a great deal of flexibility and potential benefits, professional and personal, most of us don’t want to make it our default setting — even after, or perhaps because of, being ordered to work from home this spring during the initial response to the COVID-19 crisis.

woman in gray sweat shirt sitting beside window
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij

The specific percentages vary by survey instrument, but the trend is unmistakable. Most people who’ve telecommuted this year have liked some aspects of it. They want the option to, say, work a few hours a week or a few days a month from home. But only about 12% to 19%, depending on the poll, want to transition fully or mostly to home-based employment.

We miss the social interaction, it seems. We find that we get distracted at home by family responsibilities or household tasks. And in some industries, managers and workers have discovered that their capacity to deliver goods, services, or projects on time, at a high level of quality, requires cooperation that only face-to-face contact can facilitate.

By no means am I saying, however, that the COVID crisis will fail to produce lasting changes in workplaces. If even 12% of us end up telecommuting all or most of the time, that would roughly double the share of work-hours previously done at home.

Moreover, for those who do return to our offices for most of our workweeks, even modest increases in work-from-home hours could significantly affect real-estate markets, commuting patterns, and household consumption of everything from business attire and groceries to medical services and day care.

North Carolina policymakers face many short-term challenges, I know. But I hope some state and local officials are starting to plan for a post-COVID future — one in which flexibility, adaptability, and innovation will be highly prized.

Just as increasing numbers of North Carolinians will reject binary choices when it comes to workplaces, increasing numbers of North Carolina parents will reject all-or-nothing choices in education. Should their children attend a district-run public school, a chartered public school, a private school, or a homeschool? Many parents will answer “yes” to this formerly multiple-choice question.

They may use one mode for older children and another for younger children. Or, working from home themselves part of the week, some may opt for a hybrid approach: home education as a base with some classes at a school, or alternatively three to four days a week at school with a day or two of enrichment in homes, churches, arts or athletic pursuits, or part-time jobs.

Given recent events, many North Carolinians won’t leave the educational arrangements of their children up to government officials. And if administrators or politicians attempt to block parents from making such choices — by tightening regulation of charter schools, for example, or abolishing scholarship assistance for private alternatives — the fallout could be most unpleasant.

If policymakers want to be helpful, they’ll look for ways to remove rather than erect impediments to flexibility and choice. For schooling, they should embrace education savings accounts that allow parents to deduct the money they save and invest in their children, along with state deposits into ESAs for families of modest means. My colleagues and I at the John Locke Foundation have advocated ESAs since the mid-1990s, and a version of the idea has now become reality in many states.

Flexibility and consumer choice should guide other post-COVID policies, too. For North Carolinians who want to telecommute, or even to found new businesses from their homes, policymakers should loosen any zoning and housing regulations that might get in their way. North Carolina should also reform state licensing and insurance laws so that telemedicine can become a permanent part of the health care landscape rather than just a temporary expedient during a pandemic.

I’m not assuming our “new normal” will look radically different from our “old normal.” There’s no need to get carried away with grandiose predictions. Even moderate shifts in tastes and behavior will require public-policy adjustments. North Carolina’s leaders should be ready to enact them.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.