Will social distancing accelerate a trend toward home as headquarters?

Justin De Graaf / May 2020 / Search, Consumer Insights, Retail

As COVID-19 sweeps around the world, vast swaths of the workforce find themselves working from home for extended periods for the first time. Many of them are learning how to structure time and use technology to make the transition as seamless as possible.

But the coronavirus could accelerate a trend that was already underway. Even before social distancing and sheltering in place, home was becoming the logistical headquarters for busy people looking to make better use of their time. Whether it was skipping the commute or the line at the grocery store, online searches and shopping habits prior to the pandemic indicated a desire by people to spend more of their time on pursuits that give them joy, pleasure, or comfort (and less of it sitting in traffic).

Working from home

Thanks to advances like high-speed internet and better teleconferencing technology, more and more people were already transforming their homes from places where they eat, sleep, and make family memories into places where they also work.

Illustration of a blue house with a yellow briefcase icon hovering above the roof. Accompanying stat: 5 million employees, or 3.6% of the workforce, now work from home at least half the time.

Telecommuting and remote work had been on the rise for years, as people sought more flexible work arrangements or took on side gigs to make ends meet. Prior to the pandemic, mobile searches for “remote jobs” had increased by over 210% over the last two years.1

And it’s not just searches. The actual number of people working from home is on the rise. A Global Workplace Analytics analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data between 2005 and 2018 found that working at home has grown by 173% between 2005 and 2018 and that “5 million employees (3.6% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time.” Those figures exclude the self-employed.

Illustration of an online map location pointer icon. Accompanying stat: 30% of people value being able to choose their work location over an increase in vacation time.

The primary driver seems to be a better quality of life. In its Global Workspace Survey, flexible workspace provider IWG found that “80% of workers in the U.S. would choose a job that offered flexible working over a job that didn’t, and [30%] of people value being able to choose their work location over an increase in vacation time.” It also found that “more than two-fifths of U.S. workers see commuting as the worst part of their day.”

Groceries from the couch

With more people spending time at home — and perhaps because fewer commutes mean fewer side trips to the grocery — shopping patterns have been changing as well.

E-commerce is nothing new. People have been shopping and buying everything from books to appliances online for over a decade. Now they’re adding groceries to the mix. One of the clearest indications of this is the growth in searches for grocery delivery and pickup services. Pre-outbreak mobile searches for “grocery delivery” have grown over 130% over the past two years.2 That includes searches for phrases like “grocery delivery near me” and “grocery delivery app.” This rise coincides with major grocery chains offering delivery and pickup service — and advertising them — nationwide.

According to NPD, the number of U.S. consumers 18 and older who shopped online for groceries, whether delivery or pickup, increased by about 51 million from the quarter ending November 2018 to the quarter ending February 2019.

An earlier study by NPD found that the benefits of online grocery shopping, like not needing to leave home, price comparisons, speed, and not having to wait in lines are enough for a growing number of consumers to be enticed. And the top barrier to online grocery shopping was “wanting to pick out their own fresh items.”

Looking forward

With millions now working from home out of necessity and ordering grocery delivery or pickup to adhere to health officials’ guidelines, consumer sentiment regarding remote work and online grocery shopping is likely to change. More people are likely to realize that it’s not as hard as they once thought. Everyone is forming new habits and establishing new norms.

For the time being, people working from home may be searching and shopping for ways to create comfortable work spaces in their homes or replicate their office. Meanwhile, people looking for grocery services might be a little less worried about speed or the quality of their produce and more concerned about accurate inventory messaging.

In the short term, marketers will need to find ways to be helpful to people trying to meet their most basic needs. And in the long term, we’ll all need to adapt to this “new normal” and work to understand what it means for all aspects of our industry when home becomes people’s new headquarters.

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