Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) earlier this year precipitated a dramatic and sudden shift in where millions of people work each day. A mass migration of workers away from commercial spaces to home offices took place to slow the spread of the virus. Early indications are many employers are comfortable with the new arrangement, and if it continues, the shift will have a lasting effect on food and beverage trends.

Approximately 160 million people made up the US labor force in November. Survey data published by Upwork, a hiring platform, showed that in December — nine months into the pandemic — 42% of the US workforce continued working remotely. The survey, which featured responses from over 1,000 US hiring managers, predicted remote work will continue through 2021, and an estimated 27% of the workforce will remain fully remote throughout the year. This figure suggests employees gradually will return to the office, but a sizable group will continue working from home.

The gradual return to offices makes sense as vaccination of the US population proceeds through the spring and into summer. What remains to be seen is how companies manage remote work policies after the pandemic ends. The hiring managers participating in the Upwork survey said they expect the number of people working remotely to nearly double by 2025 from where it was pre-pandemic. In other words, an estimated 36 million US workers are expected to be working from home in four years.

More people working from home offers consumer packaged goods manufacturers a long-term opportunity, and many are adding capacity to meet the perceived increased demand. Conagra Brands, General Mills, J.M. Smucker, Kraft Heinz, Nestle and many other companies are investing in capital projects to expand production capacity.

“We expect more time at home, including more work from home, to be an ongoing part of consumer routines, meaning more opportunities for at-home eating occasions,” said Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills, Inc., during an earnings call with analysts on Dec. 18.

Adding to the interest of CPG companies and other businesses in this group is the profile of those working from home. A majority earn an “upper income,” according to a Pew Research Center survey, compared to many lower- and middle-income workers who are not able to work remotely. The Pew survey showed that more than half of employees working from home, if given the choice, want to keep working from home after the pandemic ends.

The past year may be described as a great experiment born out of necessity. It has reinvigorated the frozen food and center aisles of supermarkets, pushed many consumers to become more comfortable in their kitchens and accelerated consumer adoption of e-commerce and other digital platforms.

These accelerated trends emanated from stay-at-home orders put in place to bend the infection curve of the virus. As the pandemic fades it is expected that each trend will decelerate as consumers revert to a pre-pandemic normalcy.

The percentage of the population capable of working remotely will continue to grow. Upwork estimates 23% of the US workforce will be working remotely by 2025. As more employees are given this option in the years ahead and this population continues to swell, the growth will reverberate throughout the marketplace and have a lasting effect on how people shop and what they eat.