Working from home during and after COVID-19

This blog post is based on preliminary results from our survey. These results over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. We are currently conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample and will be reporting results here soon. In this series of blog posts, we are highlighting results that are valuable even though they are not collected from a representative sample.

How has remote work increased during the pandemic?

The short answer to this question is that remote working has increased dramatically. Before the pandemic, roughly 45% of employed survey respondents (n=1396) reported working from home at least a few times a month, and 6% worked from home every day.1 Now, 90% of full-time workers answering our survey (n=1123) worked from home four or more days during the past week. Employers have clearly become much more flexible in allowing employees to work from home during a period where in-person work can pose a health risk.

What about remote work after the pandemic?

It is, of course, not surprising that there is a massive shift toward working from home during a global pandemic. The more interesting question is the extent to which telework will continue even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat. Researchers disagree as to whether the trend of increased remote work will persist beyond the pandemic. Our survey data provide an early quantitative look into this post-COVID future. Over 60% of our employed respondents (n=1518) expected to work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic.

We next consider those workers who were not working from home before the pandemic, but are now (n=534). About half expected to continue working from home at least a few times a month. This translates to a large increase in the proportion of respondents working from home at least part of the time. Most of these employees don’t want to be fully remote workers, however; about 40% of them want to telecommute a few times per week, and 55% only want to work from home a few times per month.

Since full-time telecommuting seems unpopular, it is unlikely that the pandemic will induce firms to completely abandon their office spaces, or for workers to decamp to far-flung locales away from the main office. But if a significant portion of office workers do start to work from home some of the time, there could be significant impacts on peak-hour travel demand, the size and configuration of office spaces, and the demand for services in business districts.

The figure below summarizes how remote work has changed in light of the pandemic and how respondents expect to work in the future. The sizes of the bars represent the percentage of respondents in each category, and the thickness of the lines indicates how many respondents in a particular category in one time period were in a corresponding category in the next time period. The color of the lines corresponds to the answers in the pre-pandemic time period. “Working from home” is defined as at least a few remote workdays per month.

Sankey diagram showing the actual and expected work-from-home status of workers before, during, and after the pandemic. Unemployed respondents generally remain unemployed and are unsure about whether they will work from home after the pandemic. Previous work-from-home employees mostly continue to do so during the pandemic and expect this trend to continue in the future. Non-remote workers before the pandemic have mostly moved to remote work, and about half expect this to continue after the pandemic.

How does remote work affect productivity?

Whether the remote work trend will continue in a post-COVID world depends critically on remote worker productivity. We asked respondents who transitioned to working remotely during the pandemic (n=534) how the transition affected their productivity.

  • 36% reported a decrease,
  • 20% reported an increase,
  • 25% reported both increases and decreases, and
  • 19% reported no change.

When respondents reported a change in their productivity, we asked why. By far, the lack of a commute was the most common reason for increased productivity of remote workers. Predictably, remote worker productivity depends on the environment. Distractions at work cause increased productivity at home. Distractions at home lead to decreased productivity at home. One of the most oft cited reasons for a decrease in productivity was that respondents have too many concerns on their minds. Unlike a reduction in commuting time, this is a temporary change due to the pandemic—suggesting that the productivity implications of a long-term shift towards working from home might be more positive than shown in this survey.

Societal impacts of remote work

Assessing the merits and drawbacks of a partially remote workforce requires consideration of more than just employee productivity. An increase in remote work will have significant impacts on rush hour traffic in major cities across the country and will reduce the demand for office space in the long term. It may also increase the demand for residential space, with more households looking for homes that include offices. Services in business districts, such as coffee shops, restaurants, and office supply companies, may experience decreased demand.

Some workers may even choose to move out of high-cost metropolitan areas to lower-cost areas, if they are still able to access metropolitan jobs remotely. Some scholars have forecasted that improved communications and information technology will eliminate the need for cities. Others argue that these technologies promote urban concentration because they facilitate vast global enterprises that require face-to-face interaction to effectively run. It is difficult to predict how the urban environment will change as a result of long-term increases in remote work, although most people are not ready to give up on the conventional office altogether. In our survey, most respondents agreed with statement, “I enjoy the social interaction found at a conventional workplace,” and most expected to go into the office at least some of the time.

It remains to be seen exactly how remote work will be implemented in the future, who it will be an option for, and to what degree it will replace conventional work, but the results from this survey indicate that we are unlikely to completely return to our pre-pandemic way of life.


Notes

1 This is a lot higher than the national average – Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 National Compensation Survey indicate that only 7% of US workers had the benefit of a “flexible workplace” (i.e. telework; Desilver 2020).

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