Why Some Of The Shift To Telecommuting Will Stick

It seems to me that the tone of the discussion surrounding the pandemic-induced shift in telecommuting has been changing. Last spring and early summer, a lot of the discussion was about about how well it was working, how much time it was saving, how much employees preferred it, and so on. But then the discussions tend to express more concerns. In the words of a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle. ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’" Bloomberg reported on the results from a study done on teleworkers by researchers at the Harvard Business School:  "The Pandemic Workday Is 48 Minutes Longer and Has More Meetings. A study of 3.1 million workers around the world found an uptick in email, too."

Photo by Samsung Memory on Unsplash

What factors will determine whether the shift to telecommuting sticks? Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis present some results from a series of nationally representative surveys of US workers done from May to October 2020, in "Why Working From Home Will Stick" (December 2020, University of Chicago Becker Friedman Institute Working Paper 2020-174). The authors argue that teleworking will remain substantially higher after the pandemic: they estimate a rise from about 5% of work-days were supplied from home before the pandemic, and it will be something like 22% even after the pandemic is done. Based on the survey data, they suggest five reasons why some of the shift to working from home will persist:

First, reduced stigma. A large majority of respondents report perceptions about working from home have improved since the start of the pandemic among people they know. With fewer people viewing working from home as “shirking from home,” workers and their employers will be more willing to engage in it.

Second, ... COVID-19 compelled firms to experiment with a new production mode – working from home – and led them to acquire information that leads some of them to stick with the new mode after the forcing event ends.

Third, our survey reveals that the average worker has invested over 13 hours and about $660 dollars in equipment and infrastructure at home to facilitate working from home. We estimate these investments amount to 1.2 percent of GDP. In addition, firms have made sizable investments in back-end information technologies and equipment to support working from home. Thus, after the pandemic, workers and firms will be positioned to work from home at lower marginal costs due to recent investments in tangible and intangible capital.

Fourth, about 70 percent of our survey respondents express a reluctance to return to some pre-pandemic activities even when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes widely available, for example riding subways and crowded elevators, or dining indoors at restaurants. ...

Fifth, ... the massive expansion in working from home has boosted the market for working from equipment, software and technologies, spurring a burst of research that supports working from home, in particular, and remote interactivity, more broadly.
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