Will Remote Work Become a Permanent Pandemic Legacy?

When COVID-19 forced millions of Americans to work from home (WFH), employees and employers feared confusion, dislocation and lost productivity. Instead, remote work proved to be one of the rare pandemic experiments that nearly all agree have gone better than expected.

As vaccines put a return to the office within sight, companies are trying to decide where WFH fits as a permanent part of their post-pandemic strategy.

It’s a decision with immense ramifications, argues a new report from The Conference Board, a member-driven think tank.

COVID-19’s Biggest Legacy: Remote Work and Its Implications for the Postpandemic Labor Market in the US confirms the sea change in thinking that has taken place during the past year. Before the pandemic, roughly 8 percent of workers with office jobs worked primarily from home. Conventional wisdom in most industries still held that workers would be less productive outside the office.

Those fears failed to materialize, even as WFH rates soared. Companies aw the long-term promise of remote work – from reduced spending on office space to massively expanding the talent pool available. But extrapolating these lessons to a post-pandemic world requires caution.

“Remote work worked in 2020, with workers and employers reporting increased productivity on recent surveys,” said Gad Levanon, Vice President, Labor Markets at The Conference Board. “But 2020 was also a year like no other, full of stressors likely to drive employees to work harder and longer. Whether remote work can be as effective in normal economic conditions remains to be seen. Leaders need to be armed with trusted in-house performance analytics – and a clear-eyed view on collaboration and culture – as they seek the optimal balance of remote work in the months and years ahead.”

The pandemic transformed employers’ attitudes toward remote work. Survey data and hiring trends point to much of this change becoming permanent:

  • More than 1 out of 3 HR leaders surveyed in September expect 40 percent or more of their workforce to be remote primarily after the pandemic subsides—compared to just 1 in 20 before COVID-19.
  • Occupations that had been trending toward remote work before the pandemic are among the least likely to return to the office.
  • Online job listings reveal how remote work is woven into the fabric of labor markets in key fields. A February 2021 analysis found 10.8 percent of ads for actuaries and 8 percent for software developers now mention WFH – up from less than 2 percent a year ago.
  • Employers are looking farther afield for talent, giving them access to a much larger candidate pool and potentially lower labor costs. Among HR leaders surveyed in September 2020:
    • 10 percent would hire remote staff based anywhere in the world, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic
    • 26 percent would hire remote staff based anywhere in the United States, up from 7 percent
    • 51 percent would hire remote workers who can commute to the office occasionally, up from 40 percent

Remote work is highly stratified by race, age, and gender. Within organizations and across the economy, the ability to work from home risks becoming a fault line that leaves many behind:

  • Relatively few industrial and manual services occupations can be done at home.
  • In January 2021, college graduates were more than four times more likely – and advanced degree holders were six times more likely – than high-school graduates to be working from home.
  • Asian workers, who are heavily represented in computer fields, are the racial group most likely to have shifted to remote work. WHF is least prevalent among Black and Hispanic workers.
  • Older workers (55+) are less likely than their younger counterparts to be remote, despite the elevated risk of serious COVID-19 complications.
  • Women are working from home at higher rates than men – even after accounting for other factors like race, age, education, and occupation. This reflects the outsized role women continue to play in childcare, especially at a time when many schools are closed.
  • The share of workers working remotely due to the pandemic has been highest on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

All else being equal, Americans are more likely to have shifted to WHF due to COVID-19 if they live in large metro areas and/or areas with high usage of public transportation.