This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the future of remote work. Part I below focuses on the outlook for overall adoption. Part II will look at the impact on the housing market. Part III will speculate on what impact remote work will have on the credit union industry.
The U.S. is emerging from its exhausting battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus triggered sudden and dramatic changes to our way of life. From the very start, questions were asked about whether these changes would stick once the crisis was over. Would people still travel? Would they still visit restaurants? Would facemasks become a permanent fashion accessory? In most respects, society appears eager to get back to the way things have always been. But one aspect that may prove stickier is remote work.
Prior to the pandemic, remote workers were a small but growing part of the labor force. Based on surveys conducted by the Labor Department, it is estimated that just over 10 percent of workers teleworked one or more days per week prior to the pandemic. That number jumped to nearly 40 percent in a Labor Department survey conducted in May 2020. Coinciding with the dramatic rise in remote work has been a deluge of research on the topic over the past year. We take this opportunity to review the latest findings and estimates for post-COVID remote work.
Research on remote work was scant prior to COVID, but a small band of academics were looking at the growing trend. In 2015, Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University led a team of researchers in conducting what is arguably the most significant study on the topic from that era.1 A Chinese travel agency offered its call center employees the option to work at home for nine months. Those who opted to do so were 13 percent more productive than they had been working from in the office. About two-thirds of that productivity gain was the result of working more minutes per shift, due to fewer sick days and fewer breaks. The remaining gains represented greater efficiency during those shifts. Following the results, the company offered employees the option to work from home on a permanent basis. Among those who elected to do so, productivity gains totaled 22 percent, suggesting that gains accrue with experience.
The productivity question is a critical one, and it has been the focus of much of the research during the COVID crisis. Mostly this takes the form of surveys. A December survey of 15,000 workers found that 61 percent believe they have been more productive working from home during COVID than they were in the office, while only 13 percent reported being less productive.2 An April 2020 survey conducted by the freelancing platform Upwork found that 32 percent of managers believed their team’s overall productivity had increased since prior to COVID, while 23 percent believed it had declined. The researcher notes that the survey was conducted at the outset of the crisis, and that subsequent surveys suggest growing productivity as teams became accustomed to full-time remote work.3 Furthermore, productivity during the past year, when many families struggled with lack of childcare and the health consequences of the pandemic, may undersell what we might reasonably expect going forward.
Finally, a growing body of research addresses just how much remote work adoption we can expect going forward. Two researchers out of the University of Chicago looked at how many jobs could be performed remotely.4 They find that 37 percent of jobs can be done full-time from a remote location. This figure seems plausible, as it is close to the share of workers that the BLS found to be working remotely in May 2020. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta conducted a survey of employers last May, finding that businesses expected the incidence of remote work to triple post-COVID, compared with pre-COVID.5
Remote work advocates often point to two factors behind their optimism that COVID will provide a springboard for accelerating adoption. The first is technology. While many of the products that we have become overly familiar with over the past year certainly have their flaws, they have nevertheless enabled work to continue, and people are far more comfortable using them. As the market for these products expands, the quality of the offerings should improve. Secondly, the past year has shifted attitudes toward remote work. Where previously there may have been a stigma attached to employees working remotely, pandemic conditions changed all of that, perhaps for good.
Credit union adoption of remote work is likely to vary substantially from one institution to the next. For many credit unions, theirs is a business built on relationships, and physical interaction among staff is critical to carrying out the mission. But even for those credit unions that revert to a pre-COVID posture towards remote work, the issue will still be an important one as they compete with remote work offerings from other employers.
Curt Long is NAFCU’s vice president of research and chief economist.
1 Nicholas Bloom & James Liang & John Roberts & Zhichun Jenny Ying. “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment” (2015). The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 130(1), pages 165–218.
2 Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. “Why Working From Home Will Stick” (December 2020). University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2020-174.
3 Adam Ozimek. “One Year Remote Report” (March 2021). Upwork.
4 Jonathan I. Dingel & Brent Neiman. “How many jobs can be done at home?” (April 2020). Journal of Public Economics, vol 189.
5 David Altig, et al. “Firms Expect Working from Home to Triple.” Macroblog, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 28 May 2020,