By Patrick Coate
Posted Date: January 25, 2021
How big a role does remote work play in the US economy? Before the pandemic, there was a small core of workers who worked remotely full time, and a much larger class of workers who telecommuted occasionally or simply sometimes took work home. This can lead to a very wide range of estimates of the size and importance of remote work to the economy, similar to the “gig economy” of nontraditional work arrangements.See NCCI’s Q2 2019 QEB, “Nontraditional Work Arrangements and the Gig Economy.”
The pandemic supercharged remote work. Suddenly, everything that could be done remotely was. We will review statistics on remote work at the height of the pandemic, take stock of the current state of remote work, and discuss potential directions for remote working and implications for workers compensation. The disruption to work arrangements caused by the pandemic is expected to lead to a permanently higher level of remote work for well-suited occupations.
How many Americans worked from home before COVID-19?
In 2019, fewer than 6% of Americans worked primarily from home, per the American Community Survey.This uses the US Census Bureau’s ACS questions on commuting and home-based workers. This statistic is measured from survey questions about transportation to work, which makes it effectively a lower bound on the number of remote workers. People who typically travel to their employer’s place of business but do some work at home were not counted. By this measure, remote work as a primary arrangement has increased only from 4% to 6% since 2009, a large percentage gain but only still a small minority of workers overall.
However, while relatively few people work primarily from home, many more do some work from home. Before the pandemic, almost a quarter of American workers did some work at home, per the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey.Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey. This survey uses a broad definition of remote work—if a respondent went to the office but brought work home or even checked work-related email in the evening, that would count as remote work.
These shares differ widely by worker characteristics, especially education and occupation. About 37% of college graduates worked from home on an average day compared to 15% of those with a high school degree. Women were also slightly more likely than men to have worked from home, 26% to 22%.
Shares of remote workers by occupation are shown in Figure 2. About one-third of those in management, business, and financial occupations or professional occupations did work from home on a typical day, compared to 15% of those in service occupations. And less than 10% in production, installation, and transportation occupations, which encompasses most of construction and manufacturing. The classification of professional occupations encompasses a wide range of computer, engineering, science, legal, and education jobs. Workers whose jobs involve working directly with equipment or in high physical proximity to others,See NCCI’s Q2 2020 QEB, “Job Losses and Physical Proximity,” for pandemic effects on employment for occupations that involve high physical proximity to others. such as many in-person services, usually cannot work from home.
Thus, the range of how many people engaged in remote work pre-pandemic is 6%–25% of the workforce, depending on whether we count those who primarily work remotely or those who do so on occasion. But by even the stricter definition, most remote workers are not eligible to be classified as telecommuters for the purposes of workers compensation. Less than 1% of payroll falls into the clerical telecommuting class code (Code 8871).A more complete discussion of the rules governing eligibility for Class 8871 is including in a related NCCI article, “Telecommuting and Workers Compensation: What We Know,” NCCI, January 2021. However, as shown in the national economic data, many other workers in nontelecommuting classes worked remotely sometimes even before the pandemic.
How has remote work changed during the pandemic?
Who moved to remote work?
In May 2020, 48.7 million people, about 35% of the employed workforce, reported that they had worked from home in the prior four weeks because of COVID-19, per a special supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS).BLS Current Population Survey, Supplemental data measuring the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the labor market. This survey question was designed to exclude people who would have worked from home regardless, although it would include those who worked from home more than they would have otherwise.
A recent McKinsey study estimated that 29% of work in the United States could be done remotely with no productivity loss, and an additional 10% could be done remotely if needed.What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries, McKinsey Global Institute, 11/23/20. The 35% of workers working from home in the May survey, plus the small share of full-time remote workers even before the pandemic, makes up a similar share to that upper estimate. From 2009 to 2019, the workforce moved only from 4% to 6% full-time remote workers. But in 2020, the pandemic created a situation where almost everything in the economy possible to do remotely became remote work essentially overnight.
As in the pre-pandemic period, most remote work was done in business and professional occupations, often by college graduates. In the May 2020 survey, 57% of workers in management and professional occupations worked from home due to the pandemic. But only 7% of those in production, transportation, construction, and maintenance occupations did, as shown in Figure 3a. The numbers were even higher for certain occupations within these groups. Around three-quarters of those in professional occupations worked from home in May, with the highest shares in education, computer and mathematical, and legal occupations.For Figures 3a and 3b, we classify healthcare-related occupations separately from other professional or service occupations.
Those with a college degree were over four times more likely than those with a high school degree or less (60% to 13%) to work from home. Remote work was also more common for women. About 40% of women vs. 30% of men worked from home in May due to COVID-19. The difference in shares by the presence of children in the household was small, 39% with a child under 18 and 34% without.
Who has returned to in-person work?
By December 2020, the number of people reporting in the CPS supplement that they had worked from home due to the coronavirus had decreased to 35.5 million people, still three-quarters of the number working remotely in May and 24% of all the employed.
The jobs that have not returned in-person are most likely to be the jobs easiest and most likely to have moved to remote work in the first place. More than 40% of those in management, business, and professional occupations still worked from home in December because of the pandemic. Within those categories, the same office-based occupations as in May tended to have the highest share of remote workers – more than 50% of non-healthcare professional workers reported working from home in the December survey. Very few production, construction, and transportation workers worked from home in the last weeks of the year. But at the height of the pandemic, even in these occupations 5%–10% of workers found a way to do some work off-site.
What is the future of remote work?
While 2020 has been difficult for almost everyone, a lot of workers and businesses have found a silver lining in remote work. Employees and businesses alike have learned about making remote work effective, and there is an appetite on all sides for continued workplace flexibility after the pandemic and related restrictions subside. The strongest effects will be for particularly remote-friendly jobs, but there will likely also be an indirect effect of more remote work on other aspects of the economy.
How much remote work will there be after the pandemic?
Surveys taken throughout 2020 have consistently shown a large number of workers who want to continue more remote work after the pandemic.
Although these surveys were taken at different times this year and have some different questions and methodologies, they tell the same story: no one expects pre-pandemic norms surrounding remote work to come back, and both workers and management are open to this outcome. In part, this is likely due to the fact that workers and businesses were forced to invest in learning how to make remote work better.
Who will be most affected by remote work?
The direct effects will concentrate in certain jobs and sectors. Professional sectors will be most affected, as the greatest share of their jobs have seen extended remote work already. And these employees expect to retain options to work from home at least some of the time. As has been noted, remote work is not an option for most in goods-producing sectors, as well as many in-person service sectors. However, even in these occupations, there has been some remote work during the pandemic and although it will be from a smaller base, we expect a little bit of that flexibility to be retained as well.
How could remote work be easier after the pandemic?
It is likely that remote work will be more efficient after the pandemic. A great many workers and teams have gotten a crash course in 2020 on how to make remote work more effective. For example, an Atlassian study of user interface data found that during the pandemic employees worked more in the early morning and evening.Proof our work-life balance is in danger (but there’s still hope), Atlassian.com, 11/5/20. Although their data makes it difficult to distinguish factors, this was likely due both to more flexible work behavior and lower efficiency at home. Some workers are not as productive at home as in the office, especially those who had to juggle childcare responsibilities with school and day care closings.
The absence of in-person school or childcare has been a major hurdle for working parents. A McKinsey report found that over half of women with children under 10 reported 3 or more additional hours of household responsibilities due to the pandemic.Women in the Workplace 2020, McKinsey and Company, 9/30/20. Half of teleworking parents of children under 18 in the Pew study reported it was very difficult or somewhat difficult to work without interruptions, compared to 20% of those without children at home. However, although parents are having a more difficult time in 2020, parents and nonparents are about equally likely to prefer to work from home full-time after the pandemic.
In addition, some of the constraints during the pandemic will likely be relaxed afterward in ways that can help blend remote work and in-person work. Workers will be able to attend important in-person meetings and renew necessary business travel in ways that were not possible in 2020. As shown in recent surveys, most workers want to move to partial remote work, not full-time remote work as many offices have been during the pandemic.
What other effects will increased remote work have on labor markets?
Many businesses thrive by supporting traditional office work, especially in transportation, leisure and hospitality, and energy. Downtown restaurants support office workers. Airlines and hotels rely heavily on business travelers. Demand for cars, fuel, and public transit relies on daily commuters. These are all sectors that have been impacted during the pandemic and will likely shrink permanently as more work is done remotely.
The change also affects cities and labor markets. In recent years, many of the United States’ biggest cities had already been facing population declines. COVID-19 accelerated this trend. Cities are expensive, and their entertainment and dining amenities were largely neutralized by the pandemic. Many downtown corporate offices have deferred re-opening until at least mid-2021A New Setback for Big Cities as Return to the Office Fades, Wall Street Journal, 12/1/20. and may rethink the value of re-opening at all—and if they do, they might choose a smaller space or even a smaller city.How Remote Work Can Transform Smaller Cities, US News, 9/28/20.
How will remote work affect workers compensation?
The types of occupations that are most affected by remote work tend to be office jobs that have lower rates of work injuries. NCCI has found that, even excluding existing clerical office employees (Code 8810) and clerical telecommuting employees (Code 8871), class codes with higher telecommuting potential have lower loss costs than those with lower telecommuting potential.“Telecommuting and Workers Compensation: What We Know,” NCCI, January 2021.
However, there are still important workers compensation implications. Home offices are less likely to be ergonomically compliant, which can lead to repetitive stress injuries.Workers’ comp liabilities facing work from home employees, Insurance Business, 5/14/20. Workers in improvised offices may also be more liable to slip-and-fall injuries, the most common injury cause for office and clerical workers. On the other hand, workers who are not driving for work are at less risk of motor vehicle accidents, the rare category of workers compensation injury whose frequency has increased since 2011.Motor Vehicle Accidents in Workers Compensation: An Update, NCCI, 6/23/30. Although injuries while commuting are usually not compensable, telecommuting employees are much less likely to do other driving for work reasons.
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically accelerated the growth of remote work. Before the pandemic, three-quarters of working Americans did not work remotely at all, and only 6% primarily did remote work. In 2020, COVID-19 forced almost over one-third of all workers to shift to work at home when they would not have done so otherwise. The share was twice as high for certain subgroups, including those in business and professional occupations and college graduates. Remote work had relatively little effect on jobs such as construction, manufacturing, transportation, and in-person services that require physical contact, although a few of these workers have been able to do some tasks remotely during the pandemic.
Remote work almost certainly will not fall back to pre-pandemic levels. Pre-pandemic estimates found that about one-third of work can be done remotely without major losses in efficiency, close to the same number of workers who moved home during COVID-19. Many workers and employers have had to learn how to implement remote work this past year. And moving forward, both groups favor retaining some of the flexibility originally necessitated by the pandemic. Remote work is likely to be more effective in the future, thanks to forced on-the-job learning during the pandemic and the future opportunity to blend remote and in-person work more easily than under pandemic restrictions. After the pandemic, working parents will benefit from the return of in-person schooling and childcare.
Increased remote work will cause other changes to the labor market. Remote work will put downward pressure on the transportation and leisure and hospitality industries, especially businesses like airlines and downtown restaurants that cater to commuters or business travelers. Offices may downsize and potentially move from larger cities to suburbs or smaller cities.
This shift will impact workers compensation as remote workers are likely to suffer different types of work injuries. It will be important to account for the changing injury experience not only of full-time remote workers or those in telecommuting classes, but millions more workers who will simply work from home a little more often after the pandemic than they had before.