COVID-19 and the American worker
Coauthored by CGO student research fellow Ellie McDonald.
Today marks my 24th day of working from home due to COVID-19. Whether they like it or not, more and more employees like me are being pushed into remote work due to the public health crisis currently sweeping the globe. In early February, Time Magazine dubbed the current shift “the World’s Largest Work-From-Home Experiment.” The article focused on how businesses across Asia were doing their best to adapt to life with COVID-19. But as the virus has become a global pandemic, the shift to remote work has likewise become a worldwide phenomenon that will have lasting effects on the way we live and work.
Much has been written about the rise of remote work over the past decade. Gallup found that from 2012 to 2016, the share of employees in the U.S. who work at least some of the time remotely increased from 39% to 43%. But despite the upward trend, most people still drove to a physical office each day before the current health crisis began. According to the U.S. Census, only 5.2 percent worked entirely from home in 2017. Today, many more people are working from home due to the COVID-19 crisis.
What’s driving the shift to remote work?
The recent rapid growth in remote work has been driven by the growing list of U.S. states that have enacted stay-at-home orders to help slow the spread of the virus. As of April 7, residents of 42 states plus D.C. have been ordered to stay home, except for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. These orders now apply to 95 percent of the U.S. population. As many businesses close their doors, the unemployment rate has soared, with 22 million Americans (13.5 percent of the labor force) filing for unemployment over the past month.
The historic boost in unemployment we’re now seeing is a testament to the fact that most jobs cannot be done remotely. A recent academic working paper found that about 40 percent of U.S. jobs can be done remotely, but the remaining 60 percent cannot. As states have ordered “nonessential” businesses to shut down, many people are left without work at all. Much of the workforce who remain employed in traditional work settings are in “essential businesses.” Guidance from the Department of Homeland Security defines essential businesses as those that provide vital services like healthcare, law enforcement, food and agriculture, energy and water infrastructure, transportation, communications, critical manufacturing, and financial services.
For the remaining 40 percent of workers (like me) who are fortunate enough to be able to do their jobs virtually, state shutdowns and social distancing have pushed more of us than ever into remote work. For us, going to work now consists of a trip to the guest room or the kitchen table rather than a drive to the office.
How significant is today’s shift to remote work?
One way to measure the scope of the current shift to online and remote work is through increased use of tech-based platforms. These tools have allowed workers to stay connected and collaborative, from foxholes in apartments and homes. From November 2019 to March 2020, users of Microsoft Teams have increased by 20 million. The service now has 44 million active daily users. Although Zoom has come under fire recently for security concerns it is currently working to address, daily participants in Zoom meetings grew from 10 million in December of 2019 to 200 million in March of 2020 — a twenty-fold increase. Other platforms have seen similarly massive growth. Slack and Cisco WEBEX have seen considerable increases in users and daily interactions held over their virtual platforms over the past few months.
The American software company Netskope has also been tracking the shift to remote work due to COVID-19 by examining what they call “user dispersion.” Netskope looked at the ratio of distinct IP addresses of users on their platform to the total number of users across North America. As the ratio approaches zero, that means all users are on the same network — either in the same office or working from the same VPN. As the ratio approaches 1, that means all users are working remotely from different locations. Netskope looked at this trend over the past six months to understand how many workers are moving to remote work in response to the pandemic. They found that prior to the outbreak, about 27 percent of users worked remotely on a regular weekday (with the largest peaks on holidays and weekends). By March 6, the average had increased to 30 percent by March 13 to 42 percent — higher than any of the holidays in the past six months. By the end of March, Netskope estimated that over 60 percent of users were working remotely.
Netskope’s estimate of remote workers based on user dispersion
More remote work is here to stay
Although the current crisis surrounding COVID-19 will, thankfully, be temporary, the shift toward remote work will have long-lasting effects. To be sure, most of us will go back to our offices when the crisis is over, and social distancing is no longer required to achieve public health goals. But after workers and employers get a taste of how effective remote work can be, they’re not likely to go back to their old ways entirely.
It’s well known at this point that flexibility and autonomy are key factors in whether workers decide to take a particular job. Gallup found in January 2020 that 54% of office workers would be willing to quit their job for one that allows them to work remotely. Gallup has also found that those who work remotely three to four days a week are the most likely to be highly engaged in their work. High levels of engagement also lead to greater well-being for workers as measured by physical health, enthusiasm about work, and positive feelings about their work and workplace. The option to work remotely at least part of the time tends to lead to better work-life balance as well, and the ability to participate in important family events without sacrificing your job.
And it’s not just workers who benefit from greater flexibility. We know that remote work leads to higher levels of engagement, but we also know that more engaged employees are more productive. According to Gallup, highly engaged workplaces have 41% lower absenteeism among employees, 40% fewer quality defects, and 21% overall higher profitability. As Gallup’s report notes: “Engagement is not an exercise in making employees feel happy — it’s a strategy for better business outcomes.”
The challenges of remote work
Remote work has clear benefits for workers and employees alike, but the current public health crisis may be pushing us toward this trend more quickly than we would prefer. To be sure, there are real challenges to adapting to remote work. Not all jobs can be done online, so the benefits of remote work do little for the millions of Americans who currently find themselves unemployed. Even for those who can do their jobs virtually, remote work requires a certain set of skills like time management and the ability to set boundaries between work and home life when both are taking place in the same building.
Remote work comes with its own set of challenges, even in the best of times. But these are not the best of times or even normal times. Remote workers today are faced with adapting to the challenge of working from home, without the reward of going out to see friends and family after work. This may make it more challenging to get an accurate sense of what remote work would feel like under normal circumstances.
Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: what is “normal” anyway? Life and work have always been full of change, requiring people to adapt. People will inevitably find creative ways to rise to the challenge posed by the current shift towards remote work.
Employers, too, will have to adjust to the new normal. Before COVID-19 forced their hand, many employers were reluctant to allow employees to work remotely. Allowing people to work remotely makes it harder to see when people are working and requires a cultural shift that embraces virtual tools for effective communication. Despite the proven increase in productivity that comes with remote work, this transition can be daunting. It may also mean pivoting to new ways of interacting online and hosting more casual events like virtual happy hours to keep employees engaged with each other.
There’s still so much uncertainty about whether and when life will return to some semblance of normal. When the COVID-19 crisis ends and people return to work, they are likely going to find that traditional office work looks and feels a little different than it used to. Employees who get a taste of the flexibility and freedom of remote work are likely to want to keep some of that flexibility, even if it means working remotely just one or two days a week. Employers likewise are going to see that their employees can be trusted to work from home while staying connected with coworkers and creating value. All of this points toward a positive trend for the post-COVID-19 world — a world of greater flexibility, higher productivity, and more autonomy to choose how we spend our precious time.