2022: Work from Home is Here to Stay

 By Irving Wladawsky-Berger

The verdict is in: remote work is no longer a remote possibility. Like it or not, in the past two years it has proven to be a resilient and permanent option for most businesses. An updated survey bears this out. As of June 202215% of all working respondents were fully remote; 55% were full-time on-site, and 30% had a hybrid arrangement.

For years, companies and governments found all kinds of reasons for not embracing work from home, virtual meetings, telemedicine, online learning, and other online applications. But, the pandemic forced us to accelerate the digital transformation of the economy and society to help us cope with the crisis. And, not only have these digital applications worked remarkably well, but they offer a number of important benefits, like not waiting for a straightforward doctor diagnosis in a room full of sick people, and not having to travel for hours to participate in a 60 minute meeting.

The Silver Lining

Our attitudes and acceptance have pivoted rapidly. For example, just about a year ago I participated in an online panel where the moderator asked each panelist to say something positive about our lives over the past year despite the obvious challenges of coping with Covid. I truly struggled to find something positive to say about the highly frustrating pandemic-induced limitations of the previous year. But finally, I commented that

I’ve been able to attend a number of meetings, including weekly lunch seminars, that pre-pandemic required me to drive for a few hours or catch a plane.

These meetings first changed from physical to online, and more recently to hybrid. In other words, my ability to attend such meetings from home was a major benefit the more I thought about it.

Work from home (WFH) has been around for decades, modestly growing in the 1990s with the rise of the internet. The share of WFH three or more days per week was under 1% in 1980, 2.4% in 2010, and 4.0% in 2018. But when Covid-19 forced tens of millions around the world to work from home and triggered a mass workplace experiment that broke through the technological and cultural barriers that had prevented its adoption in the past.

Even before the pandemic, “a movement was brewing within knowledge-work organizations,” wrote Harvard professor Prithwiray (Raj) Choudhury in Our Work-from-Anywhere Future, a December 2020 Harvard Business Review article. “Personal technology and digital connectivity had advanced so far and so fast that people had begun to ask, ‘Do we really need to be together, in an office, to do our work?’”

Dispersed Workforce

“We got our answer during the pandemic lockdowns,” said Choudhury. “We learned that a great many of us don’t in fact need to be co-located with colleagues on-site to do our jobs. Individuals, teams, and entire workforces, can perform well while being entirely distributed — and they have. So now we face new questions: Are all-remote or majority-remote organizations the future of knowledge work? Is work from anywhere (WFA) here to stay?”

These are the questions that economists Jose Maria BarreroNicholas Bloom, and Stephen J. Davis have been investigating since May 2020 with their monthly Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes. In Why Working from Home Will Stick, a research paper published in April of 2021, they wrote that

Americans workers “supplied roughly half of paid workhours from home between April and December 2020, as compared to five percent before the pandemic.

This seismic shift in working arrangements has attracted no shortage of opinions about whether WFH will stick.”

Their monthly surveys ask a number of questions about working arrangements and personal experiences with WFH during the pandemic, as well as worker preferences and employer plans after the pandemic ends. At the time their April 2021 paper was published, they had collected over 28,500 valid responses to their surveys from 20–64 years old U.S. workers between May 2020 and March 2021, of which 43.8% were female. The typical respondent was 40 to 50 years old, with one to three years of college, and earned $40,000 to $50,000 in 2019.

Mimi Thian/ Unsplash

In May 2020, two-thirds of respondents were working and one-third didn’t work. Of those that were working, 61% were already doing so from home. In March 2021, 45% of those working were doing so from home. Close to half of all working days from May 2020 to March 2021 were from home — about 10 times the pre-pandemic share.

Productivity Boost

A key reason for the acceptance by businesses is this: Overall, productivity when working from home exceeded respondents’ expectations. Nearly 60% said that they were more productive than expected, 14% said they were less productive than expected, and 27% said that WFH worked out as expected.

The latest survey update was published in October 2022 and was based on over 92,700 valid responses between May 2020 and September 2022.

The findings of the monthly surveys over the past year have been holding steady.

The percentage of working days from home was about 35% when including all respondents, and around 50% when only 70% of workers were able to work from home.

The distribution is far from equal, however, and these percentages varied by educational attainment. The percentage of working days was about 40% for the 61% of respondents with a 4-year college degree or more; it was about 30% for the 22% of respondents with 1 to 3 years of college, and it was around 20% for the 17% of respondents with no college.

As of June 2022, 15% of all working respondents were fully remote; 55% were full-time on-site, and 30% had a hybrid arrangement. But, when just considering employees who are able to work from home, around 50% chose a hybrid arrangement; 30% chose to work full time on site, and around 20% chose to work full-time remotely.

When asked “after the pandemic ends, how often is your employer planning for you to work full days at home?” the response from the 70% of respondents able to work from home was over 2.3 days per week in the September 2022 survey, a significant increase from the 1.8 days per week response in the June 2021 survey.

Employees were also asked, “after the pandemic ends, how often would you like to have fully paid days at home?” In the June 2021 survey, there was a significant gap between the worker's desire of working from home, 2.8 days per week, compared to their employer's desire of 1.8 days per week. But,

in the latest survey the responses were significantly closer, with the workers response at 2.6 days per week versus their employers’ at 2.3 days per week.

Finally, let me cite a few additional findings from the July 2022 survey updates:

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

And there’s no sign of the trend receding. “Much of the Covid-induced shift to WFH will stick long after the pandemic ends,” was the conclusion reached by Barrero, Bloom, and Davis in their April 2021 paper. Since then, they’ve conducted 18 additional monthly surveys and collected over three times as many valid responses. The additional data continues to support their earlier findings: Both workers and employers have warmed to the idea and they have actually come closer together in their expectations of WFH days per week over the past year. “Desires to work from home part of the week are pervasive across groups defined by age, education, gender, earnings, and family circumstances.”

This blog first appeared here on October 27.

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