The latest on the 'work from home' wars
As the economy slows, are employers starting to regain the upper hand in negotiations with employees and job seekers? Pay is always an issue, of course, but in the wake of the pandemic, so too is how much time employers want people to work on site versus how much they are willing to let employees work remotely.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 27.5% of private-sector businesses reported that their employees worked from home or another remote location some or all of the time between August 1, 2022 and September 30, 2022.
In other words, 72.5% of private-sector organizations — up from 60% in the July-to-September 2021 period — said they did not have employees working remotely.
That percentage struck work-from-home researchers and observers as surprisingly high, given what other studies and surveys have found. (More on those in a minute.)
Private sector businesses employ a majority of US workers and, according to the Pew Research Center, 61% of workers do not have jobs that can be done remotely. But it’s worth noting that the BLS findings did not measure teleworking arrangements at federal, state and local government employers, at nonprofit organizations or among the self-employed.
The BLS survey also interpreted respondents’ answers as referring to a company’s formal telework policies, not whether some employees informally work remotely on occasion, such as responding to work emails from home.
“To the extent that ‘work from home’ would include an individual who checks their email after hours, we purposefully did not want to capture that type of informal work activity in the estimates as this would likely be included in the ‘rarely or never’ category,” a BLS spokesperson said in an email to CNN.
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom said he finds it hard to infer much from the BLS’s 72.5% finding, because he contends respondents must have misread the survey’s very first question, which said, “Do any employees at this location currently telework in any amount?” In his view, “any amount” includes answering work emails or taking a work call from home.
Semantic concerns aside, however, the confusion and surprise over the BLS finding is a reminder that there is still no standard or easy way to measure the full extent of remote work in a post-pandemic world.
Other surveys and studies of people who work for all employers — not just those in the private sector — suggest telework for those whose jobs can be done remotely remains common in this post-pandemic period.
The Pew Research Center, for instance, found in a nationally representative survey of US full-time working adults conducted in February that 41% of workers with jobs that can be done from home are now working a hybrid schedule. That is up from 35% in January of last year.
Among hybrid workers who are not self-employed, 63% said their employer requires them to come into the workplace with some regularity; 59% say they typically work from home three or more days a week.
That suggests the push by top employers — such as Disney, Amazon, Apple, as well as several Wall Street banks — to get employees back into the office three or more days a week may not have moved the needle much.
Meanwhile, Kastle Systems, which operates card-swipe security machines in office buildings across the United States, said that the weekly average office occupancy rate at the end of March in the most populous U.S. cities was 49% of pre-pandemic levels. While that’s much higher than the occupancy rates recorded during the height of the pandemic, it’s still a very long way from occupancy rates recorded back in February 2020 just before the pandemic hit.
The latest results from the monthly Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA), which Bloom and other researchers have conducted since May 2020, found that the overall average number of paid days worked from home in 2023 so far is 1.4 per week (or 28% of the workweek). That’s based on responses from Americans aged 20 to 64 who earned $10,000 or more the prior year.
The same survey respondents said their employers plan to allow employees to work remotely 2.2 days a week, for those who can. That’s up from the 1.6 days expected back in August 2020, although below the expected 2.4 days recorded in June 2022.
SWAA found that working from home is most prevalent in cities and in sectors like technology and information, finance and insurance, and professional and business services. That is somewhat similar to the BLS finding that telework is most common in the following industries: information, professional and business services, educational services and wholesale trade.
Remote work experts strongly assert hybrid schedules will remain a permanent feature of work in the United States for a host of reasons — including better worker engagement and retention — even if the parameters and kinks are still being worked out in real time.
“Companies are still trying to figure it out,” said Sara Sutton, CEO of remote-work jobs platform FlexJobs, which she founded 16 years ago. But, Sutton added, “Hybrid is where things will settle.”
When it comes to the overall average of how often employers are likely to let employees work from home, Bloom believes it will be 25% of the week. “I have talked to hundreds of organizations about WFH [working from home] over the past three weeks, and this is now clearly stabilizing to a post-pandemic norm,” he said in an email.
Fully remote jobs, meanwhile, will remain but may become less prevalent than they have been of late. In Pew’s February survey, 35% of people who could work remotely were doing so full time, down from 55% in October 2020, but still well above the 7% of people working remotely full-time before the pandemic.