When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the U.S. economy three years ago, workers and their employers adjusted astonishingly well to what came to be called W.F.H. — work from home. Workers liked working from home for the most part, but many employers were cool toward it, and ever since the threat of the virus waned, they have been trying to get their people to R.T.O. — return to office.
Now that we’re a month away from the anticipated official end of the public health emergency (May 11, according to the White House), it’s time to check in on the tug of war between employers and employees. As the chart below shows, W.F.H. has scored a partial but still impressive victory. The share of work days that are worked from home has naturally fallen from its pandemic peak, but is stabilizing at close to 30 percent — far above its prepandemic level of single-digit percentages.
I asked several experts for their thoughts on whether working from home will stay around this level, rise or fall. The consensus was that the current level is more or less sustainable. “My view is it’s probably going to settle out around 25 percent, which is roughly five times what it was before the pandemic,” Steven Davis, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, told me. “I think we’re quite close to steady state,” agreed one of his collaborators, José María Barrero, an assistant professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México Division of Business Administration and Accounting in Mexico City.
Davis and Barrero are among the originators of the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes that’s charted above. Other surveys, including the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, have found similar results. The Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of workers whose jobs can be done remotely were working from home full time in February, down from 55 percent in October 2020 but up from 7 percent before the pandemic.
In other words, W.F.H. is H.T.S. (here to stay). That’s a good thing overall, but it comes with some costs. Among the losers are lower-income workers who used to have jobs tied to office work, such as janitors, security guards and restaurant employees. Plus, of course, office building landlords.
With the economy likely headed for a recession later this year or in 2024, employers will have a stronger hand in bargaining and may be able to insist that people put in more face time. In the longer run, though, the pressure will be in the other direction. New information technology tools will make W.F.H. increasingly productive, allaying employers’ concerns.
The bottom line is that it took a tragedy to shake up how work is done and to put it on a more rational basis. Lots of jobs can be done perfectly well from home — or the beach, or the mountains — and insisting that they be done in cubicles under fluorescent lights is just dumb.
“People are arguing to go back to do things the way they were done 50 or 100 years ago. It doesn’t make sense,” Sara Sutton, the founder and chief executive of FlexJobs, an online job service for professionals, told me.
A new LinkedIn study of job postings on its website confirms that the energy behind working from home is very much coming from employees, not employers. In February, only 12.2 percent of paid job postings on LinkedIn were for positions offering remote work, yet those listings attracted 51.9 percent of applications, the study found. “There’s a disconnect or mismatch that we’ve seen brewing,” Karin Kimbrough, LinkedIn’s chief economist, told me.
For many people, working from home isn’t just about flexibility; it’s about autonomy, Kimbrough said. The difference? “Flexibility is kind of maybe day to day — what time you start, where you work, the days of the week,” she said. “Autonomy is really about people who are taking control of their career trajectories.”
That’s especially true for women, Kimbrough told me, adding that she was calling from her son’s soccer game. Sutton, of FlexJobs, agreed. She pointed me to a Harris Poll commissioned by CVS Health that found that working mothers are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression than their childless co-workers, and that working mothers were more likely to say their mental health had worsened over the past year.
True, employers have a legitimate concern that people who work from home will shirk, or become less efficient, or fail to learn new skills. Natalia Emanuel of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Emma Harrington of the University of Iowa found that when call center workers for an unnamed large U.S. company had to start working from home during the pandemic, the number of calls they handled per hour fell by 4 percent relative to the rate of already remote workers. In another study, the two scholars along with Amanda Pallais of Harvard found that while senior software engineers don’t benefit from sitting next to one another, “sitting near co-workers increases how much junior engineers can learn from their senior colleagues.”
The solution for employers isn’t to ban remote work, though. It’s also not to adopt invasive monitoring of keystrokes or some other supposed indicator of productivity. That simply doesn’t work in many cases, Barrero told me. “Really what you want is to give employees the ability and incentive to do their job well and in a timely manner,” he said. “Monitor their output, not their input.”
Face time in the office proves nothing, Sutton said. “Someone is funny, dresses well, brings doughnuts,” she said. “You like them. They seem very punctual and engaged. Does that equate with being productive? No, not at all.” When people work face to face, she noted, employers sometimes take an ad hoc approach to productivity-enhancing strategies such as scheduling regular check-ins and making sure employees are dialed in to their K.P.I.’s — key performance indicators. But when people work remotely — as they do at her own company — employers have no choice but to use best practices, she said.
Outlook: Paul Ashworth
Money market mutual funds “are increasingly a financial black hole where liquidity goes to die,” and that’s bad for the U.S. economy, Paul Ashworth, the chief North America economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a client note on Friday. The funds offer higher interest rates than banks, so they’re attracting deposits. But instead of recycling the money into the credit market, where it could be used to make loans, the fund managers are largely parking it at the Federal Reserve, Ashworth wrote. He added that he expected this week “to bring more evidence that the economy is losing forward momentum, with retail sales falling sharply,” and “manufacturing output also seeing a slight decline.”
Quote of the Day
The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I need money
That’s what I want
That’s what I want
That’s what I want
— Berry Gordy Jr. and Janie Bradford, “Money (That’s What I Want),” 1959