The COVID-19 pandemic made remote working a sudden necessity for many employers and employees in 2020. This shock resulted in 35%–50% of all U.S. employees working entirely or partly from home by May 2020.1,2,4 Information technology played a central role, with Internet connection at home making the transition to remote work remarkably unproblematic for most people. But many surveys carried out to enquire about how individuals view remote work demonstrate that its impact can be a double-edged sword. Some are loving it, with flexible schedules, no long commute, and more time with family. But others are unhappy with loneliness and the blurred boundary between work and leisure.5,6 How can we make sense of these mixed pressures? What are the different factors that have affected and will continue to influence the way we work? This column considers what remote working has meant before the pandemic, and its likely transformation in a post-pandemic world. I argue that the institutionalization of "remote work" as "working from anywhere" will require deep changes in organizational life.
Trend Toward Remote Working Predates the COVID-19 Shock
Remote working is not a new idea. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated changes already under way, and pushed things over a "tipping point." However, challenges remain for workers, including those in the IT and software industry, not least because of the sudden and unplanned way in which this happened, alongside the furloughing of jobs and the closure of schools.
The relationship between technology and work has been subject to change for a long time. During the early phases of the first industrial revolution, we saw the "putting out" of work to homeworkers. With the rise of large manufacturing plants and offices in the 20th century, many employees experienced a clear separation between workplace and home. In this context, remote working came to be defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as "the practice of an employee working at their home, or in some other place that is not an organization's usual place of business."
By the 1980s, remote office work—work-from-home (WFH)—was considered an extension of flexible work arrangements9 alongside part-time work, which enabled workers, especially female workers, to balance work and childcare. With the Internet enabling connectivity since the 1990s, remote work morphed into offshoring to low-cost global locations. Offshored work included office work at call centers and software engineering centers, but also freelancing in design, data entry, programming, and translation using platforms such as Upwork, LinkedIn Pro-Finder, and Fiverr.
Of course, remote working patterns vary by type of work. As early as the 1980s, when home-based digital technology was limited, Margrethe Olson published in this magazine a careful study of remote office work.9 She documented the characteristics of jobs that predisposed job holders to work remotely. They included minimal physical requirements of the job in the form of a telephone and a terminal, high degree of individual control over work, well-defined milestones and deliverables, the need for concentration, and low need for communication. All of these characteristics still apply to remote work and freelancing today.
More recently, there is robust evidence of how remote work varies by occupation. According to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) in the U.S., for example, managerial, professional, and related (MPR) occupations—a broad category including managers, financial analysts, engineers, computer programmers, and lawyers—were found to be among those whose jobs could be performed in a variety of locations, including at home.7-8 In 2013–2017, workers in these occupations accounted for 41% of the U.S. workforce. Among them, people employed in healthcare (physicians, nurses, therapists, for example) and technical (such as architectural, engineering) occupations were among the most likely to work only at their workplaces. By contrast, people employed in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media and in education, training, and library occupations were the least likely to work only at their workplace on days they spent time working.
Remote working trends predate the pandemic. Specifically, the share of MPR workers who worked solely at their workplace declined from 46% in 2003–2007 to 41% in 2013–2017. Over the same period, the proportion of MPR workers who worked only at home on a given day increased from 10% to 13%. The ATUS results for 2020 are not yet published, but evidence from the Real-Time Population Survey provides expected outcomes. Comparing February and May 2020, the proportion of employees who worked at home every day increased from 5% to 24% in healthcare, whereas the home-every-day proportions increased from 13% to 60% in professional and business services, and from 11% to 61% in the financial and insurance sector.2
Digital technology has undoubtedly made it increasingly feasible for companies to hire workers remotely to get tasks done. Computers are faster and cheaper, and stable broadband Internet is widely available in most locations. Moreover, advances in video chat platforms, cloud-based services, and desktop virtualization have facilitated remote collaboration in a variety of knowledge work including R&D, product development, and marketing. Gone are the days when we used to gawk at how "real" the video conferencing rooms were, with "real" meaning visual 3D and no delay in audiovisual transmission.
These technological advances account for how the smooth transition to remote working was in spring 2020 for the majority of workers. Companies that were not prepared accelerated investments in cloud-based software tools, eSignatures for documents, and purchase of equipment to support working from home. With a surge in demand for these specific technology areas, start-ups in cloud-based technologies attracted early-stage investment funding, and represented a bright spot in a much gloomier investment climate, according to a 2020 survey by 500 Start-ups, a global venture capital fund and seed accelerator.a Moreover, COVID-19 has shifted patent applications toward technologies that support working from home.4 This bodes well for enabling workers to communicate better with each other.
Tasks, Not Jobs, Will Be Subject to Remote Working
A phenomenon related to remote work is freelancing. According to a survey commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers Union, 57 million people, representing 35% of the U.S. workforce, engaged in freelancing in 2019.b They generated $1 trillion in income, or 5% of the U.S. economy, in 2019. The share of fulltime freelancers increased from 17% in 2014 to 28%. The most common types of freelance work are in skilled services, with 45% of freelancers providing programming, marketing, and consulting services. Freelancers, while attracted to freelancing for the freedom to do work from anywhere, face a variety of location choices: 27% of skilled freelancers do all of their work remotely, while 19% do none or little of their work remotely. Remote means locations away from traditional offices, including home but also coffee shops and co-working spaces.
One way of understanding what freelancers do is to disaggregate a job into tasks that have the characteristics of minimal physical requirement, full control, well-defined milestones and deliverables, and so forth that Margrethe Olson identified in the 1980s. For example, a programmer may interact with clients to understand their requirements; she then works on her own to develop the codes, before making further refinements in accordance with customer feedback. Separating out the interactive tasks and work-alone tasks is possible, and it is the latter that are more easily subjected to remote working. Thus, while working some days at home may be a matter of lifestyle choice, there are also task-based rationale for a part-home-part-office work mode.
There is strong evidence that most of us wish to retain an element of remote working in our jobs.
Non-Technological Norms Will Be Important for the Long-Term
While certain task characteristics and digital technology facilitate or undermine remote work, ultimately what will determine the "new normal" in remote working will be our views and social norms about work modes. For everyone, there will be importance attached to social interaction in human organizations. We draw boundaries so that one either belongs or does not belong to an organization. And however good the technology might become, we will miss casual encounters in office corridors and the proverbial "water cooler" conversations.
There is strong evidence that most of us wish to retain an element of remote working in our jobs. As many as 98% of those surveyed in a study want to have the option to work remotely for the rest of their lives.c Another survey found that by 2022, employers on average were planning for employees to spend about one day per week from home, while the average worker would like to work from home approximately two full days per week.1
The COVID-19 pandemic created a discrete shock to our work patterns, with people forced to work from home in an unplanned manner. However, trends toward remote work, particularly for certain occupations, predates the pandemic, and are characterized by the existence of certain tasks that are easy to carry out remotely. It becomes clear that in most jobs, there are tasks that can be carried out remotely—manipulating data, writing codes and reports and so forth—and tasks that are better carried out in social spaces with other co-workers, such as brainstorming and performance that require feedback. If we derive our well-being from balancing these two types of tasks, then remote work will be part of a hybrid model combining remote and in-office working.
But apart from the technical requirements of task execution, social norms will have to change, with less stigma attached to working from home, with a history of association with shirking or hiding or not being a good citizen.1 Gender roles will have to be re-examined, as today it is still women with small children who would wish to get out of the home and into the office. Digital technology of the future, with cloud computing, has much to facilitate such hybrid working. But it will take a lot more than giving employees laptops and broadband connections for "working from anywhere" to take hold.
1. Barrero, J.M., Bloom, N., and Davis, S.J. Why working from home will stick. University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper (2020-174), (2020).
2. Bick, A., Blandin, A., and Mertens, K. Work from home after the Covid-19 outbreak. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Research Paper 2017, (2020).
3. Bloom, N., Davis, S.J., and Zhestkova, Y. COVID-19 shifted patent applications toward technologies that support working from home. University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper (2020-133). (2020).
4. Brynjolfsson, E. et al. Covid-19 and remote work: An early look at U.S. data. NBER Working Paper No. 27344; (June 2020).
5. IBM. Covid-19 and the future of business Insights series: IBM Institute for Business Value; The 2020 state of remote work; https://bit.ly/2NboGbw