Remote Work to Continue Long After Coronavirus, Study Shows

December 7, 2020 Updated: December 8, 2020

WASHINGTON—Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a standard practice for many Americans, and this new mode of employment will stick even after the pandemic ends, a new study shows.

This year’s health crisis has forced companies and workers for the first time to experiment with working from home on a large scale, and some believe that it actually worked well, despite some negative aspects of remote working.

A survey by the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute found that “about half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and October 2020” due to the pandemic. And post-pandemic plans of respondents showed that this new habit will stick in the future.

“Our survey evidence says that 22 percent of all full work days will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5 percent before,” the report said, noting that the 22 percent of all paid days is equivalent to about one full day per week.

The researchers conducted the study among 15,000 working-age Americans over several waves between May and October this year, asking questions about their current working status, their views about the work-from-home trend, and their employers’ plans after the pandemic.

The study was conducted by Nicholas Bloom, professor at Stanford University; Steven J. Davis professor at the University of Chicago; and Jose Maria Barrero, assistant professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

According to the researchers, working remotely has attracted tremendous interest during the pandemic, but there’s a lack of consensus among company executives about how well it worked. There’s a wide range of views from extremely negative to extremely positive.

JPMorgan was one of the first corporates to end the work-from-home experiment. The investment bank’s CEO Jamie Dimon required bankers and traders to return to the office in September.

Speaking at the Institute of International Finance annual meeting in October, Dimon defended his position, claiming that working from home would negatively affect productivity and creativity.

“I do think that getting back to work will be important. And we do see in certain jobs declining productivity—in some jobs, you can measure and in some, you can’t. So it’s kind of vague,” he said.

“I just don’t think it’s as creative as it used to be, and some of the negatives are showing more and more,” he said, referring to working from home.

While some executives object to the idea of remote work, some have become positive about it after seeing that it has worked well for their companies.

“We have adapted to work-from-home unbelievably well,” Heyward Donigan, CEO of retailer Rite Aid, told The Wall Street Journal in April.

“We’ve learned that we can work remote, and we can now hire and manage a company remotely,” she added.

Other executives, however, have been more neutral about working from home, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“In all candor, it’s not like being together physically. And so I can’t wait for everybody to be able to come back into the office,” Cook said, speaking at a virtual conference hosted by the Atlantic in September. “I don’t believe that we’ll return to the way we were because we’ve found that there are some things that actually work really well virtually.”

While executives have divergent views, workers reported that their employers are planning for them to spend about 22 percent of paid days working from home after the pandemic, according to the survey. This finding led the researchers to turn to the question of why working from home will stick.

Based on the evidence they gathered, they identified five factors behind the persistent shift toward working from home. And one of them is diminished stigma, which means that perceptions of working from home have improved during the pandemic.

The study also revealed that the experience has been positive and better than expected for many companies and workers. The other factors include investments in physical and human capital enabling working from home, a reluctance to return to prepandemic activities even after a vaccine, and improvement in technology and software that support working from home.

The survey evidence also shows that this persistent shift will negatively affect consumer spending, especially in dense cities like New York and San Francisco.

“We forecast that the post-pandemic shift to working from home will lower worker spending in major city centers by 5 to 10 percent,” the report said, noting the likelihood of less spending on meals, entertainment, and shopping in central business districts.

Follow Emel on Twitter: @mlakan