Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many companies across the world have suggested or required more employees to work from home. This new setup allows employees to stay at home and avoid crowded places as part of an effort to control the rapid spread of COVID-19. While this is a great opportunity for many people, not all can afford this WFH setup.
Recently, the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that only 1 in 4 US workers have a job that allows them to work from home. The survey, which was last conducted in 2017-2018, asked workers aged 15 and over whether they were able to work from home and just 29% said yes. These people tend to be both better-educated and wealthier. About 47% of workers ages 25 and older worked from home sometimes.
Alex Baptiste, policy counsel for the nonprofit National Partnership for Women and Families, said that the remote work gap is just one way the coronavirus outbreak is underscoring inequalities inherent in the American economy. “On the one hand, you want people to have the best benefits that they possibly can, and when you see that kind of progress, we’re excited about it. But it definitely is showing how wide the gap is between who have it and people who don’t,” Baptiste said.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the industry where workers were most likely to say they could work from home was financial activities with 57%. It was followed by those working in professional and business services (53%), information (53%), agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (11%), and leisure and hospitality (9%). The survey also revealed that those who have the lowest incomes are least likely to be able to work from home.
For the privileged employees who can work at home, there has been much debate about whether or not this setup boosts productivity.
Working From Home is More Productive
James Liang, co-founder and CEO of Ctrip, China's largest travel agency, was interested in giving his over 16,000 employees the work-from-home option. This option was brought up considering the expensive office space in the company's Shanghai headquarters and because employees had to endure long commutes to work. However, Liang was hesitant to implement this because it might tank productivity. Fortunately, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom was willing to help.
Bloom helped Liang’s company design a test whereby 500 employees were divided into two groups: a control group (who continued working at HQ) and volunteer work-from-homers (who had to have a private room at home, at least six-month tenure with Ctrip, and decent broadband access as conditions). The two-year study revealed an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters equivalent to a full day's work. Employees who worked from home were less distracted and found it easier to concentrate at home.
The findings of the study also showed that employee attrition decreased by 50% among the telecommuters—they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off. Airtasker, a gig economy platform, also surveyed 1,004 full-time employees about their productivity when working at home. Office workers reported being idle for about 37 minutes a day, while remote workers proved to be more productive, only citing 27 minutes of unproductive time.
According to Business News Daily, an online site that aims to help entrepreneurs build the business of their dreams, the study found out that working from home not only benefits employees by eliminating their daily commutes but also increases productivity and leads to healthier lifestyles. A recent study about the implementations of work from home setups during this pandemic presented evidence that it indeed boosts productivity among employees. The findings showed that one-third of respondents said they feel that their productivity has increased since having to work remotely.
"It's interesting to note that both men and women said they were more productive. It is not true to say that only women prefer to telework as a way of balancing their work and home life. The reasons are more complex and diverse,” Prof. Tania Saba of the BMO Chair in Diversity and Governance at UdeM's School of Industrial Relations said.
The study was based on the responses of 1,614 people who participated in the study between April 4 and 17, aiming to understand how teleworkers are adapting to the pandemic. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, of the respondents, 75% were women and 25% were men. About 85% were 40 years old, 85% have a university degree, and 70% work in the public and parapublic sectors. The respondents said that some of the important factors in improving productivity are being comfortable with information technology and being well-equipped to work at a distance.
The findings also revealed that 4 out every 10 people are willing to continue to do their work from home when confinement rules related to COVID-19 are lifted. About 39% of respondents said they somewhat or strongly agreed, 37% somewhat or strongly disagreed, and 24% were undecided. Those who are willing to go on with this setup tend to be older and are more likely to have to devote more time to family or other responsibilities.
The Downsides of Working From Home
However, not all experts have the same thoughts about the work from home setup during this pandemic. Some experts said that this crisis is completely different today if the basis would be work productivity due to four factors: children, space, privacy, and choice. Bloom, who is also the William D. Eberle Professor of Economics in the School of Humanities and Sciences, recently said that the global work-from-home movement could generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years.
“We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days. This will create a productivity disaster for firms,” Bloom said.
According to Stanford News, an online site about the latest news from and about Stanford University, the most challenging aspect of working at home for parents with younger children is managing their kids. “Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster. My 4-year-old regularly bursts into the room hoping to find me in a playful mood shouting “doodoo!” – her nickname for me – in the middle of conference calls,” Bloom shared.
Remote employees also tend to work more—1.4 more days per month than their office-based counterparts, resulting in more than three additional weeks of work per year. Recent analyses found out that 29% of remote employees said they struggle with work-life balance, and 31% said they have needed to take a day off for their mental health.