Who would have guessed back when 2019’s autumn leaves changed from verdant to titian and butterscotch that the teachers, physicians, and bike repairers of 2020 would be working from home? Only the cosmos in all of its infinite knowledge…right? Well, not quite. The coronavirus catalyzed these slowly emerging changes in the workplace.
Now that this transition is upon us, what does it mean for us? What’s changed? What will continue to change? While some is uncertain, researchers have offered a picture of the changing employment landscape and what its evolution means for people living in it.
Telework: Not So Out of the Blue
Today’s remote workers look an awful lot like characters in books like Toffler’s 1980 novel, The Third Wave, and McLuhan’s 1962 narrative, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.
As Daniel Schlagwein underlines in “A History of Digital Nomadism,” we are living in a time where ease of communication emergent from the digital technologies of the Information Age have removed physical boundaries to create something of an electric hive of digital worker bees.1
Of course, historians, economists, and executives alike saw this day on the horizon too.
In 1971, the world saw its first email sent over ARPANET. The concept of “telecommuting” followed two or so years later. In the same period, The Beatles popularized the “Hippie Trail,” and in 1973, Tony and Maureen Wheeler produced the first ever Lonely Planet travel book. Both cultural changes opened new doors to independent travel and a desire to incorporate it into people’s lives.2
Come the 1980s, internet service providers arrived, the first satellite phone system came to be, and Toshiba unveiled the world’s first consumer laptop. A number of businesses, notably J.C. Penney, began flirting with telecommuting.3
By the 1990s, smartphones and laptops were common and had greater power and a lower price. The online market was more accessible than ever before. Per the Harvard Business Review, it was the “Dawn of the E-Lance Economy” built on electronic freelancing and online client sourcing.4
Social media boomed in the aughts as internet speeds improved alongside affordability. Internet cafés and coworking spaces emerged as TripAdvisor, Couchsurfing, and AirBnB took off to accommodate employed travelers in need of outlets and wifi. A culture of digital nomadism sprouted from these fertile digital grounds. Travelers could be connected and make money as they moved.5
More recently, in the 2010s, digital nomadism became a shared identity for a growing number of the workforce, businesses dabbled more in distance employment, and the total domestic remote workforce including digital nomads had ballooned to 4.7 million in February 2020, even before the pandemic hit.6, 7
Such is the world today—kind of. All of the work that can be remote is;8 many of us stare at screens to make ends meet. We aren’t so much digital nomads in search of the next great adventure, though; most of us abiding by COVID-19’s quarantine and social distancing measures have no choice but to spend our days at home, in sweatpants on the couch, typing away at our new digital desks. [Editor’s note: Gary Gianetti’s Ergonomics addresses home work stations.] The same structures and connectivity that allowed digital nomadism to grow has accommodated our swift transition to the digital settler economy we have now.
Who are the digital settlers?
How many of us count among the digital settlers of 2020?
One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) surveyed 1,770 small business leaders across industries and geographies, with its sample roughly matching firm distribution, sizes, and locations reported in the census. NBER concurrently conducted a survey of 70 business economists – members of the National Association of Business Economists. These employees are generally workers—not owners—at larger firms. NBER collected data from both the first group, labeled the “Alignable network” and the second group, named the “NABE network” between March and April of 2020.9
They found that 45% of the Alignable network reported employees switching to remote work at home at least two days per week. In the NABE network, 50% of firms showed more than one-fifth of their workers remote at least two days per week.
NBER’s conclusions suggest that about half of American workers are living as digital settlers at least part of the time, but these numbers skyrocketed for certain industries.
One study by accounting and consulting firm PwC surveyed 120 US public and private company executives and 1,200 majority-remote office workers between May 29 and June 4 of 202010 asking, “What percent of your office employees do you anticipate will work remotely at least one day a week?”
Recalling pre-COVID times, about 39% of respondents said that most (60-100%) of their office employees worked remotely at least one day of the week. One quarter of respondents said this applied to many (30-59%) of employees.
Many or most employees in nearly two-thirds of these companies were already at least partially remote before the pandemic. Since COVID, that number has jumped to 98%. 77% say that most employees are now remote.
Who exactly is represented in these numbers?
“The typical telecommuniter is college-educated, 45 years old or older, and earns an annual salary of $58,000 while working for a company with more than 100 employees,” according to Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics.11
In line with this demographic, the largest plurality of remote workers comprises employees and employers working in professional, scientific, and tech industries.12
Why? Capacity is an indicator of which jobs can be done remotely. Some equipment simply isn’t transferable to a home space, and some company structures simply don’t allow for this move.
Digital inaccessibility for employees is a factor here too. 12.8% of Americans—42 million in total—still don’t have the ability to purchase broadband.13, 14
The companies that have the ability to make their workforce remote are often those with more educated employees, those “more likely to have and take the option to work from home.”15
Per NBER, 64% of firms in the most educated quartile of industries had some workers switch to remote work. In the least educated quartile of industries, that number was only 36%.16
Less educated workers tend to face the decision to choose between health risks and keeping jobs. They are also more vulnerable to layoffs. These people are the newest additions to the roughly 12.6 million+ unemployed population.17
According to Pew research, employment in service sector jobs dependent upon customer-provider interaction and large gatherings like retail trade (10% of the American workforce) and food and drink services (6%) have been hardest hit by the pandemic.18
Looking at occupation rather than industry, telework is most accessible for management, business, and financial jobs as well as professionals like lawyers, accountants, advertisers, and consultants. Meanwhile, telework is least fathomable for those in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, forestry, service, transportation, installation, and maintenance repair.19
Sounds like an emerging class disadvantage unique to our viral information age, doesn’t it? Well, you’re right. That’s what it is.
Some industries and occupations will likely never fully embrace remote work, but many anticipate making a significant, permanent move to mobile work after the restraints of the pandemic have lifted. That same PwC survey mentioned earlier also reported projections for future remote work. 89% say that many or most of their employees will work remotely in the years to come.20
What does this mean for workers?
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, Starting with The Good
Here’s the good that comes with mobile work: Mobile workers enjoy greater flexibility, both in schedule and environment. This means more travel, adventure, ambience, or just plain comfort. If you want to write up a report next to a glass of wine, in a local cafe, or even beside the crashing waves of a far-away beach, have at it. Don’t feel like getting out of bed one day? Stay there, and you can still get paid.
This means more pleasant working for many but also more equity and feasibility. Remote work is more inclusive of the less physically able and working parents who struggle being away from home.21
Mental and physical health improve away from the office, too. One survey of about 1,035 remote workers (March 2020) conducted by ZenBusiness reports that 60% of respondents felt that working outside of the office improved their mental health. Respondents also reported spending more time with family and friends, managing personal tasks more effectively, exercising more regularly, improving diet, and feeling more productive. Outcomes were best for employees at businesses staffed by 100+ employees, but among respondents, full-time remote workers were less likely to report mental health improvement (56.2%), as were 25-to 34-year-olds (56%).22
The National Institute of Health also reports that longer commuting is associated with higher blood pressure and a greater waist line, suggesting that mobile work can improve physical health, too.23
Improved productivity away from the office also benefits employees and employers alike. Per the Boston Consulting Group, some 75% of 12,000 diverse professionals working remotely in the US, Germany, and India reported that during the first few months of the pandemic, they were able to maintain or improve productivity on their individual tasks. 51% had the same experience when working on collaborative tasks. Managers are largely pleased with these numbers, and workers tend to feel happier when they’re more productive, too.24
Remote work is also great for wallets and watches across the board. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that employees who work at home half the time save between $2,500 and $4,000 per year on travel, parking, and food.25
As a pleasant consequence, mobile work is a terrific aid to the environment, too. Based on Global Workplace Analytics estimates, “If those who have a work-from-home capable job and a desire to work remotely did so just half the time, the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce off the road.”
In all, there really is a lot of good. Flexibility, workplace inclusion, potentially improved mental health, better productivity, time and money savings, and lowered carbon footprint seem to paint an image of a happier, better functioning society. But there are downsides.
The Bad & The Ugly
Now for the bad and the ugly: Benefits of remote work are, in the eyes of many, overshadowed by severe pitfalls. Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom, for one, suggests that our mass shift to remote work could actually place America on the verge of a mental health crisis.26
That ZenBusiness study also found that 39% of respondents felt lonely. That number rises to 49% for remote workers under age 25 and 45% for full-time remote workers. 87% of respondents reported at least one negative impact on their lives, including loneliness, missing socializing, feeling unappreciated, struggling to make friendships, feeling overworked, and being on call.27
The reduced community that accompanies remote work has other negative effects outside of poor mental health outcomes. Collaborative productivity has suffered alongside social connectivity. Respondents in BCG’s survey who reported satisfaction with social connectivity with their colleagues were two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved productivity on collaborative tasks than those dissatisfied, but most fit into the latter category.28
Of course, mental health itself impacts productivity: as the isolation of full-time remote work builds to increasing harms, productivity is likely to suffer. It’s worth noting that the ZenBusiness survey on mental health, which took data back in March, right at the beginning of life under stay-at-home and physical distancing orders, may have changed since.
Regardless of whether remote work is a net benefit or detriment to employees, company leaders across the states are implementing permanent workplace hybridization policies, ensuring that our growing digital workplace is here to stay.
The Digital Office Isn’t Going Anywhere
Back in May, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he expects half of his 48,000 Facebook employees to work remotely in the next five to ten years. The following day, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all of his 8,400-some employees could work from home indefinitely.29
Nationwide Insurance is closing five of its regional offices, and REI, Nielsen, Morgan Stanley, French automaker Groupe PSA, and even Oreo-maker Mondelez International are among the multitudes reducing office space and moving into the world of permanent remote work.30
It’s a whole new world of work. And for the most part, employees and employers alike seem to welcome it, at least part-time. According to BCG, over 70% of managers say that they are more open to flexible models now than they were before the pandemic,31 and Global Workplace Analytics reports that 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time.32
Our changing employment landscape raises new queries about equitable wage pay, accessibility-based disparities, altered social terrain, the future of community, our relationship with tech, emerging AI, and the impact on idea exchange and exposure with minimized spontaneous conversation.
There are a million questions about what our growing world of remote work means. Hopefully, as our eyes adjust to more time in front of a computer and our answers begin to arrive, we are able to find balance and remember the humanity hidden behind the screens.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 7. Schlagwein, Daniel. (Dec. 2018). The History of Digital Nomadism. ResearchGate.
6. Braccio Hering, Beth. (Feb. 2020) “Remote Work Statistics: Shifting Norms and Expectations.” FlexJobs.
8. Bartik, Cullen, Glaeser, Luca, and Stanton. (July 2020). How the COVID-19 Crisis is Reshaping Remote Working. VoxEU.
9 & 16. Bartik, Cullen, Glacier, Luca, and Stanton. (2020). What Jobs are Being Done at Home During the COVID-19 Crisis? Evidence From Firm-Level Surveys. National Bureau of Economic Research.
10 & 20. PwC. (June 2020). When Everyone Can Work From Home, What’s the Office For? PwC.
11, 12, 15, 25 & 32. Lister, Kate. (March 2020). Latest Work-At-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics. Global Workplace Analytics.
13. Busby, Tanberk, and BroadbandNow Team. (Feb. 2020). FCC Reports Broadband Unavailable to 21.3 Million Americans, BroadbandNow Study Indicates 42 Million Do Not Have Access. BroadbandNow.
14. Federal Communications Commission. (N.A.) Eighth Broadband Progress Report. Federal Communications Commission.
17. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Sept. 2020). The Employment Situation. US Department of Labor.
18. Kochhar, Rakesh and Barroso, Amanda. (March 2020). Young Workers Likely to be Hard Hit as COVID-19 Strikes a Blow to Restaurants and Other Service Sector Jobs. Pew Research Center.
19. Desilver, Drew. (March 2020). Before the Coronavirus, Telework Was an Optional Benefit, Mostly for the Affluent Few. Pew Research Center.
21. Jagannathan, Meera. (May 2020). ‘I was told I could never work remotely’: Before coronavirus, workers with disabilities say they implored employers to allow them to work from home. MarketWatch.
22 & 27. Team ZenBusiness. (March 2020). Secrets of a Remote Worker. ZenBusiness.
23. Hoehner, Barlow, Allen, and Schootman. (June 2013). Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk. National Institute of Health.
24, 28, & 31. Dahik, Lovich, Kreafle, Bailey, Kilmann, Kennedy, Roongta, Schuler, Tomlin, and Wenstrup. (Aug 2020). What 12,000 Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work. Boston Consulting Group.
26. Gorlick, Adam. (March 2020). The Productivity Pitfalls of Working From Home in the Age of COVID-19. Stanford News.
29. Bond, Shannon.(May 2020). Facebook Expects Half Its Employees to Work Remotely Permanently. National Public Radio.
30. Berliner, Uri. (June 2020). Get A Comfortable Chair: Permanent Work From Home is Coming. National Public Radio. First Heard on All Things Considered.