UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Hey, everyone. Cardiff and Stacey here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the share of people working from home in the U.S. had already been growing. But the acceleration that we've seen in just the past few months has been pretty incredible.
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
And the numbers can be hard to pin down. But at least according to one survey from economists, the share of workers in the U.S. that had been working remotely before the pandemic was about 15%. But by last month, it was close to 50%, so roughly half of all workers are outside of their workplace now.
ADAM OZIMEK: So that's a massive increase. And what we're really seeing is it's a giant experiment with remote work to see how it goes for people.
VANEK SMITH: That is Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at Upwork, a company that connects freelance workers with the businesses who need freelance workers.
OZIMEK: And I think that remote work requires a lot of sort of what economists call learning by doing, which is that you don't really know how to do it until you do it.
GARCIA: Here is what Adam found in a recent study of his. Let's say you compare yourself against another worker in a very similar position as yours, so that's someone around your same age, same sex in your same industry, your same level of education and even someone who lives in the same state. But there's this one difference. You had the option of working from home during coronavirus, and that other person did not. Well, you had about a 33% lower chance of losing your job than that other person because, of course, you could keep working.
VANEK SMITH: And now a lot of companies, like Twitter and Facebook, are changing their plans for the future, announcing that some of their workers will be able to work from home permanently, even after the coronavirus pandemic passes.
OZIMEK: And since they've been forced to do this experiment, I think a lot of them are going to learn that it works a lot better than they thought it would and that we will see sort of an acceleration of a trend that was already underway for a long time.
GARCIA: But aside from a few high-profile announcements, we just have not had much good data on how much the overall trend of working from home has accelerated because of the pandemic - until now.
VANEK SMITH: Right after the break, Adam shares with us the findings of his latest project released, in fact, just this morning, hot off the presses. And we take a look at the big effects that this trend might have for how we work and even how we live.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VANEK SMITH: Back in November of last year, just a few months before the pandemic started, economist Adam Ozimek did a survey asking hundreds of companies about their plans for the next five years.
GARCIA: Back then, roughly 13% of workers at the companies he surveyed were already working from home, and the companies were planning to increase their share to 17% within the next five years. Then coronavirus started shutting down the economy earlier this year, and Adam saw a chance to compare the plans of these companies right before the pandemic versus their plans by April a couple of months into the pandemic.
OZIMEK: So basically, it's at 13%. They were planning on taking it to 17%, and now they're going to take it to almost 22%.
GARCIA: This is the first big, national survey we've seen that tries to gauge how companies have updated their plans for keeping employees working from home. And what the survey shows is that relative to what they had in mind before coronavirus, companies really have accelerated their plans to shift more employees to working remotely by quite a lot, it turns out.
VANEK SMITH: But Adam's findings also included some interesting details on just which parts of working from home were going better than other parts. For example, when people work from home, that means they do not have to have a long, stressful commute.
GARCIA: And for workers, it also means they no longer had to deal with, like, typical office distractions; for example, colleagues stopping by your cubicle to talk about "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
VANEK SMITH: I mean, if certain colleagues would just listen and watch the series, then we can stop talking about it.
GARCIA: I'm going to call and interrupt your work to talk about that weird golf match between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and those other two guys. How about that?
VANEK SMITH: Right after we talk about "Avatar: The Last Airbender," you're on.
VANEK SMITH: But there was one really positive finding in Adam's survey that probably matters more than the other things.
OZIMEK: One of the most important things was increased productivity.
GARCIA: Overall, there were more companies saying that working from home had made their workers more productive. Then there were companies saying that it had made them less productive, suggesting that working from home isn't just something that's nice for some workers. It can also be good for companies' bottom lines as well.
VANEK SMITH: But, of course, whenever something changes this quickly and this drastically, not everything is going to go smoothly. According to the companies in the survey, one thing that is not working very well when employees stay home is technology. That is not a shocker. And anyone who's ever been on a conference call knows that, you know, these things never go as planned. So Adam says these tech stumbles will probably be fixed over time as people get more and more used to using these new systems from home.
OZIMEK: So I actually expect that if you ask these same people who stuck it out, you know, 3, 6, maybe 12 months down the road, I think technological issues would probably decline in importance.
GARCIA: The second problem, which is just harder to fix right now, is that schools are not open, so a lot of workers are just stuck at home pulling double duty - work and parenting. And that is a tough environment to do work in.
VANEK SMITH: But, of course, in the post-pandemic future, schools will reopen, and parents working from home will get that time back. Still, Adam says, there is a third problem with working from home.
OZIMEK: The third is reduced team cohesion.
GARCIA: This one is a big deal. The office is a social place that can satisfy a real human need for personal connection - the collaboration, the in-jokes, celebrating accomplishments together. All that stuff is hard to replicate on a Zoom chat. And some of us really miss it. But it also matters for economic reasons.
VANEK SMITH: Yes, because when people are close to one another and can discuss ideas together, new and better ideas can often come from those interactions, so you get more creativity, more innovation.
OZIMEK: It's hard to exactly quantify or measure, but there's something in the air about being around workers who are working on the same sorts of problems as you are not just in the office but, you know, socially and, you know, in the same geography.
GARCIA: And this is one of the reasons that so many companies set up their offices in densely packed cities, where the workers can be near a lot of other workers who are just working on those same ideas, the same problems and the same solutions.
VANEK SMITH: So will companies risk losing that special magic by allowing their employees to be apart, not just working from home in different cities but maybe even scattered all throughout the country or the world?
GARCIA: Adam predicts that they will risk it. Now that they've been forced to try letting workers stay home, companies are going to see that the magic in the air can be replicated by magic in the bytes, in the digital space. And as an example, Adam points to how this very podcast episode that you're listening to right now came about. It came about from a niche corner of Twitter, where Stacey and I spend a lot of time - economics Twitter because we are so cool...
VANEK SMITH: No denying that.
GARCIA: ...And where one day many years ago, we bumped into Adam.
OZIMEK: You know, the economics corner of Twitter - there's absolutely something in the air. And there are a lot of great ideas that have come out of there. And you learn a lot from being there, and there are a lot of what you might think of as, like, chance encounters.
VANEK SMITH: Do you come here often?
GARCIA: Like, three to four hours a day, to be honest with you. It's...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Way more often than I should.
GARCIA: It's world's least cool or, maybe, most cool bar at the moment. I don't know.
VANEK SMITH: Maybe both. I don't even know.
VANEK SMITH: And Adam says if enough companies are convinced by these benefits of working remotely, then it could have a really big effect on the economy and on the country.
OZIMEK: The more long-run things are that they're going to need less office space, and office space costs money. And also, once you go fully remote, you could hire workers from anywhere in the country. And that really opens up sort of your - basically, your labor market. And it makes it easier to find the right worker for the job, wherever they're located.
GARCIA: It is still really early in this big experiment that companies are running in having their workers stay home. And there are real tradeoffs to working from home permanently that we might just not realize yet. But if Adam is right and if more companies do allow workers to stay home, then a lot of workers themselves will also end up having more options for where they can live. They won't have to be where their colleagues and their bosses are. They won't have to live in a place they might not like to do a job they do like.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VANEK SMITH: Today's episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.