Who is working at home during the pandemic?

In late March, Brent Neiman and I posted a paper addressing a straightforward and suddenly pressing question: How Many Jobs Can be Done at Home?

Our aim was to describe what is feasible. Looking at pre-2020 practices, one would not have observed many high-school teachers working from home, but the global pandemic changed that. We used information on job characteristics to estimate which occupations could be performed entirely at home. Of course, this supply-side trait is only one important ingredient when thinking about jobs during the crisis. Demand-side considerations, such as designating a job as “essential”, are clearly important too. Couriers and messengers cannot work from home, but this industry has seen robust employment growth in recent months.

Enough time has passed that we are now learning who has been working at home during the pandemic. In a recent Economics Observatory column (What has coronavirus taught us about working from home?) and the latest version of our paper, Brent and I discuss some of this evidence. The initial evidence suggests that our classification of occupations is quite sensible.

In the United States, Alexander Bick, Adam Blandin, and Karel Mertens have been conducting a Real-Time Population Survey, an online survey of adults designed to mimic the Current Population Survey. Last week, they released a paper called “Work from Home After the COVID-19 Outbreak“. They report that 35 percent of their US respondents worked entirely from home in May 2020. Their Figure 1 shows that the share of respondents in an industry working from home in May is highly correlated with our estimate of the feasible share for that industry.

In Europe, the EU’s Eurofound launched an e-survey, Living, working and COVID-19, “to capture the most immediate changes during the pandemic and their impact.” Last month, they released first results on the impact of the pandemic on work and teleworking. As we report in our latest draft, there is a close correspondence between our country-level estimates of feasibility and what has occurred during the crisis.

Finally, while the latest update of the relevant paper hasn’t been posted online yet, in the video presentation below, Ed Glaeser reports that the industry-level variation in the share of jobs reported as being performed at home in a survey of small businesses is highly correlated with our industry-level feasible shares.

We classified the feasibility of working from home based on pre-pandemic conditions. Over time, I expect businesses to adapt their practices and leverage new tools to reallocate tasks and change the nature of jobs. A pressing question, which I briefly discussed at the end of a recent seminar presentation, is whether this temporary surge in remote work will have permanent consequences for the future of work.

In the short run, using pre-pandemic job characteristics to classify which jobs can be done at work has aligned well with who has actually been working at home during the pandemic.

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