December 2, 2020 | Expert Perspective
Remote work and its long-range effects
Some of you may be reading this article from a home workstation you configured as efforts were undertaken to keep workers safe from COVID-19. I discussed in a recent web article how such work-from-home arrangements represent a sharp acceleration of a trend that was already under way before COVID-19. But the big question for the U.S. economy is how many jobs, and what types, could permanently become remote 100% of the time, even after an effective vaccine is eventually distributed?
The answer could have undeniable effects on workers, employers, and the economy. For example, if tech workers can just as easily do their jobs from home offices in Toledo or Tulsa or Topeka, do Silicon Valley firms need vast California campuses? And what would that mean for businesses that rely on such a concentration of workers and for commuting patterns? What would it mean for real estate prices, both commercial and residential?
Evaluating the future of remote work
Our 2018 Vanguard research paper The Future of Work found that, contrary to some reports, technology isn’t widely causing jobs to disappear, but it is profoundly changing nearly all of them. A job is broadly the sum of its tasks. Our paper examined the 41 work activities, or tasks, that make up the nearly 1,000 occupations tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor and found that, since 2000, tasks have widely shifted from being basic and repetitive toward “uniquely human” tasks that rely on creative problem-solving.
In that study, we focused on the number of jobs needed in the future (answer: more in total), without worrying about where those jobs were located and whether certain ones could be done remotely. But as the graphic above shows, we’ve now done just that. We updated our task framework within the Labor Department’s universe of occupations. Now, though, we’ve scored each occupation’s associated tasks on a scale of 0 to 10 for remote-work potential. A score of 0 represents a task that can’t be accomplished remotely at all, while a 10 represents a task that can be performed entirely remotely with equal effectiveness.
We then looked at which tasks were critically important to a given job. For example, a bartender’s work includes the critically important task of mixing drinks but also the not critically important task of data entry.
Finally, we assessed which occupations had a high overall remote score among critically important tasks. We find, as you can see in the graphic, that roughly 15% of all U.S. jobs could be conducted remotely. Although that percentage may sound small, it represents potentially over 20 million U.S. workers. That’s a large number.
Our assessment included a conservative threshold of 60% for critically important tasks, meaning that some effectiveness could be “lost” with certain tasks being done remotely, but that 60% effectiveness was good enough to complete the task. A higher threshold would mean that fewer occupations and workers could permanently work remotely.
The first takeaway of our remote-work assessment
Perhaps our graphic’s most intriguing feature is the high percentage of occupations in the middle—the dots between all-remote and the pre-pandemic normal. This suggests to me that a hybrid model for the future of work may emerge for many of us, one in which remote work may suffice for days or weeks at a time, but not the entire year. After all, while a job may be the sum of its tasks, a career involves much more. There are many "uniquely human" tasks that many occupations share; such as training, mentoring, and collaboration for which fully remote work may pose challenges.
In the Vanguard economic and market outlook 2021: Approaching the dawn, which we’ll publish in December 2020, we’ll further discuss trends that may have been either accelerated (such as remote work) or altered by COVID-19 and assess their economic and market implications.
But our initial read of remote work, using our data-driven framework, suggests that for many of us, the future of work will be like neither the past nor the present. It suggests that, for certain occupations, a hybrid model may emerge that combines the power of social interaction with the flexibility of remote work.
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