Millions of workers, employers, square feet of real estate and dollars of downtown economic retail are wrapped up in the question of how many people are working from home — yet there remain large discrepancies in how remote work is measured.
The Labor Department, last week, released data indicating a decline in remote work: 72.5 percent of businesses said their employees rarely or never teleworked last year, up from 60.1 percent in 2021 and quite close to the 76.7 percent that had no such work before the pandemic. But while the Labor Department found that remote work was almost back to prepandemic levels, many other surveys show it is up four- to fivefold.
Outside research, including a monthly survey of workers from researchers at Stanford University and the Census Bureau’s household survey, indicate that remote work remains prevalent, with Stanford’s finding that it accounts for over a quarter of paid full-time workdays in the United States, just slightly down from 33 percent in 2021. Some scholars suggested that the Labor Department’s survey may overcount fully in-person work, though the comparisons among the various surveys aren’t direct.
“I see this survey as an outlier and not the most reliable measure,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist of the Economic Innovation Group, a public policy organization, describing the Labor Department’s survey. “We need to think hard as we try to develop better measures of working from home.”
Remote work is having profound effects on nearly every dimension of the economy: foot traffic to downtown businesses, housing markets in big cities and far-flung areas, methods of assessing productivity and child care. Public transportation ridership sank during the pandemic, and suburban real estate values rose.
Nearly one billion square feet of office real estate was available but in search of a tenant at the end of 2022. People refashioned their lives and routines, working 28 percent more after traditional hours, according to Microsoft.
The stakes of measuring remote work’s prevalence are high. And researchers said the wording of the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on remote work, which was distributed to businesses, might have caused some confusion among respondents.
The State of Jobs in the United States
The labor market continues to display strength, as the Federal Reserve tries to engineer a slowdown and tame inflation.
“Telework is a work arrangement that allows an employee to work at home, or from another remote location, by using the internet or a computer linked to one’s place of employment, as well as digital communications, such as email and phone,” the survey read. “Do any employees at this location CURRENTLY telework in any amount?”
By defining telework so broadly — as any worker sending an email or making a call outside the office — the Labor Department’s survey question should most likely have turned up a fully in-person figure lower than the one released last week, said Nick Bloom, an economist at Stanford, suggesting that some businesses may have been confused by the question.
This particular Labor Department figure on telework also combines fully remote work with hybrid arrangements. But hybrid work has eclipsed fully remote policies, with just over half of the workers who can do their jobs from home combining in-person and remote work, according to Gallup.
A spokeswoman for the Labor Department said the survey most likely did not reflect informal work-from-home arrangements.
“Taking into account that the self-employed and the public sector are not included in the sample, and that this is a survey of establishments rather than individuals, our estimates do not appear out of line with other estimates,” the spokeswoman said.
Stanford’s monthly study on working from home, which surveys 10,000 workers across cities and industries, found that 27 percent of paid full-time days were worked from home in early 2023.
Much of that remote work came from hybrid setups. Last month, the survey found that 12 percent of workers were fully remote, roughly 60 percent fully in person and 28 percent hybrid.
Other sources of data confirm that working-from-home patterns remain entrenched in certain industries. The building security firm Kastle, for example, tracks data on office badge swipes and reported this month that offices remained at roughly 48 percent of their prepandemic occupancy.
A closer look at New York, from the Partnership for New York City, found that 52 percent of Manhattan office workers were working in person on an average day at the start of this year, up from 49 percent in September. But only 9 percent of employees were in the office five days a week, underscoring the reach of hybrid arrangements. And Square, the retail technology company, which tracks payments at food and drink establishments, found that sales growth at bars and restaurants in Brooklyn had recently outpaced growth of those in Manhattan.
“It’s clear that the work-from-home trends induced by the pandemic have transformed the food and drink scene in the city,” said Ara Kharazian, an economist at Square.
The Partnership for New York City’s data indicated that financial service firms were back in the office in greater numbers than many other companies. Financial service firms reported 59 percent daily office attendance in late January, according to the partnership. The tech industry, by contrast, was at 43 percent.
All this data is emerging as hundreds of companies formalize their policies on hybrid work, with many trying to persuade their employees to spend more time at the office.
Amazon told corporate workers last month that they had to be in the office three days a week starting in May, and Starbucks called its 3,750 corporate workers back three days a week as well. Disney asked employees to return to the office four days a week. Its chief executive, Robert A. Iger, cited the need for in-person creative collaborations.
Other chief executives have also begun to question the merits of remote work. Even Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, which told all its employees that they could go permanently remote, began voicing concern this year that productivity among some employees has been lower.
As executives clamp down on in-person work, worker resistance has become more vocal. At Amazon, more than 29,000 employees joined a Slack channel, called Remote Advocacy, protesting the shift to in-person work. At Starbucks, more than 40 corporate employees signed an open letter opposing the new return-to-office policy.
Wherever people are doing the jobs they already have, mostly in person per the Labor Department or over a quarter of the time at home per others, one metric does indicate that hybrid work is here to stay: job postings.
A study from researchers at Stanford, Harvard and other institutions analyzing over 50 million job postings last month found that postings explicitly mentioning remote work are at 12.2 percent — a fourfold increase since before the pandemic.
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