UPDATE 5/13/20: Since this article was originally published, several major tech companies have announced new work-from-home policies. Facebook said it will permit teleworking for most workers through the end of 2020. Twitter also recently announced that it would permanently allow its employees to telework.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has effectively shut down part of the world, forcing people inside their homes and away from each other. The new virus has led to fear, increased anxiety, and economic hardship. While there is no denying the negative impact the virus has on people’s health and livelihoods, the emergency actions that have been taken in response have the potential to open up new doors and solve bigger systemic problems as a result.
The pandemic is forcing employers, government officials, businesses, and schools to experiment with programs and services that may not have otherwise been explored. Problems that have been brushed off or downplayed for years are now being addressed head-on, and the solutions discovered in the interim might even stick once the virus is quelled. One of the biggest shifts taking place is in the job market.
Those who haven’t been laid off, furloughed, or deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic are getting the opportunity to experiment with working from home. If more companies adopt a teleworking policy moving forward, it could open the floodgates for job opportunities that may have been out of reach until now—and that could help almost everyone, especially the hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed people who will be looking for work once normal day-to-day life resumes. But even with these new doors opening, many teleworking opportunities have the potential to leave some people on the sidelines.
Work-from-home policies on the rise
Not everyone has the privilege of working from home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29% of Americans can work from home, including one in 20 service workers. However, for those who have been able to smoothly and effectively adjust to a home office during the pandemic, it’s possible the trend could continue and eventually reshape the future of remote work entirely.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the number of companies that had a work-from-home policy was increasing. In fact, studies have shown that people who work remotely tend to be more productive than those who work in an office. It also increases employee satisfaction.
“Employers haven’t allowed as much work-from-home in the past because successful work-from-home takes experience, maturity, self-understanding, and self-management,” said Marc Cenedella, founder and CEO of the job search site Ladders. “Our managerial systems have not evolved to handle the work-from-home professional. Most managers are more comfortable with the in-person management style they grew up with.”
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The privilege of teleworking
Even though more employers are learning about the upside of working remotely, not everyone gets to benefit from it. The ability to work from home is segregated by race, age, and class. Between 2017 and 2018, 37% of Asian Americans had the ability to telework, followed by roughly 30% of white people, 20% of Black people, and about 16% of Latino people. The ability to hold a job with telecommuting benefits can also be dependent on a person’s level of education, type of employment, sex, disability, and full- or part-time work status. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 38% of workers in “management, business, and financial operation occupations” can do all or some of their work from home, but only 22% of sales workers, 16% of people in construction, 11% of service workers, and 6% of production workers have that privilege. Right now during the pandemic, people of color—especially Black Americans—are more likely to have positions deemed “essential,” putting them on the front lines of the crisis. This is part of the reason Black people in certain parts of the country are contracting the virus at higher rates than their white counterparts.
The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) within the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles and analyzes job and schedule data about U.S. workers, including people who telework but aren’t self-employed. ATUS released a report in September that broke down the demographics of people who worked from home before the pandemic.
“We presented job estimates by race and ethnicity, and we saw that there were differences between Hispanics’ and African Americans’ [ability to work from home],” said Rose Woods, an economist for ATUS. “We didn’t really analyze it in any more detail than that. We also looked at occupations alone, but we didn’t break down occupation by race and ethnicity.”
You can’t work from home without internet
Being able to work from home also requires the privilege of having internet access. Over the years, the internet has proven to be a utility in the modern world. The novel coronavirus outbreak has served as further evidence of that fact, and revealed the inequalities in access. As work and education transition online, many low-income individuals have found it difficult to access wifi. Before the pandemic, many were forced to rely on internet hotspots at coffee shops, libraries, and restaurants. Now that’s not an option.
“Millennials face the biggest barriers to working from home and are the most likely to not have internet in their homes,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with Ziprecruiter. “They definitely would be the biggest beneficiaries right now of some kind of temporary assistance with WiFi access during this crisis.”
But it isn’t just millennials who could benefit from internet access and increased likelihood of working from home. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that older people, Southerners, lower earners, people of color, and those with only a high school education are less likely to work from home.
Now, with essentially no alternatives for internet access other than a home setup, some companies have taken steps to widen access and lower costs. In California, Google is planting 100,000 wifi access points across the state, making internet access more accessible. The tech company has also offered Chromebooks to students across the state. Verizon has also taken steps to ease the burden: The company recently announced that customers using Lifeline, a government program that offers discounted internet service to people with low incomes, will have their bills waived for 60 days. Comcast has also announced that the company is relaxing data restrictions, suspending connection cuts, and offering free limited service for two months. In Santa Monica, California, district officials have partnered with internet providers to allow public school students to sign up for free internet access during the pandemic. Some other areas have adopted similar policies, which could remain in place down the line.
“If a city makes an investment now in a free WiFi program, I think once that’s in place, it’ll stay forever and only get better and expand,” said Pollak. “Also, any investments now in broadband infrastructure will remain in place.”
With more areas offering free internet, that means more access and opportunities for the general public, especially those who have access to personal computers or are able to create a proper workspace at home.
A labor force shift
In a survey by 8×8 at the end of February, 90% of respondents said they are confident they will continue to be productive if asked to continue working remotely as a result of the novel coronavirus.
As a result, employers may get the opportunity to observe the level of remote productivity firsthand, potentially opening up a telecommuting option when the pandemic ends. This could create a massive shift in the labor force, allowing for more work opportunities across the country. For people who are currently unable to work from home and would like to, that’s a huge plus.
More remote work opportunities could be a win for mothers of young children and women in general, who are more likely to move away if their spouse has a new job opportunity. A study published in the journal Demography found that women are more likely to take jobs that allow them to work from anywhere, whereas men tend to choose jobs that have geographic constraints.
A massive work-from-home transition also has the potential to shift the demographics of the news media industry, which currently requires many people to move to expensive hot spots like New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., in order to find lucrative work. This current requirement locks out people with lower incomes who can’t afford to move. Work-from-home opens up more job opportunities to people living in rural areas where those opportunities are scarce.
Even putting aside the apparent advantage to workers, employers who allow employees to work from home even part of the time would also benefit financially. According to Global Workplace Analytics, employers have the potential to save $11,000 per part-time telecommuter per year. Taking the extra step of having an entirely remote workforce would allow businesses to save money on office supplies, electricity, and real estate costs, opening the door to use those funds for things that increase employee retention rates and help manage workloads, like offering raises or hiring additional staff.
Accommodating people with physical and mental disabilities
For people with mobility issues or chronic illnesses, the effort involved in commuting back and forth to work can be draining. Additional remote job offerings would be a major advantage to people with physical disabilities, who would have more opportunities to earn a living wage from the comfort of their own home. The same applies to people with communication issues.
“For some people, [working from home] is welcomed because there is not the taxing drain of actually having to physically interact with people on a daily basis and there is not as much of the small office small talk,” said Carolyn Jeppsen, the CEO, president, and co-founder of BroadFutures, an organization that helps people with learning and attention disabilities enter the workforce. But even though many people with physical disabilities have advocated for remote work opportunities for years, for people with disabilities like ADHD or autism that aren’t immediately apparent, the response has been diverse.
“The thought is that [working from home] is a huge advantage to [all] people with disabilities, but in fact, for people who have ADHD or people who have language processing issues, having to communicate solely remotely can be tough,” Jeppsen said. “If you have anxiety and you’re unable to organize yourself without the kind of structure of an office, it is difficult and not necessarily always a welcomed thing.”
In addition to offering more remote work opportunities, Jeppsen said more offices should consider alternative approaches to incorporating underrepresented groups into the workforce.
“Let’s say we have an individual who has ADHD, but is an introvert,” she said. “They may find face-to-face social communication challenging and disruptive to their ability to be successful. Yet, we also have sitting right next to that person, another person with ADHD but they are an extreme extrovert and they’re getting their energy from other people. Their accommodation is that they need face to face feedback—for someone to say you’re on track or off track. These two people may have the same diagnosis, but may have very different needs, and so it would be great if the workforce would accommodate both of them.”
It remains to be seen whether more companies will adopt a work-from-home policy after the spread of the virus slows, but even though a more expansive teleworking model will offer more job opportunities in general, privilege will still play a large part in who is able to access them. Still, if employers pay close attention to the level of productivity and saved costs it creates during the pandemic, it could be a game changer for companies and businesses everywhere, forever altering the future of the American workforce.
“I think we’ll be surprised by which roles turn out to be work-from-home friendly,” said Cenedella. “This may be the beginning of a complete shift in managerial expectations and practices, moving towards output and drastically reducing the need for face time.”