(Photo by Unsplash)

As the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly forced tens of millions of Americans to work at home, plenty  of practical issues have arisen, ranging from WiFi capacity to home schooling.

But there are larger questions for society as well: How many jobs can actually be done remotely? What is the total share of wages for those jobs? And, after the crisis passes, how many of those jobs will continue to be done remotely?

Two economics professors at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business ran the numbers from job surveys, including information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and reported their findings in a white paper on March 27. 

Their classification suggests that 34% of U.S. jobs can plausibly be performed at home. They reached their estimate partly by the process of elimination, identifying job characteristics “that clearly rule out the possibility of working entirely from home,” the economists said. However, their estimate includes jobs that would in some ways be difficult to do entirely from home (teaching school, for example), so they consider it “an upper bound on what might be feasible and greatly exceeds the share of jobs that in fact have been performed entirely at home in recent years,” the authors write.

They cited a pre-pandemic poll, the 2018 American Time Use Survey, which found that “less than a quarter of all full-time workers work at all from home on an average day, and even those workers typically spend well less than half of their working hours at home.”

Most jobs in finance, corporate management, and professional and scientific services could be performed from home, the authors noted, but that applies to very few jobs in agriculture, hotels and restaurants, or retail industries. The prevalence of work-from-home jobs varies greatly by region, the economists found. They abound in tech and education hubs like Silicon Valley, Durham-Chapel Hill, and Austin, Texas. They’re most scarce in manufacturing centers like Grand Rapids, Mich., and agricultural hubs like Bakersfield, Calif.

The white paper highlights the socio-economic divide that has been starkly visible during the pandemic, as salaried professionals work from the relative safety of their home, while many hourly workers in the retail, delivery and health-care industries are manning the front lines. “Work-from-home and telework are now seen as a privileged activity and for a privileged class,” said Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal. What's more, the University of Chicago economists wrote,“Workers in occupations that can be performed at home typically earn more. If we assume all occupations involve the same number of hours of work, the 34% of jobs that can plausibly be performed at home account for 44% of all wages.”

What are the implications of these findings? For one thing, identifying the jobs that can’t be done from home “may be useful as policymakers try to target social insurance payments to those that most need that,” the authors wrote. At the same time, the numbers of jobs that can be performed effectively from home is an important measure of how the economy might perform when another crisis like this comes along.

The economists add a noteworthy caveat about the future: just because jobs can be done from home in a crisis doesn’t mean that they should be done that way in normal times. “An individual worker’s productivity may differ considerably when working at home rather than her usual workplace,” they note.

Indeed, after the crisis passes, work will tend to flow back to the office, in part because of human nature. “While much of the focus has been on the rush to remote work in the early stages of the pandemic, the longer-term consequences of COVID-19 may have more to do with how we keep ourselves healthy than how we work,” writes Axios future correspondent Bryan Walsh. As futurist Amy Webb told him, "Any time a new change is foisted upon us, very quickly there is a bias to thinking that the new present is the future. That is almost universally never the case." She added: "Most societies are not set up to support the daily productivity tasks you need as a remote worker or student," she said. (Telemedicine, however, is likely here to stay.)

While the WFH moment seems likely to open up new possibilities for job flexibility, human proximity still matters when it comes to teamwork, wrote management researchers Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber last year in a Harvard Business Review piece on what they called the anatomy of collaboration. “Remote work, while undeniably cost-effective, tends to significantly inhibit collaboration even over digital channels,” the authors wrote. “While studying a major technology company from 2008 to 2012, we found that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than co-located team members did; in 17% of projects they didn’t communicate at all. The obvious implication: If team members need to interact to achieve project milestones on time, you don’t want them working remotely.”