Some workers will go back to the office after the pandemic, but not enough to save central business districts from permanent drops in spending that will permanently remake American downtowns.
That is one of the worrisome findings of a new working paper on remote work, which reports 11 months of survey data on more than 30,000 Americans’ shifting arrangements with their employers.
Sifting through various data points about remote work has been a little confusing. Some CEOs say the practice has been productive during the pandemic and are ready to give up their expensive office space. Others say it’s bad for company culture and innovation and are ready to get employees back into their cubicles. As for workers, some have happily settled into country life, while others claim to miss the camaraderie, gossip, and professional synergy of office life.
The Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, as the research led by the economist Jose Maria Barrero is called, brokers no such ambiguity: Workers whose jobs don’t explicitly require their presence really want to be able to work remote at least some of the time. Most would take a pay cut to do so.
Their bosses, by and large, want them back in the office—but are willing to compromise on three or four days a week. As a result, Barrero and his co-authors conclude, the share of work done remotely will level off at about 20 percent after the pandemic restrictions end. That’s about half as much work as is happening remotely right now, but four times the pre-pandemic remote work rate of 5 percent.
This future is far from certain. It’s possible that attitudes will change quickly once pandemic restrictions end. Still, the researchers believe that remote work will stick. Why? Nearly every white-collar office took the leap at the same time. Workers have invested in their new setups. Technology aimed at remote workers is improving rapidly. And finally, the perception of “working from home” as code for slacking off has vanished—possibly for good.
The degree to which workers expect to be occasionally called to the office may explain why no major new geographical migration between regions has come out of the pandemic: Many still want to be close to the workplace. But not as close as before. The paper predicts post-pandemic consumer spending will fall by 13 percent in Manhattan and 4.6 percent in San Francisco as workers spend more of their budgets for desk salads in their own neighborhoods.
That spells trouble for downtown spillover economies, including barbers, shoe repair shops, bars, and restaurants—as well as for the transit systems that have long been designed toward serving peak-hour commutes.
In total, the new level of remote work that the paper forecasts would add up to 435 million fewer hours spent traveling to and from work. Unfortunately, under the new pandemic arrangement, a third of that time is now spent on work, and the other two-thirds spent on other worklike activities such as chores and child care.
In the research, a gender gap opens up for college-educated workers with young children: Women are almost 10 percentage points more likely than men to say they want to work from home full time. That may mean mothers who might have left the workforce decide not to, but it could also wind up exacerbating workplace inequities between men and women. “One pitfall of the hybrid approach is, if women pick to work from home and men don’t, they may be punished later on in terms of future promotions,” Barrero observed when we spoke on the phone. “We think HR departments should worry about that.”
It will be a tough balance for companies: Let workers do as they please and the inequalities of child care will assert themselves in the company’s own hierarchy. Force everyone back and your most talented employees may get poached by companies with more favorable arrangements. Keep everyone remote? There goes the company softball team.