Remote Work in the United States

Brendan Lind

Brendan Lind is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

The Number of Remote Workers

Remote workers or, as classified by the U.S. Census Bureau, “home-based workers,” are those employed workers who primarily complete their work duties at home. Traditionally, remote workers have comprised a very small percentage of the American workforce. In 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 6% of the full-time employed were remote or home-based workers, by the Census Bureau definition, in that they completed most of their employment duties from home. Just over 22% of full-time workers in 2019 performed some of their work duties remotely. About 75% of American workers had never worked primarily from home.

The level of remote work among the American workforce changed dramatically with the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, fully one-third of full-time workers were primarily or exclusively teleworking remotely. The percentage performing at least some of their work responsibilities from home reached nearly 42%.

The Demographic of Remote Workers

In a very real sense, the pandemic-induced rise in remote work in the United States has exacerbated social stratification and widened the wedge between the educated, professional workforce and non-college educated workers. Who works remotely in America is very much a matter of education and profession. Prior to the pandemic and throughout it, the remote workforce has been primarily college educated and employed in professional occupations. In 2019, 37% of the employed with a bachelor’s degree or higher worked at least some of the time at home; only 11% of workers who had never attended college (high school diploma or less) performed any of their work remotely. In 2020, these percentages rose to 65% and 16% respectively. The percentage of workers with advanced degrees working remotely reached 74%.

In both 2019 and 2020, workers in management, business, financial, and professional fields were substantially more likely to perform some of their work remotely than those in occupational sectors such as construction, manufacturing, and transportation. In 2019, over 34% of management, business, financial, and professional workers completed some of their work remotely. This grew to about 64% in 2020. Roughly 16% of workers in construction, manufacturing, and transportation fulfilled at least some of their work duties remotely in 2019, while in 2020 that number increased to 25%. Among full-time workers, more women than men perform at least some of their work from home. Remote work among computer scientists and programmers is even more pronounced than other professions. In 2011, only 13% of the jobs posted on Hacker News, a news-aggregation website that caters to computer programmers, mentioned remote work. This rose to 75% in 2021.

The Future of Remote Work

As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on, many workers sent home in late spring and summer 2020 have returned to working at their workplaces. Yet it is highly unlikely that the American workforce will ever revert to its pre-pandemic norms. It is reasonable to expect that the increase in home-based work brought about by the pandemic will result in a permanently greater level of remote work in certain sectors of the workforce.

The pandemic’s disruption of a vast array of employment norms propelled the country into trying remote work at an unprecedented and unanticipated rate. It revealed benefits and limitations to remote work, and initiated a nationwide discussion over where work should take place. Employers in some sectors of the economy found much to like about remote work. Surveys of business executives have indicated that hybrid models of remote work henceforth will be a permanent part of the American employment landscape.

A study by McKinsey & Co. in late 2020 affirmed what the empirical evidence of the pandemic had revealed: the potential for hybrid forms of remote work is vast, but limited to a relatively narrow range of the workforce. The opportunities for remote work extend principally to a highly-educated, highly-skilled minority of the workforce in certain occupations and geographic regions. The McKinsey study concludes that over 20% of full-time workers could work as effectively from home as from their workplace three to five days per week.

This future potential for remote work is highly concentrated, however, within a very few employment sectors. The opportunities for remote work turn on the types of activities performed in an occupation, and whether workers need to be physically on-site, use fixed equipment or machinery, or interact with others to do their work. Given these considerations, the highest potential for remote work is in the financial and insurance industries. According to the authors of the McKinsey study, three-quarters of the work done in those two sectors could be permanently performed remotely with no loss in productivity. The next highest potential is in the management, information technology, and business services sectors, where half of the standard work could be completed remotely.

Notably, these sectors that best lend themselves to remote work are characterized by a highly-educated, generally well-paid workforce. Because of this, remote work presents the danger of exacerbating inequalities and increasing social stratification with the United States. Over one-half of the American workforce has no real opportunity for working from home. This includes workers whose jobs require regular collaborative interaction with others, those who operate specialized, fixed location machinery, and those with jobs that necessitate their being out and about, such as truck, delivery, and public transit drivers. Many jobs in these categories pay low wages. Further, their workforce faces threats to continued employment due to automation and technological advances.

In addition, remote work presents other challenging issues. Based on what they have learned during the pandemic, many companies are trying to determine how best to manage, train, and coach workers remotely. They are also working to downside office space and configure workspaces for a reduced full-time on-site workforce.

Many employees who found themselves suddenly working from home in spring and summer 2020 are still trying to sort out a feasible work-life balance now that their workspace and home are one. They are struggling to equip their new, often makeshift home offices with ergonomically healthy furniture and suitable settings for telework (zoom/webex) meetings. The home-life challenges are particularly acute for working parents. A Pew report found that one-half of remote working parents with children under age 18 have faced difficulties working without interruptions, compared to 20% of workers without minor children. A recent McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace 2021, found that more than one-half of women with children under age 10 revealed that the pandemic increased their household responsibilities by three or more hours per day. Nonetheless, remote working parents, like their nonparent counterparts, in large numbers express a desire to continue working from home full-time even after the pandemic runs its course.

More in COVID-19

COVID-19 and Whistleblowers: The Expansion of Legislative Protections and Judicial Guidance

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.