Teleworking is here to stay and may raise productivity if implemented appropriately

Pawel Adrjan, Gabriele Ciminelli, Chiara Criscuolo, Peter Gal, Alexandre Judes, Giuseppe Nicoletti, Michael Koelle, Timo Leidecker, Francesco Losma, Cyrille Schwellnus, Tara Sinclair 10 February 2022

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COVID-19 triggered a surge in teleworking, with about 40–50% of the workforce in advanced economies working from home at the height of the pandemic (Taneja et al. 2021, Barrero et al. 2021a, Davis et al. 2021). In two recent and complementary studies, we source new data to answer three questions related to the surge in telework. First, will teleworking persist when pandemic-related mobility restrictions recede? Second, what is the impact on productivity and wellbeing as perceived by managers and workers? Third, how can policymakers and managers maximise the benefits and minimise the risks from more widespread teleworking?

In the first paper (Adrjan et al. 2021), we analyse developments in online job postings that advertise telework on the global job site Indeed in 20 countries over the past two years.1 In the second paper (Criscuolo et al. 2021), we report the results from an OECD survey on teleworking of both workers and managers that we implemented in 25 countries.

Job postings advertising teleworking measure its medium-term adoption

Indeed retrieves job postings from a variety of sources, including direct postings on its proprietary platform as well as thousands of online job boards, career sites, and recruiter listings. In the 20 countries covered by our study, Indeed job postings represent the near-universe of online job offers. Using state-of-the-art text analysis algorithms, we identify postings that mention the possibility of teleworking in the title, description or location and construct a variable measuring the share of job postings advertising telework. 

Job postings that advertise teleworking differ substantially from measures of realised teleworking because they relate to the firms’ future hires rather than their existing workforces. Hence, measuring teleworking through online job postings gives us the best available measure of its medium-term adoption, beyond ad-hoc arrangements adopted during COVID-19-related lockdowns. Another advantage is that data on job postings are available in near real-time, currently up to the end of 2021.

The share of job postings advertising teleworking more than tripled during the pandemic

Taking a first look at the data, we find that the average share of remote postings across the countries in the study more than tripled over the pandemic, from just 2.5% of job postings in January 2020 to 8.5% in December 2021 (Figure 1). The increase was initially associated with the introduction of pandemic-related mobility restrictions: across countries, restrictions to mobility during the pandemic were positively correlated with changes to remote postings. In countries with high restrictions, such as Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK, the share of remote working increased significantly more than in countries with low restrictions, such as Japan and New Zealand. However, despite the easing of restrictions during the first half of 2021, the average share of remote postings has remained near the peak it first reached in April 2021.

Figure 1 Share of job postings advertising telework and government restrictions index

Note: The figure plots the average values of the share of teleworkable job postings on Indeed (left axis) and of the government restrictions index based on the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker across countries (right axis).

Advertised teleworking increased most in knowledge-intensive occupations

As one might expect, the effects of pandemic-related mobility restrictions are largely driven by knowledge-intensive occupations where teleworking is more feasible. These include occupations such as software development and marketing, where advertised teleworking increased by 12–13 percentage points. By contrast, in occupations such as food preparation or driving, which typically require physical presence at the workplace, the share of advertised telework in online job ads increased very little, confirming evidence from other sources (OECD 2021).

Will teleworking revert back to its pre-pandemic level once the pandemic is under control? To answer this question, we separately analyse the effects of a tightening and an easing of pandemic severity on the share of job postings advertising teleworking. For the estimation, we exploit the two stylised facts we just established – that teleworking increased more in countries with more severe restrictions and in occupations where it is more feasible – to develop an econometric triple-differences strategy. Specifically, we compare the evolution of advertised telework (i) over time, (ii) across countries, and (iii) across occupations with a higher or lower potential for teleworking, which we measure using the classification of jobs into teleworkable and non-teleworkable from Dingel and Neiman (2020).

Pandemic severity was a catalyst for remote work…

We first look at the effect of a tightening of mobility restrictions. We find that, on average, a one standard deviation increase in the stringency index of the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (corresponding to about 10 points on a scale of 100) raises advertised teleworking by about 0.6 percentage points in high-potential occupations relative to low-potential ones over a six-month window (Panel A of Figure 2). Since the average increase in teleworking in low-potential occupations is negligible, this estimate roughly corresponds to the absolute effect of a tightening of pandemic severity on teleworking in the occupations where it is feasible. We estimate even larger effects when we measure the severity of the pandemic using COVID-19 fatalities or reductions in the Google Mobility Index.

Figure 2 Effect of tightening and easing of pandemic restrictions on advertised telework at different time horizons

Note: The figure shows the cumulative differential effect (impulse response functions) of a change in government restrictions at time zero on the share of job postings on Indeed advertising telework between occupations with a high and low telework potential over a 6-month window. Contemporaneous, immediate effects correspond to time zero on the x-axis. Effects are estimated and reported separately for a tightening and easing of restrictions, in a unified model. For full details of the econometric methodology, see Adrjan et al (2021).

… but the easing of the pandemic has so far not reduced advertised teleworking

Next, we turn to the effect of an easing of pandemic severity. Regardless of the measure that we use to measure pandemic severity, our analysis suggests that an easing does not have any effect on advertised teleworking. In other words, the pandemic appears to be durably driving up advertised teleworking. In complementary analysis, we find that this is particularly true in countries with good digital infrastructure as measured by broadband internet penetration. This path dependence could reflect large investments into digital tools and infrastructure as well as the acquisition of teleworking skills on the part of both employers and employees.

In sum, the analysis from our first paper (Adrjan et al. 2021) suggests that teleworking is here to stay, especially in knowledge-intensive occupations and in countries with good digital infrastructure. This is consistent with results from our complementary survey-based paper (Criscuolo et al. 2021), which further shows that, across countries, managers and workers agree on 2–3 working days per week as the ideal intensity of telework – similarly to previous findings by Bloom et al. (2021) for the UK. We now turn to perceptions of teleworking and expectations among managers and workers in more detail.

How does teleworking impact productivity and wellbeing? Perceptions of managers and workers

The impact of teleworking on firms’ productivity and workers’ wellbeing is a priori ambiguous. In a previous policy note (OECD 2020), we postulated that this relationship might be hump-shaped: low levels of telework adoption – and the consequent lack of flexibility – might reduce workers’ satisfaction, hamper their efficiency, and hence reduce the company’s performance. However, high levels of telework adoption might also be counterproductive: some workers start feeling isolated, and communication and knowledge flows within the company could become more difficult. 

To shed light on the subjective opinion of managers and workers towards teleworking in a systematic manner, we undertook an online survey among a network of employer and employee associations in the first half of 2021, which resulted in more than 5,000 responses from 25 countries. 

Figure 3 shows the three most important perceived advantages (Panel A) and disadvantages (Panel B) of teleworking emerging from the survey for both managers and workers. Around 60% of managers think that workers work more and more productively in a teleworking environment – a result well aligned with findings from Barrero et al. (2021b) and Taneja et al. (2021). A similarly high share of managers also values the possibility of hiring workers living far away from the office premises.

Figure 3 Advantages and disadvantages for managers and workers

Panel A) Advantages for firm performance (managers) and individual well-being (workers)

Panel B) Disadvantages for firm performance (managers) and individual well-being (workers)

Note: Data are from the OECD Global Forum on Productivity Survey among managers and workers. Results based on Q10Managers: "In your view, how important are the following potential benefits for your company's performance from telework?”; Q10Workers: "In your view, what are the most important potential benefits for employees from telework?”; Q11Managers: "In your view, what are the most important potential downsides for your company's performance from telework?”; Q11Workers: "In your view, what are the most important potential downsides for employees from telework?. The share is calculated based on those answering 3 or higher on a scale from 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important).”

Workers value the advantages of teleworking even more prominently. Almost 90% of employees cite less commuting as the most important upside of this working arrangement. As in Barrero et al. (2020), the time saved on the commute allows workers not only to work more on their primary activity but also to have more free time (according to 84% of them). Finally, 85% of employees indicate that they can work better on tasks that require more concentration as an additional benefit of teleworking.

Still, between 70% and 80% of managers seem to fear reduced collaboration, corporate identity, and knowledge sharing that may result from an excessive adoption of teleworking. On the workers’ side, more than 80% of them consider lack of social interactions and the fusing of private and professional life as the major downsides of teleworking. Working from uncomfortable office spaces represents a third crucial perceived drawback for almost 70% of workers. Overall, workers’ opinion about the pros and cons of teleworking confirms our conjectured trade-off regarding worker satisfaction.

Seizing opportunities while addressing risks

If teleworking is here to stay, firms and governments will have to implement additional measures to maximise its benefits and minimise its drawbacks. Our survey allows us to investigate the measures companies foresee (and workers desire) to accommodate and facilitate the use of this working arrangement. Figure 4 shows that there is agreement among a significant share of managers and workers that the schedules of workers should be coordinated, so that at least on some office days colleagues have the possibility to meet in person, exploiting the advantages of both planned and informal interactions. 

Figure 4 Planned and desired measures to be implemented in the future to maximise the benefits of telework

Notes: Data are from the OECD Global Forum on Productivity Survey among managers and workers. Results based on Q9Managers: "What types of organisational changes and HR management practices do you plan to introduce to better accommodate teleworking?"; Q9Workers: "What types of organisational changes and HR management practices would you find useful to introduce to better accommodate teleworking?".

The second area where actions are required is company investment in information and communication technologies (ICT). More than 20% of managers and 40% of workers also stress the importance of providing ICT training to workers (‘hard skills’), complemented with training for managers on how to manage remote and hybrid teams and for workers on how to work independently from home (‘soft skills’). Our survey also finds that more productive firms plan to introduce these adaptive measures more intensively. This asymmetric response to the challenges of more intensive teleworking risks further widening performance gaps across businesses (Andrews et al. 2017), especially given the differences in the skills of the workforce of the most productive firms – in particular digital and managerial skills. (Criscuolo et al. 2021). 

To ensure gains from telework, public policies should enable, empower, and protect

In this context, public policies play a key role in ensuring that teleworking has a positive impact on productivity and wellbeing, and that its advantages are not reaped solely by the most advanced firms and highest-skilled workers (Adams-Prassl et al. 2020). First, policies should enable access to teleworking from anywhere by promoting investments in broadband access and childcare facilities – both in urban and rural areas. Second, they should empower workers and managers by supporting upskilling and training on both hard (notably ICT) and soft skills. Finally, policies should protect workers from excessive teleworking by adapting the legal environment – with a special focus on health insurance coverage for remote working and the right to disconnect. Importantly, regulations should ensure this working arrangement remains a choice made jointly by employers and employees. Dialogue among social partners will be crucial to achieving these goals.

References

Adams-Prassl, A, T Boneva, M Golin and C Rauh (2020), “Working from home: The polarising workplace”, VoxEU.org, 02 September.

Adrjan, P, G Ciminelli, A Judes, M Koelle, C Schwellnus and T Sinclar, (2021), "Will it stay or will it go? Analysing developments in telework during COVID-19 using online job postings data", OECD Productivity Working Papers No. 30.  

Andrews, D, C Criscuolo and P Gal (2017), “The best vs the rest: The global productivity slowdown hides and increasing performance gap across firms”, VoxEU.org, 27 March.

Barrero, J, M, N Bloom and S Davis (2020), “60 million fewer commuting hours per day: How Americans use time saved by working from home”, VoxEU.org, 23 September.

Barrero, J, M, N Bloom and S Davis (2021a), “Let me work from home, or I will find another job”, VoxEU.org, 27 July.

Barrero, J, M, N Bloom and S Davis (2021b), “Why Working from Home will Stick”, CEP Discussion Paper No. 1790.

Bloom, N, P Mizen and S Taneja (2021), “Returning to the office will be hard”, VoxEU.org, 15 June.

Criscuolo, C, P Gal, T Leidecker, F Losma and G Nicoletti (2021), “The Role of Telework for Productivity during and post-COVID-19: Results from an OECD Survey among Managers and Workers”, OECD Productivity Working Paper No. 31.

Criscuolo, C, P Gal, T Leidecker, and G Nicoletti (2021), "The human side of productivity: Uncovering the role of skills and diversity for firm productivity", OECD Productivity Working Papers No. 29.

Davis, M, A Ghent and J Gregory (2021), “The work-from-home technology boon”, VoxEU.org, 18 April.

Dingel, J and B Neiman (2020), “How many jobs can be done at home?”, Journal of Public Economics 189: 104235. 

OECD (2020), “Productivity Gains from Teleworking in the Post COVID-19 Era: How can Public Policies Make It Happen?”, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19).

OECD (2021), Strengthening Economic Resilience Following the COVID-19 Crisis: A Firm and Industry Perspective, OECD Publishing.

Taneja, S, P Mizen and N Bloom (2021), “Working from home is revolutionising the UK labour market”, VoxEU.org, 15 March.

Endnotes

1 We have updated the data since the release of the working paper in December 2021.

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Topics:  Covid-19 Labour markets Productivity and Innovation

Tags:  teleworking, remote working, telecommuting, COVID-19, productivity, wellbeing

Head of EMEA Research, Indeed

Economist, OECD Economics Department

Head of the Productivity and Business Dynamics Division in the Science Technology and Innovation Directorate at the OECD

Senior Economist and Project Manager of the Global Forum on Productivity, OECD

Economist, Indeed Hiring Lab

Head of Structural Policy Analysis, OECD Economics Department.

Economist, OECD

Economist, OECD Economics Department

Consultant, OECD Global Forum on Productivity

Deputy Head of Division and Head of the Labour Market Workstream, OECD Economics Department

Professor of Economics and International Affairs, the George Washington University; Senior Fellow, Indeed Hiring Lab

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