On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, guest Liz Farmer, a fellow at the Future of Labor Research Center, discusses how work-from-home arrangements put in place as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to increase work-from-home trends and alter business operations.


Liz Farmer, Fellow, Future of the Labor Research Center, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Alexander Morse 00:02

    Stay-at-home orders means that many of us are working from home for the first time. Although it’s not new for everyone. What was a growing trend is likely to accelerate because of the coronavirus. What does that mean for employers and employees? And how will different industries be affected? This is Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. Our guest today is Liz Farmer, fellow for the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center and former contributor to Governing Magazine, to discuss the trends in work-from-home numbers, the challenges, including technological and geographic disparities, and what changes may be on the horizon. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 01:04

    Hey Liz, thanks for joining me today.

    Liz Farmer 01:05

    Thanks for having me.

    Alexander Morse 01:07

    I’m glad you’re on because I want to talk about a piece you wrote for the Rockefeller Institute on how the coronavirus will likely lead to an increase in work from home. My understanding is you’ve been working home for a while now, so this isn’t a totally new experience for you.

    Liz Farmer 01:21

    Right, it’s not. The idea of working from home isn’t new, although I will say working from home with a six year old, definitely new.

    Alexander Morse 01:28

    I’m sure that’s a challenge. I know, I’ve got family who are in the same predicament. But maybe you’ll have some tips for us at the end of the podcast to improve our work-from-home experience.

    Liz Farmer 01:39

    I would be happy to impart whatever I can.

    Alexander Morse 01:41

    So moving on to what’s going on in the United States. We will be hearing this term a lot over the next few months, probably years, we’re in the midst of a natural experiment because of coronavirus. Meaning the disruption caused by the virus gives us a chance to observe things we might not have been able to otherwise. To get a baseline, what were the work-from-home trends before coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders.

    Liz Farmer 02:08

    Before the coronavirus drastically changed the way we live and work, the portion of the workforce that worked entirely from home or not in an office was a small but steadily growing part of the workforce. In 2018, which is the latest figure from which we have census data, about 5.3 percent of the workforce or 8.2 million workers worked 100 percent of the time at home. This is based on a particular question in the American Community Survey data that represents an almost 50 percent growth since 2005. A lot of it is attributed to better technology. People are actually able to work from home. Email is a lot more prevalent. We’re not relying on fax machines, for example, anymore. Things are more digital and, therefore, we can pick it up and take it wherever we’re going. When you add in the people who telework, which is you may work from home one day a week, one day a month. All of that counts. Its teleworkers. If you sometimes work from home, then the number shoots up to 13 million. That’s about, again, one and a half times the number I gave you before. A little less than 8 percent of the workforce that works from home and/or teleworks.

    Alexander Morse 03:32

    That’s a pretty significant chunk of people that are working from home. But as your piece alluded to, these numbers are surely going to increase. What kind of estimates are we looking at after the coronavirus subsides?

    Liz Farmer 03:45

    I would be shocked if the numbers didn’t increase from that. It’s really hard to make predictions about well, it’s going to be X percent or X number of millions of people. But if you look at some of the survey data and anecdotal observations that are coming out now, I mean, everything points to the fact that these numbers are going to increase and why wouldn’t they? One of the things that I was struck by before all this was a survey that came out from a human resources firm called Robert Half. They did a bunch of employee and employer questions on remote work and why do you do it? Why don’t you do it? One of the things that struck me about that was employers are increasingly allowing people to telecommute. But even among those who have the choice, one-in-four workers don’t take it. The main reasons are they think they don’t have the technological capabilities to do so and they’re afraid that their productivity will go down. On the employer end, those employers that don’t allow telecommuting, same reasons. Technology and productivity are the two biggest reasons. So right now, we have people being forced to set those fears aside and just try and get their job done anyway. So what I would imagine is that people in some places and employers and employees may realize those fears are unfounded or that there are some things they like about working from home, so they may opt to do it more often.

    Alexander Morse 05:19

    You mentioned changes to how employers are going to be looking at the workforce and it’s also how employees are going to be looking at their job. I want to get to that in just a bit. But before we do, we also talked about that there was this distinction between full-time and part-time employees. But there’s another distinction. There’s people who work in the knowledge economy and they have a significant advantage over those in the service or industrial economy. That can lead to other disparate issues, especially with closed schools and kids at home. Like you had said, what kind of problems are we looking at in that respect?

    Liz Farmer 05:54

    Remote work is a possibility for a large number of people. But those people are primarily knowledge workers, which are people who do most of their job at a desk or over the phone that their work can be translated and transmitted digitally. Their skill is in what they come up with and what they produce on paper, as it were. Obviously, a huge portion of the economy is in jobs like hospitality, tourism, services, any number of things, delivery services, things that where you have to clock in, you have to show up, you have to physically be there. Teachers are another great example. As you mentioned, a lot of places, a lot of educational institutions, K-12 and college, have abruptly shifted to trying to do this remotely. The pros of that are that education is continuing to some degree. There’s a lot of cons though, especially when you get into younger ages. What this is showing us is two main things. One, that there’s a huge portion of the economy, the building blocks of our economy, where you can’t do your job remotely, you have to show up. Those people are extremely disadvantaged right now, as evidenced by the record unemployment, we had 20 something million people. The other portion of that is internet access. We have huge gaps in Internet access across the country. It’s largely urban and rural. But even within urban communities, it’s an economic divide. If you are low-income, it’s less likely that you have high speed internet or maybe even no internet at all, if you can’t afford it to be able to access your kids in educational assignments or anything like that. There’s a couple of huge divides that this remote work/remote experience we’re having right now is really putting the spotlight on.

    Liz Farmer 06:49

    Are you aware of any initiatives to help address those disparities?

    Liz Farmer 08:06

    I’ve been doing some reading about broadband funding and there is a federally-funded rural broadband initiative that had a bunch of money put into it earlier this year. As I recall, there is also some money for broadband in the Cares Act that was just passed in Congress. It’s obviously not going to be enough. I mean, the problem with our digital divide is we are pretty well expanded to where fibers are going to go. The reason it’s not in some of these rural areas is because it costs so much to get the wire to per house because the houses are more spread out. Or maybe the geography just doesn’t make it work. I don’t think the federal bill right now is going to help address what is that larger need. At the state level, there are some efforts to help businesses expand their remote capabilities. Maryland has a $7 million fund for businesses, where they can take out low-interest loans to just do anything that they need to do to keep operating right now. A large part of that is going to be getting employees up online.

    Alexander Morse 09:20

    We talked before about how certain jobs or certain employers are going to be changing things and we were looking at other industries that could possibly change. First thing that come to my mind are cloud-based software, such as Zoom. Everyone’s on video conference right now. One that’s at risk would be commercial real estate, right? I mean, these buildings that house a thousand people, they’re not housing anyone right now. They’re going to find out that all these overhead costs aren’t necessary.

    Liz Farmer 09:49


    Alexander Morse 09:49

    What other industries might change?

    Liz Farmer 09:53

    Commercial real estate is the one that comes up over and over and over again, and really nobody can or is going to accurately predict what might happen. I think that’s really a case-by-case basis depending on who’s running the show at the company. There are a couple of things I’ll just point out. There is this thing called the global workforce telework savings calculator. It’s done by one of the many companies that looks at remote work and tries to help companies facilitate that. But they do use census data in their findings. When you do this little calculator, they estimate that when you put a portion of your workforce fully remotely or part-time remotely, they estimate a savings of about 25 percent on office space. That is based on the idea that you are going to be paying for infrastructure, in some ways, setting up employees, maybe you have quarterly meetings. I mean, there still are going to be real estate costs. That’s one kind of piece of information that we might look back on later when we’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen to real estate. Another piece of information is, again, this is more anecdotal than really scientific, but there’s this survey from a human resources firm called Gartner Inc. They asked 317 business CFOs about what their remote work plans were after we all return to normal. Three quarters of them said that they plan to offload at least 5 percent of their employees to fully remote. The one that held the most meat, seemed immediate to me, was a quarter of the CFOs, less than a hundred, said that they were going to put 20 percent of their employees to fully remote. Again, anecdotal, not scientific, but it gives you a glimpse of what companies are looking at in the future. We can’t say, really how much in real estate that they’re going to save. But it really should sound off alarm bells for, like you mentioned, those big, huge office buildings with just a sea of desks in front of you. I think that that sort of model, companies are going to find that fewer workers need to come in all five days a week. Why shouldn’t you save some money by downsizing? That has ripple effects on public transportation, in terms of ridership. That has ripple effects on, in a good way potentially, on the environment in terms of lowering carbon footprints. Thinking about the healthcare industry right now. I know me being one of these people, I have done a teledoc appointment for the very first time. I had the option to do it before, but I was like, “No, that’s weird. I’m not going to do it.” But now, every place is doing teladoc. Things like that, you’re going to see, just people haven’t done stuff just because it’s weird, it’s new, it’s different. But now we’re being forced to do it and we might keep that post-COVID crisis.

    Alexander Morse 13:11

    So basically, like everything else in life right now, we know things are going to change. We just don’t know to what extent.

    Liz Farmer 13:18

    Bingo. Sorry, I can’t be more helpful.

    Alexander Morse 13:23

    No, no. This is what we need to know. Knowing what you don’t know, is half the battle.

    Liz Farmer 13:28

    I mean, I certainly think if you’re a public transportation planner, if you work in the real estate industry, really every industry we possibly can think of as being affected like this from food service, especially delivery. I mean, I could go on and on. But the point is, as you mentioned at the beginning, we are in the middle of this very large, very forced experiment. Whatever industry people are in, there’s tons of data to collect right now. Then how you’re able to use that afterwards is going to be, I think, subjective depending on each business, each sector. A lot of that depends. But I think right now, it’s important to know that we are getting some really, really good information in certain ways. I don’t mean to gloss over the rest of what’s going on right now. But in terms of remote work and being experimental, there’s a lot of interesting things right now that I hope people are keeping track of.

    Alexander Morse 14:21

    You’re right. I mean, this is all going to be really valuable data that is going to inform our decision-making and our policies for years. With that said, let’s go back to tips to help us work from home. What are some steps that we can take to help improve our work from home experience?

    Liz Farmer 14:42

    I would say the most important first step for anyone is to figure out where can they really get the value out of having a quiet space. I’m assuming it’s a quiet space to work and to concentrate because that’s why you want to be at home. I say all that with a very strong knowledge that is not always possible for some people right now because this little situation that a lot of us are in right now is not a normal work-from-home experience, if you have someone at home that you’re caring for. We’re all under stress, we’re all just feeling a lot of things that we don’t normally feel. Everything I’m saying is with the asterisk of in a normal world not in this form. But the other important thing, and this does apply no matter what world you’re living in, is having a separate space for your work stuff. My computer, for the most part, lives in one part of the house. It’s on the dining room table, we also eat there, but it stays there, all folded up, and that’s my workspace and it doesn’t move except on special occasions. I think really having a physical space and then a mental space, I don’t check my work email at night or I really try not to unless I’ve had something going on that day where I feel like I haven’t been able to. Being able to compartmentalize is, it’s a skill and once you require it, it makes working from home a much more efficient process. Then you get to do the fun things like whatever it is you like doing going in the garden, taking the dog for a walk. I mean, there are so many benefits to the time saved that you get from working at home that you can use to fulfill your life in so many more meaningful ways.

    Alexander Morse 16:28

    I’d like to thank Liz once again for sharing with us the insights into the growing trend of working from home and how coronavirus will likely accelerate that trend. Liz’s piece, aptly titled Coronavirus, Likely to Lead to Permanent Growth in Work-From-Home Ranks can be found on our website at rockinst.org. Next week, we’ll have returning guest Dr. Leigh Wedenoja to talk about the impact coronavirus is having on education and what policies can help students and families stay on track. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Liz Farmer 17:07

    What is kind of interesting about this now is there’s so many things that’s being thrown up online that we can do now that were not available before. We can learn a new instrument. I mean, you can learn any language before but I think especially even now because we’re all under such weird, extreme stressful circumstances that taking time for that personal outlet and self-care is even more important now than it’s ever been.

    Alexander Morse 17:51

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm at the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question or comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.