The coronavirus may force many Americans to work from home — but only a fraction can actually do that

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As the coronavirus spreads, companies are increasingly weighing if they should, or even can, have workers do their jobs from home.

Earlier this week, San Francisco-based Twitter TWTR, -1.73% told its employees to work from home to slow the coronavirus’ spread, echoing large-scale work-from-home efforts that are already happening in affected countries like China and Japan.

Even in a time of emails, internal message systems like Slack WORK, +6.43% and videoconferencing like Zoom ZM, +8.10%, federal data suggests it would be difficult, if not impossible, for many people to work from home on a wide scale — and that’s even if they do have a desk job.

Nearly 29% of U.S. workers said they could work from home in 2017-18 and a slightly smaller share, nearly 25%, said they actually did so, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. The BLS looked at all workers age 15 and above who were not self-employed.

These workers tended to have more education and be in administrative roles. Half of workers in management business and financial operations said they did at least some work at home, and 38% of workers in “professional related” jobs could do so, according to the agency’s count. By comparison, only 5% of workers in the service sector and 7.4% in maintenance and repair said they could work at home.

Higher earners were also much more likely to have the opportunity for remote work according to the agency. Eight percent of people making up to $630 weekly worked from home on any given day but 35% of workers making at least $1,531 worked from home.

The BLS numbers focused on workers who devoted some time to work at home but U.S. Census numbers say the share of people who exclusively work at home is much smaller — about 5.2% of all workers in 2017.

Differing consequences?

The prospect of coronavirus-caused remote work is another example of how the virus may have different consequences for different workers. For example low-wage and gig workers might have to leave their house, and possibly put themselves in harm’s way, because most have no paid sick leave.

There were 92,303 COVID-19 cases globally as of Tuesday including 106 confirmed cases in America.

Yana Rodgers an economist and Rutgers University serving as the faculty director for the school’s Center for Women and Work, pointed out that more women work in the service sector, healthcare and education. “These involve direct contact with people which cannot be done at home,” she said.

Rodgers noted women are more likely to do the unpaid care for family around the house. (BLS numbers back her up showing women typically spend twice the amount of time every day caring for family members compared to men.)

“If there’s a silver lining in this … it could be we have this shock to the system where it becomes a bit more normal for men to be contributing more equally to unpaid care work than they were before” Rodgers said.

It’s not so simple to say that people with desk jobs would uniformly fare better if the coronavirus outbreak spurs more remote work.

Ian James a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based business process consultant, works with office-based companies in the information processing sector handling tasks like mortgage application and medical billing. These are primarily desk jobs — and even still, James estimates less than half of companies’ employees could perform their jobs if they had to suddenly had to stay home during any further spread of the coronavirus.

Direct sales requires face time and management requires an in-person touch James noted. There can also be IT challenges in establishing a secure remote computing network, he added.

All his clients are weighing in varying levels of seriousness whether to use work-from-home policies he said. “They are making plans internally for how to cope, but there’s so much uncertainty on how hard this is going to strike. At the moment, a lot of companies are struggling to get to grips with the issues based on very little information,” James said.

The challenges of remote work

Many companies can accommodate part-time remote work temporarily but any long-term arrangements will be far more difficult, said Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Bloom studied a Chinese travel agency’s 2010 experiment letting some employees work from home four out of five days. That led to a 13% performance increase for the remote workers his research found.

But that study was conducted under different circumstances without the coronavirus looming. If workers need to do all their work from home for lengthy amounts of time, Bloom said, “the long run impact would be large — typically motivation, creativity and new ideas come from group involvement.” An extended period of more than one or two weeks of working from home could be damaging for economic growth, he said.

Older workers and those with families were usually happy to work from home according to Bloom’s research, but it was a tougher experience for young and single workers. “Full time working from home is very isolating, so we could potentially see a rise of mental health issues around depression if large number of employees are forced to work from home for extended periods, particularly single and younger employees,” he said.

Isolation could be a problem for some workers agreed Raj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor focused on the rise of the “geography of work” and the rise of the remote workplace. But it can be avoided with some planning and pairing with mentors who will check in, he said.

The coronavirus could be forcing a natural experiment across the globe on remote work Choudhury said. He’s previously studied the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to let patent examiners work from anywhere in the United States, instead of the Alexandria, Va. office. The widely-dispersed examiners had a 4.4% increase in output, Choudhury discovered.

Choudhury sees a desire for remote work elsewhere. He pointed to a February survey from the consulting firm Deloitte which found 82% of white-collar worker using flexible work options. That includes 41% who opted to work from home.

“Given the latent demand for” the ability to work from home Choudhury said remote work caused by the coronavirus “might be a game changer. …. Many companies will be forced to do this and will discover the benefit of this, both for the company and the worker.”

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