Remote Work Has Made Americans More Productive
Telecommuting allows caregivers to manage a workload that is, if anything, way too big. Carolyn Vigil has spent most of her career in Big Tech. She is also the primary caregiver for her 23-year-old autistic son, Jax. Managing these two roles has never been easy, and at various times over the years, Vigil has had to step back from her job for the sake of her kid. It is somewhat remarkable that when schools shut down during the pandemic and Vigil became not only her sons carer but also his teacher, she didnt quit her job. That was definitely challenging, she told me, but because she was working from home, I was able to juggle it. Shes continued working remotely ever since, largely because her son is no longer in school and, though he is semi-independent, he still needs help managing his daily tasks: taking his medications, managing his diet and exercise, and traveling to doctor appointments. So Vigil was distressed when, earlier this year, her company announced that it was calling workers back to the office. Predicting the future of remote work is hard. On one hand, many American workers really like it and want to be working remotely even more than they are now (though, of course, many workers have never had the option to work from home). And while the amount of work in the U.S. being done remotely is down from its pandemic high, its been holding steady near 28 percent for about a year now. In a tight labor market, many employers opted to embrace at least some remote work to help with recruitment and retention. On the other hand, many employers are getting more vocal about their desire to have employees in the office more often . Vigils company is one of many including Apple, Disney, AT&T , JPMorgan Chase, Dell , Meta , Comcast , Goldman Sachs , FedEx , Walmart , and BlackRock that have walked back their remote-work policies this year. In August , the White House ordered Cabinet members to aggressively prioritize a shift back to the office this fall so that all of us will benefit from the increases in morale, teamwork, and productivity that come from in-person work. Even Zoom, the company whose video-calling tech facilitates so much remote work, is requiring many of its workers to return to the office part-time on the grounds that the company sees in-person work as more effective. Read: Why managers fear a remote-work future The shift seems to reflect a concern long voiced by executives and managers and backed up by some recent research: that remote work is hampering productivity. One study found that data-entry workers who worked remotely in India were 18 percent less productive than their in-office counterparts . Another working paper published in July found that fully remote workers were about 10 percent less productive than their in-person counterparts (though hybrid work seemed to have no significant effect on productivity). The appeal of remote work is all too often glossed over as a matter of quality of life or work-life balance. Those are, of course, important. But that framing also ignores the uncompensated caregiving that Vigil and millions of others provide for Americas young, sick, elderly, and disabled. Their efforts are not just a quality-of-life issue; theyre an enormously important and overlooked part of our economy. For a lot of caregivers, telecommuting allows them to manage a workload that is, if anything, way too big. Remote work, then, isnt just a question of work-life balance; its a question of work-work balance. The traditional conception of productivity doesnt account for this. For years, feminist economists have complained that the primary methods by which we measure the size and health of the economy leave a whole lot out. GDP, for example, primarily measures goods and services bought and sold in the market economy, excluding those produced by households. Our entire economy hinges on human labor, but the unpaid work that goes into raising a productive laborer is absent from economic indicators. When someone like Vigil leaves their job to care for a family member full-time, they are considered economically inactive. Apart from the money parents and taxpayers spend on childrens care and education, human capital just sort of pops up in the national accounts as a fully grown, hard-working citizen, Julie P. Smith, an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University who has written extensively on this topic, told me. All of this makes for a distorted picture of the economy. Because household production counts for nothing in national accounts, the bump in GDP that results when production shifts into the formal market, such as when a stay-at-home mother enrolls her child in day care and starts a full-time job, is exaggerated . We witnessed the reverse of this during the pandemicone recent report found that when you account for unpaid household production, the drop in economic activity that occurred during the pandemic was much less severe. This makes sense; a lot of the work previously done by paid laborers didnt go awayit just shifted into the home. Instead of going out to a restaurant and eating a meal ... a family cooked their own meal in their home. And when they cook their own meal in their home, all of a sudden, they disappear from economic indicators, even though somebody still had to put in the work to, you know, cut the vegetables and cook the meat or fish or whatever it is, Misty Heggeness, a professor at the University of Kansas who is working on a dashboard aimed at quantifying the care economy, told me. That makes a difference to the restaurant business but not as much to the nations productivity as a whole. Heggeness thinks the lack of comprehensive data on this sort of work is part of why experts took so long to wrap their head around the so-called she-cession . Many assumed that the increased child care brought on by school closures would disproportionately oust mothers from the labor market. It wasnt until pretty late in the game that it became clear that risk had been overstated. Were not good at telling the comprehensive story of the economy, because we completely ignore all the economic activity that is done within homes, Heggeness said. Read: The pandemic exposed the inequality of American motherhood How we measureor mismeasurethe economy inevitably influences policy making. What we measure reflects what we value, and shapes what we do, Smith and her co-author, Nancy Folbre, wrote in a 2020 paper on the subject. The omission of so much domestic work from economic indicators makes policies that support caregiving look like bad investments. Both breastmilk and formula are suitable sources of nutrition for newbornsbut only the latter has any economic value as far as GDP is concerned. If an expansion of paid parental leave allowed more new mothers to breastfeed their kids more and rely on formula less, the economy would suffer as a result. A similar tipping of the scales seems to be playing out in the debate about remote work: The work that the practice is allegedly hampering is overshadowing the work that it enables. The most obvious benefit of remote work is that it saves people time commuting. Many American workers sink that extra time into their job others, and particularly those with kids under 14, devote some of it to caregiving. For Sarah White, who works full-time for a pharmaceutical company, the absence of a commute makes managing her sons complex medical needs far easier. If she worked in the office, each medical appointment would require multiple trips between home, school, the office, and the doctor. But because her sons school is three blocks from her home, midday appointments are pretty simple. I can pop in my car, take him to his appointment, pop him right back to school, White told me. And she uses slack time throughout her day in a productive manner. I can throw in laundry and just keep it going ... because its right next to my office, she said. Employers may not like to hear that employees are doing chores on the job, but working in an office doesnt eliminate downtimeit just restricts how you can use it. Without the option of loading the dishwasher in between meetings, you might chat with a co-worker or check social media. Research backs this up: A survey of workers from June found that those working from home were more likely than their office counterparts to run a personal errand, care for a child, or do chores during the workdaybut slightly less likely to play a phone or computer game or read for leisure. A subtler point is that when it comes to caregiving, just being nearby is valuable, not because someone needs you at every second but because at any second they might . This is an aspect of caregiving that is all too easy to overlook until something goes wrong. Vigils area has seen a string of big storms lately, and she happened to be in the office during a downpour that caused a tree limb to fall in her yard. At home alone, her son panicked. Working from home enables her to ensure that hes okayboth emotionally and physicallyduring those sorts of unpredictable events. Read: The remote work-fertility connection If you account for all of the caring that remote work has made possible, it amounts to an increase in productivity with positive implications for the economy. Compelling evidence suggests that remote work is allowing caregivers to remain employed; it may be why labor-force participation for women with kids under 5 has leapfrogged its pre-pandemic rate. It may also allow workers to do more caregiving. Lynn Abate-Johnson, who wrote a book about the six years she spent caring for her mother who had cancer, told me she could not have taken on such a large role in her mothers care if she hadnt been able to work remotely. If concerns about our aging population and declining fertility rate are to be believed, then remote work is exactly the kind of thing the United States ought to be embracing. Studies show the flexibility of remote work may be allowing people to have more kids . And even if telework alone cant raise the fertility rate, it would at least allow more workers to help care for the elderly. Of course, a rethinking of productivity to include care shouldnt end with embracing remote work. Many other policies, such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, child allowances or cash support for other unpaid caregivers, and predictable and flexible scheduling practices, could ensure that Americansespecially those who cant work from homecan care for the people in their lives. Even if that means Americans give a little less of their energy to their employers, the greater investment in the people who make up the nations economy is worth it. Vigil eventually managed to obtain a waiver from the return-to-office mandate, but she still goes in once a week or so. When she first read about it in the news, she was forced to consider what shed do if remaining in the office was her only option. I really came to the realization that I would probably retire early, Vigil told me. I wasnt really planning to do that yet, but I think its that big of a deal for me. The value of her role as a caregiver is obvious to her, if not to America.