How Many Americans Work Remotely? A Survey of Surveys and Their Measurement Issues
Remote work surged during the Covid pandemic but there is disagreement about the extent of the change. To address this question, we field a new, nationally-representative survey: the Remote Life Survey (RLS). We find that in October 2020, 31.6 percent of the continuously employed workforce always worked from home (WFH) and 21.9 percent sometimes or rarely WFH, totaling 53.5 percent. We compare our results with alternative measurement approaches, with a focus on government surveys and provide estimates on the impact of four factors: (a) differences among mail versus web-based survey respondents, (b) differences in the inclusion of self-employed workers, (c) the industry mix of the sample, and (d) the exclusion of people who were already remote pre-pandemic. We find that the last explanation (d) explains the bulk of the difference in estimates between the Current Population Survey (CPS) and other measures of remote work. Policymakers and researchers who turn to the BLS-CPS data series for an estimate of remote work prevalence in the American economy should note that it might be underestimating WFH levels by up to 25 percentage points. Under our preferred estimates, we find that about half of the U.S. workforce worked remotely at least one day each week as of December 2020.
We would like to thank the Stanford Digital Economy Lab and Smith Richardson Foundation for generous funding and Anthony David Weng for providing excellent research assistance. We would also like to thank Nick Bloom, Jose Maria Barrero, Raj Choudhury, Steven Davis, Natalia Emanuel, and Emma Harrington for organizing the inaugural Conference on Remote Work Economics and to the attendees of the conference for providing valuable comments on our work. The views in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of any affiliated institutions, nor of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
John J. Horton
John Horton consults for Upwork for both cash and equity compensation. Upwork is an online labor market that could benefit from a shift to remote work. This work was not funding by Upwork.Christos Makridis
Christos A. Makridis also serves on the National Artificial Intelligence Institute at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The views here do not represent the affiliated institutions or the United States.