Telework Update: August 2021

By Lyndsey Stram, Regional Economist

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020, many of us were thrust into the world of telework. While many employers have experimented with telework in recent years, a global pandemic led to the largest scale adoption of this type of work. While there are benefits for both employers and employees, there are challenges as well.

One challenge is data collection. In order to get a grasp of what effects this had on the working population, the Bureau of Labor Statistics added teleworking questions to its monthly household survey of workers beginning in May 2020. Teleworking profiling remains on the household survey and this national data is available through July 2021.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

In May 2020, when COVID-19 closed portions of the economy, 35% of all workers ages 16 and older were working for pay at home. Though no previous data was available, we can confidently say that the level of telework was lower prior to April 2020. The rate of telework has come down since, and as of July 2021, 13% of workers 16 and older are working from home. There was also larger variation in the amounts of teleworking between age and gender last spring. Now all groups are between 10% and 15% teleworking. Though the age and gender group variations have shrunk, education levels remain a strong indicator in who is engaged in telework, as seen below.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

Of the surveyed groups, the largest variation in the percentage of telework was between the education levels. Those with bachelor’s and advanced degrees work from home, even now, at much higher levels. In May 2020, nearly 70% of those with advanced degrees were working from home while over 50% of those with bachelor’s degrees engaged in telework. The level of telework was, and remains, much lower for high school graduates and those with some college experience and associate degrees, generally because of the nature of their work. Technical positions, healthcare, customer service, etc. need more than a computer and internet access to complete their work.

As of July 2021, 30% of those with advanced degrees continue to work from home while just over 20% of those with bachelor’s degrees telework. Only time will tell whether this is a foundational shift or a hesitance to return to the office too quickly amid a lingering global pandemic. Another indicator that shows the shift to telework in recent months is job postings, as shown below.

Source: Burning Glass, Aug 2021

The above figure is the number of statewide job postings advertising telework since January 2019. There has been a major uptick, beginning in March 2020 and continuing today, hinting that the acceptance of teleworking may be here to stay.

There are benefits and drawbacks of teleworking for both employees and their employers. Potential for less overhead, no commute, increased work-life balance, flexible scheduling, and ease of use of infrastructure are among the benefits, while less collaboration, loss of a sense of community, and fewer opportunities for learning from colleagues are among the disadvantages. Continued experimentation and adaptation will show whether this level of widespread telework is sustainable.