Only 37 percent of US jobs can be done at home

Michael Maiello | Apr 24, 2020

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COVID-19 quarantines and social-distancing requirements have forced millions of Americans to work from their homes, straining both technology and family relationships.  Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, just over 5 percent of Americans worked out of their homes, according to US Census data. 

These arrangements could become cornerstone to business and economic continuity plans. And yet, how many jobs can actually be done from home? According to Chicago Booth’s Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, the figure is 37 percent, which they see as the upper bound for the share of jobs that can plausibly be done entirely from home.  

Dingel and Neiman examined survey data from O*NET, a database of occupation-specific facts covering more than 1,000 jobs in the US economy, sponsored by the Department of Labor.

Some industries are more suited to at-home work than others

Dingel and Neiman, 2020

Citing the 2018 American Time Use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dingel and Neiman write that only about a quarter of full-time workers utilize the flexibility to perform their jobs from home on a typical day, and even they spend less than half their hours away from their primary workplace.

Opportunities for at-home work vary greatly by region. Larger metropolitan areas, including the two regions that make up the San Francisco Bay Area, offer more at-home possibilities and higher wages for remote workers. But the majority of jobs in regions dominated by agriculture, hotels, restaurants, and retailers have to be performed on-site and generally offer lower wages.

The findings will be useful for policy makers as they aim to direct unemployment insurance and other financial-stabilization payments to workers who cannot be expected to perform their jobs while living under shelter-in-place orders, the researchers suggest.  

The findings also have some potential to help economists forecast regional and national resiliency in cases of pandemics or disasters that force workers to stay in their homes. The researchers applied their methodology to more than 80 economies. They find significant differences, including that the share of jobs capable of being done at home is far lower in poorer countries.

Dingel and Neiman warn that policy makers will need better data about productivity for at-home workers before translating their statistic into a prediction about overall economic performance. It may be that workers are more productive at home if their jobs require minimal collaboration and freedom from distraction, but, they write, “it is not straightforward to use these values to estimate the share of output that would be produced under stringent stay-at-home policies.”