The unequal nature of working from home

The fact that remote work ballooned during the pandemic is beyond doubt, but the availability of remote work has been far from equal.

This was evident during the pandemic, with front-line staff, many of whom are on modest incomes, largely confined to working on-site, even as their health was put at risk in the process. This was in stark contrast to the often highly-paid white-collar workers, who were able to work remotely throughout.

Not only were these workers protected from the health risks of the pandemic, but they also often saved time and money on commuting. Research from Stanford highlights the scale of the divide, with the option of working remotely predominantly available to higher-paid workers. What’s more, this divide is wider now than it was before the pandemic in 2019.

Unequal opportunities

The researchers analyzed 10,000 job ads to understand whether the opportunity provided fully remote work, hybrid, or fully on-site. They used this analysis to train a large language model to further analyze hundreds of millions of job postings over the past ten years. This allowed them to have a breakdown of remote working opportunities by a wide range of factors, including industry, occupation, and location over the past decade.

The starkest finding was that remote work was very rarely offered in roles paying around $30,000 per year, which qualifies as the bottom quartile of income. It became gradually more available as we moved up the earnings scale, with 30% of jobs paying over $200,000 a year offering remote work opportunities.

Related to this, the analysis also found that remote work was also rarely available to people with no more than a high school education. By contrast, 30% of those asking for post-graduate qualifications offered remote working, at least partially. These jobs are often heavily digital in nature, so can easily be performed remotely.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same divide exists in terms of experience, with just 3% of entry-level jobs offering remote work opportunities versus around 25% of jobs that require over seven years of experience. In some ways, this makes sense as entry-level workers require more training and mentoring to get up to speed and therefore benefit from more face-to-face contact with more experienced peers. Still, the divide is significant.

This is especially so when one considers that evidence from COVID found that wealthier workers tend to have home environments that are more conducive to remote work, with bigger properties and more dedicated workspaces to operate from.

A fairer world

So given the apparent inequity in the supply of remote work, what can managers and organizations do? The first step is to understand that it’s an issue in the first place.

In today's working world, bosses need to get real about the split between those working from home and those who aren't. It's a legitimate concern, and it's happening in workplaces across the world.

Next up, managers should match their work setups with their frontline teams. This move helps sidestep any fairness complaints in the group. Lots of companies are already doing this. For instance, researchers found that managers in hands-on jobs like retail or food service have fewer work-from-home days than those in finance or tech. That's because having on-site managers works well for on-site teams.

The next step is to examine the flexible work options for workers who need to be on-site. Shifting from a classic five-day week to a four-day one, with each day going a bit longer, can slash weekly commute time by 20%. This way, frontline workers get some of the time savings that white-collar workers got when they shifted to more remote work.

Lastly, it's worth thinking about pay adjustments to even out the perks of remote work. Most workers see the option to work from home a few days a week as a cool job perk, even if it means slower pay growth for a bit. For those who can't work from home, a one-time pay boost might be fair.

Stats from millions of job ads and surveys strongly show a new gap in remote work opportunities caused by the pandemic. This gap hits different groups of workers based on their pay, education, and experience. It's a fresh issue, but since remote work is here to stay in many jobs, business leaders need to face it and deal with the fallout.