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Reviewing Remote Work in the U.S. Under COVID-19

Reviewing Remote Work in the U.S. Under COVID-19

by Adam Hickman and Lydia Saad

Story Highlights

  • Nearly seven in 10 employees still working remotely all or part of the time
  • One in four remote workers want to return to workplace once restrictions are lifted
  • Half cite preference for working at home as a reason not to return

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This Memorial Day weekend marks an inflection point for the country, as all 50 states have now at least partially reopened their economies. While many businesses will operate at a limited capacity, it's a first step toward bringing workers back to the office who have been logging in from home for months.

The magnitude of putting the remote work genie back in the bottle is evident in Gallup Panel data on the proportion of employees working remotely throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and the reluctance of these workers to return to their regular workplace.

The Scope of Remote Work

The U.S. outbreak of the novel coronavirus in March caused a rapid relocation of the American workforce to home offices -- or more likely to living rooms, dining room tables and kitchen counters.

According to Gallup Panel data, the percentage of employed adults saying they had worked from home specifically out of concern about the coronavirus rose from 31% in mid-March to 49% a few days later, and to 59% the week after that. Remote work leveled off at 62% in mid-April.

Line graph. Trend from mid-March to late April in percentage of U.S. workers reporting they have worked from home due to concerns about the coronavirus. The percentage has increased from 31% in mid-March to 62% throughout mid-April.

In late April, Gallup shifted to a more specific question about remote work -- asking employed adults whether, in order to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus, they were "always, sometimes or never" working remotely. In the first two weeks of measurement, a combined 70% of workers, on average, said they were always (52%) or sometimes (18%) working remotely. Another 31% reported never working remotely.

Most recently, the combined percentage of always (48%) or sometimes (20%) working remotely has dipped only slightly, to 68%.

The latest results are based on May 11-17 interviewing among members of Gallup's probability-based online panel.

When Businesses Reopen, Will Workers Return?

With such a large share of the U.S. workforce converting to remote work, the question is what happens next as businesses incrementally reopen and start inviting (or, in some cases, requiring) workers to return. The answer may partly depend on workers' willingness to return to the office.

Gallup recently asked remote workers about their preferences for getting back to the office once restrictions on businesses and schools are lifted:

  • About a quarter of remote workers (26%) say that if it were up to them, they would return to their office or workplace once businesses and schools reopen.
  • Another quarter (25%) say they would rather work from home because of concerns about the coronavirus -- however, presumably once that concern subsides, they would rather return to their regular workplace.
  • The other half of remote workers say that if it were up to them, they would continue to work from home because they prefer it. This includes 22% for whom that's the only reason and another 27% who cite concerns about the coronavirus in addition to personal preference.

Bottom Line

It's been two months since a majority of U.S. employees told Gallup they were working from home due to the coronavirus, a seismic shift in how Americans typically experience employment. Now that some of these employees may be able to return to their workplace, it appears only a quarter are emotionally ready. Another quarter are reluctant to return specifically because of concerns about contracting COVID-19, while half have a personal preference for working remotely.

What it will take to assuage fretful workers' concerns remains to be seen -- but, according to Gallup research, quarantining those who have COVID-19, having improved medical therapies and seeing a significant drop in new infections could all be critical to their comfort level.

Half of workers say they want to continue working at home because they prefer it, whether or not they also have concerns about the coronavirus. While some of these workers may reluctantly head back to their workplace, others may decide to look for new jobs that allow them to maintain the remote work lifestyle they've grown accustomed to.

Of course, should infections spike as Americans recirculate and should businesses be forced to re-shutter, the issue of returning to work may be moot for another extended period of time. As of now, it looks like most remote workers would be OK with that.

Learn more about how the Gallup Panel works.

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