Only a Quarter of Office Crowd Now Working From Home
(Bloomberg) -- In July, roughly 25% of managers and professional workers teleworked at some point because of the pandemic, the lowest since the government started tracking the data in May 2020. It’s a clear sign that the age-old work compact is mostly intact, and that the office model is far from defunct.
The July number is down from 41% in January and 57% in May of last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tallies the number of employed who teleworked or worked at home for pay at any time in the month because of the novel coronavirus.
For the overall workforce, WFH has dropped to around 13%, also the lowest since May 2020.
The latest figures may surprise you. Surely, you insist, it must be much higher. But the BLS works with hard numbers, and the numbers show that in July, 15.8 million of the 64.2 million people in the category encompassing managers and professionals worked at least one day from their abode.
Granted, the July statistics may not fully capture the explosion of the delta variant and the decision by some companies to delay return-to-office plans. Workers who went to the office in 10 of the largest U.S. business districts fell in the week ended Aug. 4, according to data from Kastle Systems, a firm that provides security to more than 2,000 buildings and 5,800 businesses in the 10 metro areas.
The breakdown of the data is telling. About half of all those in “computer and mathematical” occupations worked from home; 37.9% of all those in business and finance worked from home; and almost 37% of all those in law worked from home. No other categories come close.
So if you’re a programmer, a banker, or a lawyer, it may seem to you like everyone is working from home, even though it’s fewer than half, and of course, some of these may be working from home a day or two a week, not every day; the BLS isn’t specific on this point.
And it’s important to keep in mind that the finance and legal professions aren’t “everybody.” Finance accounts for around 6% of the working population, and the law around 1.2%. Those in computing and mathematics account for another 4%.
The largest single group working from home, according to the BLS, is managers, an omnibus group that includes everyone from chief executives to marketing and sales managers, funeral home managers and postmasters. Of the almost 19 million managers, 4.3 million worked from home in July, 22.5% of the total.
It’s fair to assume that when the boss announces that henceforth work will be done in the office, all those for whom the financial imperative dictates daily behavior will go to the office. This is good news for cities with high concentrations of bankers and lawyers.
That WFH is popular, there can be no doubt. But I don’t think this popularity represents a fundamental shift in “the model” or “the meaning of work.” The basic compact is the same now as it has always been. You dress up in relatively restrictive garments and go to a place called the office, where you do things you may potentially find unpleasant. In exchange, your employer hands you money. As you get older and work your way up the ladder, or master the business at hand, the number of unpleasant things you have to do lessens.
Of course, if you’re lucky, you love what you do and you’re good at it, and the unpleasant parts of the job are never so unpleasant.
This is the compact, and I don’t think it’s going to be rewritten by the pandemic. If there has been a rebellion against RTO, I think we can ascribe it chiefly to commuting. The more soul-killing your commute, the more you want to WFH. Companies seem to be granting flexibility, but if you want to WFH on a permanent basis, maybe you should get a job closer to where you live.
The city office model isn’t “broken,” and doesn’t need to be fixed or even re-imagined. It will probably take a couple of years for this WFH/RTO situation to stabilize, and it might even include some very limited flexibility in location. But if cities can’t handle 5% or 8% of employees WFH a day or so a week, they’re a lot less resilient than we’ve been giving them credit for.
(Joe Mysak is a municipal market columnist who writes for Bloomberg. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg LP and its owner, and his observations are not intended as investment advice.)
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