Now, well into the pandemic, the limitations and the benefits of remote work are clearer. Although many people are returning to the workplace as economies reopen—the majority could not work remotely at all—executives have indicated in surveys that hybrid models of remote work for some employees are here to stay. The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.
Now that vaccines are awaiting approval, the question looms: To what extent will remote work persist? In this article, we assess the possibility for various work activities to be performed remotely. Building on the McKinsey Global Institute’s body of work on automation, AI, and the future of work, we extend our models to consider where work is performed.1 Our analysis finds that the potential for remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies.
More than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. If remote work took hold at that level, that would mean three to four times as many people working from home than before the pandemic and would have a profound impact on urban economies, transportation, and consumer spending, among other things.
The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.
More than half the workforce, however, has little or no opportunity for remote work. Some of their jobs require collaborating with others or using specialized machinery; other jobs, such as conducting CT scans, must be done on location; and some, such as making deliveries, are performed while out and about. Many of such jobs are low wage and more at risk from broad trends such as automation and digitization. Remote work thus risks accentuating inequalities at a social level.
The potential for remote work is determined by tasks and activities, not occupations
Remote work raises a vast array of issues and challenges for employees and employers. Companies are pondering how best to deliver coaching remotely and how to configure workspaces to enhance employee safety, among a host of other thorny questions raised by COVID-19. For their part, employees are struggling to find the best home-work balance and equip themselves for working and collaborating remotely.
In this article, however, we aim to granularly define the activities and occupations that can be done from home to better understand the future staying power of remote work. We have analyzed the potential for remote work—or work that doesn’t require interpersonal interaction or a physical presence at a specific worksite—in a range of countries, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We used MGI’s workforce model based on the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) to analyze more than 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations and identify which activities and occupations have the greatest potential for remote work.
The potential for remote work depends on the mix of activities undertaken in each occupation and on their physical, spatial, and interpersonal context. We first assessed the theoretical extent to which an activity can be done remotely. This depends on whether a worker needs to be physically present on-site to do a task, interact with others, or use location-specific machinery or equipment.
Many physical or manual activities, as well as those that require use of fixed equipment, cannot be done remotely. These include providing care, operating machinery, using lab equipment, and processing customer transactions in stores. In contrast, activities such as information gathering and processing, communicating with others, teaching and counseling, and coding data can theoretically be done remotely.
Additionally, employers have found during the pandemic that although some tasks can be done remotely in a crisis, they are much more effectively done in person. These activities include coaching, counseling, and providing advice and feedback; building customer and colleague relationships; bringing new employees into a company; negotiating and making critical decisions; teaching and training; and work that benefits from collaboration, such as innovation, problem-solving, and creativity. If onboarding were to be done remotely, for instance, it would require significant rethinking of the activity to produce outcomes similar to those achieved in person.
For instance, while teaching has moved to remote work during the pandemic, parents and teachers alike say that quality has suffered. Similarly, courtrooms have functioned remotely but are unlikely to remain online going forward out of concern for legal rights and equity—some defendants lack adequate connectivity and lawyers, and judges worry about missing nonverbal cues in video conferences.
So we have devised two metrics for remote work potential: the maximum potential, including all activities that theoretically can be performed remotely, and a lower bound for the effective potential for remote work, which excludes activities that have a clear benefit from being done in person (Exhibit 1).
To determine the overall potential for remote work for jobs and sectors, we use the time spent on different activities within occupations. We find that remote work potential is concentrated in a few sectors. Finance and insurance has the highest potential, with three-quarters of time spent on activities that can be done remotely without a loss of productivity. Management, business services, and information technology have the next highest potential, all with more than half of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely (Exhibit 2). These sectors are characterized by a high share of workers with college degrees or higher.
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