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Remote working may be a win-win for employers, employees and — even the economy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Nearly half of the American workforce is now working remotely at least one full day a week, and that is obviously a huge change from the way things were before the pandemic began. New research shows that many employees now consider remote work to be non-negotiable for their continued employment. And Planet Money reporter Greg Rosalsky has been looking into all of this. He's here now.

Hi, Greg.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: All right, Greg, so what does the research show about how employees are thinking about remote work right now?

ROSALSKY: So the first thing the research finds is kind of obvious. Workers, for the most part, love remote work. They don't have to commute or, like, shower. It tends to give them more flexibility. I spoke with this economist at Stanford University. His name is Nicholas Bloom. He and his team recently surveyed tens of thousands of workers from around the world, and they found that over a quarter of those currently working remotely will quit their jobs if their bosses force them back into the office full time.

SUMMERS: OK. I am perhaps not surprised that workers love this, but that is only half of the equation. There is also, of course, employers to consider. And clearly, a lot of companies out there are dealing with this big question of whether they should insist that workers return to the office. What data should they be looking at?

ROSALSKY: Well, obviously, they should consider that over a quarter of their workers might quit if they do that. But more than that, Bloom, the Stanford economist, recently ran this experiment with more than 1,600 employees at a tech firm called Trip.com. They randomly divided these employees into two groups. One group could work from home part time. The other had to be in the office full time. The researchers found the remote workers were actually more productive. The coders who could work remotely wrote 8% more lines of code than the coders forced to work in the office. The marketers in the finance types, meanwhile, they saw better qualitative assessments. Even more, the group that was allowed to work remotely had a 35% lower quit rate than those forced to work in the office.

SUMMERS: OK. And that, of course, is just one workplace in just one sector, the tech sector. But do the results here have any carryover to other industries?

ROSALSKY: I mean - not necessarily. I mean, the optimal work policy will vary according to the industry, the type of job, the need for in-person interaction or collaboration and so forth. But there's growing evidence that, generally speaking, allowing remote work has more benefits than cost, not just for employees, but for companies themselves.

SUMMERS: OK. So the research suggests that remote work is sort of a win win for both employers and employees. But what about the economy?

ROSALSKY: So there's this interesting effect that all of this is having on inflation, which obviously is something Americans are concerned about right now. Bloom did this other study recently. He and his colleagues surveyed over 500 American companies, and they found that almost 40% of them are using remote work as this tool to keep workers happy and lower their company's labor costs. Remote workers apparently love remote work so much that they're willing to get paid less to have it. And because rising wages is one factor in rising prices, Bloom and his team find that remote work is likely helping to reduce inflation.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Greg Rosalsky. Greg, thank you.

ROSALSKY: Thank you.

SUMMERS: And Greg, by the way, writes the Planet Money newsletter, and you should check it out. It's at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. And that's all one word. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.

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