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How a rise in remote employment may impact post-pandemic work life

Unemployment claims dropped again Thursday, and this week may also bring a clearer picture of what's happening with the job market. As more Americans get vaccinated, workers and companies are figuring out what post-pandemic work life will look like -- and how it may change permanently. NewsHour's Paul Solman has the story as part of his series, "Making Sense."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of weekly unemployment claims in the United States dropped again today. And, tomorrow, we're expecting a clearer picture of what's happening with the job market.

    As more Americans get vaccinated, workers and companies are figuring out what post-pandemic work life will look like and how it may change permanently.

    Our business and economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story.

    It's part of his regular reporting, Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    Working from home, Molly Carlson is more productive in more ways than one.

  • Molly Carlson:

    I found it's been easier to work really hard all day in a focused way all day. And I have also like occasionally being able to throw in a load of laundry in the morning and turn it over at lunchtime.

  • Paul Solman:

    Modibor Fulluh likes being home too.

  • Modibor Fulluh:

    We have got a 10-month-old. Being able to have that flexibility, helping out with diapers and help out at the house.

  • Paul Solman:

    Brad Duckett found a mate.

  • Brad Duckett:

    She was from Eugene, Oregon, and I was from Knoxville, Tennessee. That wouldn't have necessarily worked had I been tied to an office.

  • Paul Solman:

    Duckett and his now wife will travel the world while he works.

  • Brad Duckett:

    We head to Portugal on August 1, then another month in Valencia, Spain, Split, Croatia, and then we will be going down to South Africa, and I will just be working my normal job.

  • Paul Solman:

    COVID-19 forced millions of Americans to temporarily alter their work life. Now, with vaccines available and the economy reopening, their employers are considering permanent shifts, says economist Nicholas Bloom.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    It's taken basically a global pandemic to generate what's really a revolution in the way we work.

    And I think, 20, 30 years from now, we will be looking back at this and saying, well, there was one small silver lining in the pandemic, which is it completely changed working patterns for roughly half of all Americans.

  • Paul Solman:

    Half of Americans are still working from home, almost three-quarters of all white-collar workers. What do they want long-term?

    Desmond Dickerson, who's worked remotely for years, does research for Microsoft.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    There's a lot of people that are saying they want the flexibility, but they also want in person. So that's why the hybrid is emerging as an essential way of doing business going forward.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sure enough a survey by law firm Littler Mendelson found more than half of employers planning to offer a mix, remote and in person, because work-at-home has been more productive, says lawyer Devjani Mishra.

  • Devjani Mishra:

    Over the past 16 months, We have really had this extended experiment, this proof of concept to see, well, does this work? And many employers who never would have considered it before finding that it does.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so Ford Motor Company, for instance, where maybe a few hundred worked from home before, will let 32,000 of its 86,000 employees choose to work in person or remotely with flexible hours, permanently. Why not before?

  • Jennifer Kolstad:

    The cultural belief was, by and large, if I can't see you, you're not working.

  • Paul Solman:

    Jennifer Kolstad oversees the design of Ford's physical spaces.

  • Jennifer Kolstad:

    In a moment that vanished. We realized, if I can't see you, you are working. In fact, you're working very hard.

  • Paul Solman:

    While taking care of tasks that make you a happier employee.

  • Jennifer Kolstad:

    So picking up our kids from school, which is something that I have done for the first time ever in my career, and that's become a priority that I don't want to give up now.

    I have adjusted my days so that I will keep doing that, I hope forever. But that doesn't mean that I'm any less productive. It just means that my workday is different.

  • Paul Solman:

    Another perk for those working remotely, comfort…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    … as I revealed, inadvertently, when I stood to show Kolstad something in my backdrop.

  • Jennifer Kolstad:

    This is the best part of COVID.

  • Paul Solman:

    Well, not for those caught in their tennis shorts.

    But work-from-home has become popular, firms are now using it to entice workers, says Dickerson.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    Those startups are competing for the top talent all over the country now and, at times, even outside of the country.

    So, if you have an archaic way of working, where everyone has to be face to face in the office, nine, 10 hours or more per day, there might be folks that say, eh, I'd rather work from home or rather not be fighting commutes and traffic five times a week.

  • Paul Solman:

    As a result, companies like Twitter, which offered a permanent remote option last year, are telling Nick Bloom they can now hire more diversely.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    We can have employees right across the country and, in fact, some of them international, and we can reach groups of folks that would never in large numbers be in Silicon Valley.

  • Paul Solman:

    Like workers in minority communities outside of traditional tech hubs, says Microsoft's Dickerson.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    These are places that overindex in white populations, whereas the South has a lot more of a diverse population.

  • Paul Solman:

    Xiaoyin Qu's virtual events startup took off during the pandemic.

  • Xiaoyin Qu:

    So we got a lot of traction almost immediately. And that also means we had to hire remotely almost immediately.

  • Paul Solman:

    Qu now has 20-plus employees all over the world helping her create online meetings.

  • Xiaoyin Qu:

    You used to know like who is the boss' favorite. It's not super obvious, because they don't grab drinks together.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Xiaoyin Qu:

    It's not obvious. So, to some degree, it's better because the employees kind of — they are having like an even playing ground.

  • Paul Solman:

    On the other hand, virtual work amplifies some differences.

  • Xiaoyin Qu:

    The introverts seem to have sometimes somewhat of a challenge, because they don't really do the small talk in the meeting. They don't necessarily have the one-on-one in a casual way.

  • Paul Solman:

    For workers, there are also the familiar frustrations of working from home. Burnout.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    There's no real clear line of when to take a break and…

  • Woman:

    Oh, you froze again.

  • Paul Solman:

    Spotty connections and other technical glitches.

  • Man:

    Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in the video settings.

  • Paul Solman:

    Folks in rural areas are at a particular disadvantage, says Dickerson.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    Oftentimes, they don't have an adequate connection. They don't have adequate broadband. About half of folks are saying they're not even getting support from their company to build out their workstations at home, which is particularly unfortunate, because companies save money when they switch to remote working environments.

  • Paul Solman:

    And what about those like Joseph Walden, who lives alone?

  • Joseph Walden:

    A lot of it's just sitting there, just me, the chair, the computer. So, sometimes, it did get a little bit lonely.

  • Paul Solman:

    Joelle Kanyana misses her colleagues.

  • Joelle Kanyana:

    The conversations that we have among each other, sharing our projects casually. I have missed out on also getting to know them as people.

  • Paul Solman:

    And as more firms offer the hybrid choice, Bloom warns, there will be more unintended consequences.

  • Nicholas Bloom:

    If you look at people with a college degree that have kids 12 and under, women have almost 50 percent higher rate of preference to work from home five days a week than men.

    But that collides with the fact we see, over years of data, that, if you're in the office, you're much more likely to get promoted than if you're working from home.

    So, putting that together, you can see choice could easily lead to a situation whereby, five years from now, let's say single young men come into the office every day, they're promoted up, they're management; women with young children choose not to come into the office nearly as many days, and they're held back.

  • Paul Solman:

    But how do the 50 percent of Americans who don't have the option to work remotely feel?

  • Tonya Hicks:

    I don't want to say a little bit envious, but we kind of are.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Electrician Tonya Hicks owns her own business.

  • Tonya Hicks:

    It's like, yes, you wish that was you working from home, but it's not you, so…

  • Paul Solman:

    Home care provider and union member Hillary Rothrock agrees.

  • Hillary Rothrock:

    Those who have to leave their homes, who are not able to stay home and work should be compensated as such. And I do believe that it's something we should look at, such as a shift differential, hazard pay. There should be an increase in the worker's wage.

  • Paul Solman:

    And they should feel empowered as never before, argues Dickerson.

  • Desmond Dickerson:

    Right now, they do have leverage, after everything that's happened in the past year, to really push back on the way that they are compensated, the way they're treated in the workplace, the benefits they're looking for. Everything related to their work is up for negotiation.

  • Paul Solman:

    One more way that COVID-19 is transforming work.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Paul Solman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Great story.

    And now we know Paul Solman sometimes interviews people wearing his tennis shorts.

    Thank you, Paul.

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