Remote work will be a legacy of pandemic; job losses may not be over, survey finds

Key Points
  • Companies expect an increased portion of their workforce to remain working remotely even after the pandemic passes, according to a Conference Board survey released Wednesday of 152 human capital executives.
  • The survey revealed that most employers have implemented some form of workforce cost reductions, and many plan to continue to do so this summer. 
  • Additional workforce cost reductions are more likely in organizations that employ mostly industry and manual services workers. 
  • A majority of companies surveyed expect to return to pre-pandemic revenue levels within the next 12 months.

In this article

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Remote work may be the most influential legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic. That's according to a survey released Wednesday by the Conference Board.

The nonpartisan think tank polled 152 human capital executives from April 15–28, primarily from large U.S.-based companies, to gauge how organizations are reacting to the changing business environment in the context of their workforces. Executives responding were from a broad range of industries, with more than 60% representing business and professional services, manufacturing and health-care sectors.

The study, titled "From Immediate Responses to Planning for the Reimagined Workplace," found that 77% of respondents expect that the number of employees working primarily from home (at least three days a week) will increase post-pandemic. 

Prior to the pandemic, respondents said that less than 10 percent of their workforce primarily worked from home, now they anticipate that number will greatly increase, with at least a quarter of their workforce working from home a year from now. 

The anticipated increase in remote work will likely have broad implications for the economy — particularly consumer spending. The reason: Less commuters heading into work means there will be fewer patrons in restaurants and less people shopping in the surrounding retail stores. Further, demand for housing and office space in major metropolitan areas could also decline

"One positive of this shift to long-term remote work is that the pool of talent to choose from will be greater," explains Robin Erickson, Ph.D, a principal researcher in human capital for the Conference Board and an author of the study.

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According to the study, it is unlikely that hiring will see a meaningful uptick anytime soon. The survey found that over the next few months, most companies polled plan on requiring employees to take paid time off or vacation time, defer pay and implement furloughs. Few respondents indicated they expect to implement furloughs without benefits or reduce 401(k) contributions. While major restructuring is unlikely for most of those surveyed, 9%  plan to implement a large-scale change in organizational structure.

The survey also revealed that organizations with more industrial and manual services workers are much more likely to implement furloughs with benefits, conduct permanent layoffs, require employees to use paid time off or vacation and cut salaries and wages than organizations with more professional and office workers.

"Top factors that determine the severity of a company's workforce cost reductions include the ability to continue doing one's job remotely and the ability to safely return to the workplace," said Conference Board economist Frank Steemers, who also co-authored the study.

Respondents were surprisingly optimistic when it came to the economy: More than 55% of respondents from organizations that experienced a decline in revenue after Covid-19 expect to return to pre-crisis revenue levels within the next 12 months, with the balance of respondents saying they believe it won't snap back until after April 2021. Only 4% do not anticipate revenue ever returning to pre-Covid levels. 

Covid-19 is also likely to profoundly affect companies' policies and structure even after the worst of the pandemic passes. When asked to prioritize the five most significant changes that will take place at their organization during the recovery phase, most respondents listed, in descending order, remote work, disaster recovery plans, health and safety measures in the workplace, flexibility and remote work policies and employee engagement.