Remote work is becoming permanent — for a sliver of the workforce

A woman is seen working from home.
A woman working from home. Getty
  • Though less people are teleworking lately, signs suggest it’s now a permanent feature of the economy.
  • 11% of American workers were still remote in December as return-to-office slowed.
  • Data from Indeed shows remote-friendly jobs becoming more common among both listings and searches.

While life in the US slowly returns to some pre-pandemic norms, telework is shaping up to be a permanent feature of the economy.

The latest jobs data shows the return-to-office wave slowing. About 11.1% of workers telecommuted in December, according to the government jobs report published Friday. That’s only slightly down from the prior month’s count of 11.3%.


The percentage comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly household survey, specifically a supplemental section added to measure the impact of the coronavirus recession. The supplementary data first showed up in the agency's August 2020 report, which showed telework at its highest share of 24.3% of workers.

Subsequent waves of virus cases have powered some monthly increases in telework activity, but the share has broadly declined through the course of the crisis.

Now that drop is slowing down, and millions of Americans continue to work from home. The shift could bring huge benefits for parents, disabled workers, and those wanting to move. Yet the option won't be available to everyone, particularly the workers hit hardest by the pandemic.

A massive work-from-home experiment is becoming permanent

The country's workforce embarked on a grand experiment in early 2020 when remote work shifted from a rare feature to the country's new normal.

The share of workers telecommuting gradually shrank as case counts fell, vaccines rolled out, and the US reopened. That the decline is slowing now gives some indication of what the new labor market will look like. While 11.1% is less than half the share seen one year ago, it still represents about 17.3 million US workers.

A permanent shift to remote work, however small, could bring clear benefits to those eligible. It eliminates a daily commute, opening up new housing markets outside of expensive cities. Parents have more flexibility when it comes to participating in childcare, and home offices can often better accommodate workers with disabilities. Remote work also gives people of color the chance to avoid the code-switching required in primarily white workplaces. 

Businesses are also preparing for telework to stick around. Roughly 9% of job postings in December mentioned remote-work terms, Indeed economist Nick Bunker tweeted Monday. That's up from the 2019 average of 2.7%. The share has also steadily increased throughout the pandemic, according to the job-search website. While the overall share of telecommuters has shrunk, influential businesses like Salesforce, Spotify, Twitter, and Amazon have announced permanent remote or flexible work policies.

Workers are interested in keeping remote work around, too. The share of Indeed searches that included telework terms averaged 5.5% in December, Bunker said. That's up from 1.3% in 2019.

Preference isn't the only factor powering remote work's longevity. Omicron's rapid spread across the country has delayed return-to-office plans for companies like Google, Lyft, and Meta, many of which have already been postponed due to the Delta wave. The labor shortage has led companies to raise pay and relax some guidelines to better attract workers.

Even the current state of the labor market will play a role in determining the extent to which remote work persists. The sectors that most easily adopted telework — professional and technical services, federal government, financial activities, to name a few — have also been among the fastest to recover pandemic-era job losses.

Conversely, leisure and hospitality businesses still have about 1.2 million jobs to recoup to return to the employment levels seen before the pandemic. Many jobs in the sector require in-person work, hinting future job creation could include fewer remote positions.

How the virus situation develops will almost certainly inform the future of telework. Yet early signs suggest the option will persist for millions, and that could play a major role in shaping the post-pandemic economy.