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Future of Work Q4 2020

Teleworking: The new unequal normal?

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Lamia Kamal-Chaoui

Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, OECD

Once regarded as a perk, teleworking is now a necessity. While this ‘new normal’ has saved some jobs, not every person, place or business has fared equally.

Not everyone can telework. In the United States, less than 30% of workers can work from home, with significant variations connected with race and socio-economic status. Higher-income workers have a greater ability to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic and benefit from social distancing from the contagion, whereas lower-income workers are more likely to be unable to work at all.

The socio-economic skills divide

A skills divide has also emerged. People in jobs requiring higher levels of education are significantly more likely to telework in OECD countries than those in predominantly manual labour or face-to-face service jobs. Existing labour market inequalities may become entrenched if permanent teleworking is adopted in the long-term.

We must ensure that teleworking, in the longer-term, will contribute to improve well-being for all, and does not exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and the digital divide.

Where you work matters as well. The OECD estimates half of all jobs can be done remotely in Luxembourg, but only around one-in-five in Turkey. There are also disparities within countries. Unsurprisingly, cities are usually best adapted to teleworking, having a 13-percentage point higher share of jobs amenable to remote working than rural areas in Europe.

Access to infrastructure for teleworking

Finally, business size is a crucial factor in the ability to work remotely. Teleworking is perpetuating size-related disparities across businesses, with smaller firms less likely to be well equipped with digital infrastructure and skills such as computers and cyber security protection.

A long shift to teleworking requires levelling the playing field between businesses and rethinking labour legislation to address divides between workers.

Addressing new challenges

Key assumptions also need to be revisited. Do we all need to start work at 9am? Can infrastructure become multi-purpose where land is limited?  How can we combine remote working, traditional offices and co-working spaces? How does working from home affect productivity? What are the health implications to long-term teleworking?

With surveys worldwide suggesting numerous companies are considering shifting to some form of regular teleworking, cities and towns may change. Cities may see an outflow of workers whose jobs are no longer tied to physical offices, which would force them to adjust public infrastructure and urban planning to this new reality. While rural towns, provided they are ‘wired’ to accommodate the long-term teleworking trend, may attract a growing share of teleworkers as well as retain existing residents.

Today, teleworking is alleviating short term sanitary pressures on societies, but we must ensure that teleworking, in the longer term, will contribute to improve well being for all, and does not exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and the digital divide.

Find out more about the OECD Future of Work Gateway at www.oecd.org/future-of-work

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