There's a problem with the conversation around the remote workforce—we don't know enough about it. The vast majority of reports on the remote workforce are “benefits studies.” These seek to quantify the benefits of remote work from either a worker or employer perspective. While this body of work is important, it is more important to understand the overall size, characteristics, and trends in the remote workforce. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a sensible framework proposed to measure the remote workforce as a category in its own right.
In this article, I propose and define a framework for categorizing and measuring the remote workforce. We at Talent Tech Labs intend to use this as the basis for future studies addressing the size and characteristics of this important (and we suspect growing) segment. In the interim, you can use this to frame your firm’s thinking and the broader conversation around the constructs of remote work.
Existing Studies on Remote Work
The majority of studies on remote work tend to be preference and benefits studies. For example, a two-year study by Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom found people who work from home have a productivity increase equal to an extra day of work per week. Additionally, employees took fewer sick days, less time off, and fewer breaks, while companies saved almost $2,000 per employee on office costs. In another example, the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that flexible working practices, including remote, could total $2.36 trillion in US economic gains. It also found that an increase of remote workers “would amount to cost savings of $44.4 billion on commuting spent on tickets or gas, for example, while simultaneously reducing 5.8 billion hours a year commuting to and from work.”
When it comes to statistics related to the size, composition, and characteristics of the remote workforce, there are far fewer studies. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does a periodic study of contingent workers (many of whom are remote) but does not measure remote work specifically. This study focuses on the size and characteristics of the contingent workforce (an estimated 5.9 million contingent workers in the US), including ethnicity, sex, age, and education level. It falls short, however, because it does not specifically call out how many of these workers are remote.
The BLS also produces statistics on job flexibility among wage and salary earners. For example, in 2017-2018, 36 million wage and salary workers worked at home at least occasionally. Unfortunately, this study excludes contingent workers.
There are also other - typically industry-produced - estimates of the number of people who work through online platforms such as Toptal and Upwork (mostly remote), but these don’t account for remote work beyond these platforms.
What’s missing is a comprehensive study that measures remote work as its own category. Knowing the size and characteristics of the remote workforce has wide-ranging implications for workforce management, city planning, higher education curricula, and general company best practices.
The following is our proposal for a framework to measure remote work.
Definition and Framework for Measuring Remote Work
We define remote work as work performed from a location of the worker’s choosing. The actual distance between company and worker does not matter - a worker may be located in the same city as the company or in a different country. Workers themselves control and decide where they want to work.
With that baseline definition in mind, we can begin categorizing the different types of remote workers. Our framework has two overarching categories—remote work among the employed and remote work among the non-employed (e.g., contingent work)—each with three subcategories of remote workers.
Remote Work Among the Employed
Employed workers include all full- and part-time employees. This group does not include any kind of contingent labor such as independent contractors, freelancers, agency workers, or staff engaged through offshoring arrangements or statements of work.
Employed, non-remote: This category includes all employed workers whose employment is tied to a location mandated by the employer. Examples would include office and retail staff, warehouse workers, hospital employees, or delivery personnel.
Employed, partial-remote: This group includes all employed workers that spend some of their working time at a location of their choosing. Examples might include a research analyst or a marketing director that spend some time working from home and some time at the corporate headquarters. This population would likely be primarily comprised of individuals who work for companies with a “work from home” option but are still required to be in the office some of the time.
Employed, full-remote: This group includes all employees that spend all (or nearly all) of their time working from a location of their choosing. Examples would include inside sales representatives or account managers that work from home.
Remote Work Among the Non-employed
The non-employed category includes all manner of contingent workers such as freelancers, agency workers, workers engaged through statements of work, or internally managed part- and full-time workers that are hired on an intentionally time-limited basis (e.g., seasonal workers). This sector is smaller than employed workers.
Non-employed, non-remote: This group includes all contingent workers whose work is tied to a physical location. Examples would include temporary doctors or nurses hired through a staffing company, a full-time implementation specialist that is hired for an eight-month project and is required to be at the client site every day, or a makeup specialist who was hired for a specific movie.
Non-employed, partial remote: This group includes all contingent workers that have some flexibility in the location where they do work. Examples might include the previously mentioned implementation specialist if that individual had the option to work from home part of the time or a strategy consultant that primarily worked remotely but had to travel to visit clients from time to time.
Non-employed, full-remote: This group includes all contingent workers that work fully remote -- that is, no part of their employment is dependent on client location. Examples would include remote software engineers hired on contract or call center representatives working from home and managed by an outsourced agency.
Why Does This Matter?
Collecting and studying data on the size and composition of the remote workforce is an important first step to better understanding it. This enables better planning, company management, policy decisions, and even leads to more robust remote work benefit studies. For example, we could start to answer questions such as:
- In which occupations is remote work growing the fastest and why?
- What accounts for the difference in prevalence in remote work between employed and contingent workers?
- Do fully remote teams perform better than hybrid teams?
- Where do remote workers live and what are their preferences?
- How much do remote workers contribute to the economy?
In short, we think the findings from measuring the remote workforce would be as surprising as they would be insightful. Explicitly defining the categories we’ve laid out here gives business leaders and decision-makers a common vocabulary to have a meaningful and productive conversation around remote work.