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Stanford Professor Warns That Remote Work Might Exacerbate Inequalities

  • Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom says greater adoption of remote work arrangements may exacerbate inequalities by favoring higher-income positions
  • Bloom previously conducted a pre-pandemic study that highlighted the benefits of remote work, though these were contingent on having a home office and some in-office work
  • Despite these shortcomings, remote work could spur beneficial changes in companies that can adopt it as well as large-scale improvements

Although he led a study five years ago concluding that working from home can be beneficial for companies and employees, Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom warns that the remote work arrangements that have popped up during the COVID-19 pandemic have been less than equal. Contributing to CNBC, he recently reiterated a warning he voiced at the beginning of the pandemic that remote work might lead to less productivity and greater inequality among employees and professions.

Bloom’s previous study in 2015 looked at the Chinese travel company Ctrip and concluded that remote workers were more productive and less likely to quit. However, he said these benefits were contingent on workers using a home office and coming into the office one day a week.

During the pandemic, Bloom says, remote employees have generally had no in-person interaction with their peers, stifling innovation and new ideas while also increasing the possibility of depression and other mental health issues. He says workers have also been more likely to share spaces with others in their household when doing their work, raising the likelihood of distractions and diminished productivity – especially when young children are at home due to remote learning or a lack of day care. Productivity may also suffer if an employee lacks access to high-speed internet.

Bloom says remote work also creates some inequalities in the workplace, as it favors more educated and higher paid employees. Many professions cannot feasibly have employees work from home, and only about one in three people in the American labor force currently uses the arrangement.

Satisfaction with remote work arrangements will largely depend on how the company structures them. Bloom says regular check-ins between managers and their teams, schedules designed to create a distinct work-home divide, and collaboration by video calls rather than conference calls can all improve productivity and morale.

Bloom says remote work has also led to several benefits, including the removal of a potential stigma against working from home, eliminating a stressful commute, and creating more flexibility. As companies adopt the trend more permanently, it might also lead to larger scale improvements such as improved access to child care, workplace training, and internet accessibility.

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