• Questions remain about how persistent remote working will be post-pandemic.

• A fifth of the workforce in advanced economies can work just as effectively from home.

• The switch to remote working could exacerbate existing inequalities.

As the search for a vaccine to quell COVID-19 nears an end, many corporate executives and their employees are contemplating the future of the sudden involuntary experiment called remote working they conducted over much of 2020. Roughly 35 to 40% of employees in developed economies have reported working from home most or all of the time during the pandemic, a marked increase from the past.

Given the forced nature of remote work during the pandemic, questions remain about whether it will last as a work arrangement. While surveys generally show that executives plan to allow employees to continue working from home at least some of the time, interviews with executives present a much more nuanced outlook for remote work, with opinions diverging sharply even within companies.

So rather than trying to predict how sticky remote work will be, we have studied which work activities best lend themselves to working from home. Building on the McKinsey Global Institute’s previous analysis of future of work trends, we have extended our models to consider where work is done and the level of human interaction jobs require. Our analysis of more than 2,000 activities across some 800 occupations in nine countries finds that the potential for remote work is concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies.

Most workers have little or no opportunity for remote work

More than 20% of the workforce in advanced economies could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as if working from an office – three to four times the share of workers able to work from home prior to COVID-19. If remote work persists at that level, it would dramatically reshape urban economies, transportation and consumer spending, among other things.

Of course, more than half the workforce has little or no opportunity to work remotely. Their jobs may require frequent interaction with others or the use of site-specific machinery like a centrifuge or a stamping machine. Some jobs, like a dental hygienist, must be done on location, while other jobs are done while a worker is out and about, such as a taxi driver. Thus, remote work risks accentuating social inequities, not to mention disparities in well-being in an era of unpredictable pandemics.

Remote working potential in major economies, across different occupations
Remote working potential in major economies, across different occupations

The ability to work remotely depends on job context, and tasks and equipment required

Our research found that the potential for remote work depends on the mix of activities undertaken in each occupation. Activities such as using lab equipment and driving a vehicle have high manual or physical requirements, or need site-specific equipment to be done. Conversely, activities like information-gathering and processing and coding data can theoretically be done remotely.

Depending on the context of a job, similar-looking activities may or may not be effective remotely. For instance, statisticians and financial analysts can analyze data and information remotely, but to do the same task, a surveyor must travel to a site. An actuary can use complex problem-solving skills from home, but an air-traffic controller cannot.

Remote work also has greater potential in advanced economies, where jobs in business, insurance and financial services account for a higher share of the occupational mix. Such jobs have greater remote work potential, while occupations in agriculture and manufacturing, which involve physical and manual activities, are dominant in emerging economies, where the potential for remote work drops. In the United Kingdom, the workforce could effectively spend up to a third of its time working remotely, while China’s workforce could devote no more than 16% of its time to remote work without losing effectiveness.

Remote work will continue after the pandemic, primarily in hybrid forms

We therefore anticipate more remote work going forward, but primarily in hybrid models, with employees splitting work time between home and office, for occupations with high remote-work potential. In a McKinsey survey of 800 corporate executives around the world, 38% of the respondents expected their remote employees to continue working from home one or two days a week after the pandemic, but only 19% said they expected employees to work three or more days a week remotely.

This has important implications for urban economies, as more people working remotely means less demand for the restaurants, bars, shops and service businesses that cater to commuters in downtown areas. A McKinsey survey of office space managers in May 2020 found that after the pandemic, they expect a 36% increase in work time outside of the offices they tend. COVID-19 has already delivered a gut punch to commercial and residential real estate in cities like San Francisco and New York, as remote work emptied offices and employees abandoned inner city areas for less densely populated locales. This would be a reversal of previous patterns where highly educated workers flocked to urban centres where high-paying, high-skilled jobs were.

Remote work also risks accentuating inequalities, delivering expanded benefits like greater flexibility and lower costs to the minority of workers who can work from home, while increasing the precariousness of the jobs that cannot be done remotely. For some women, remote work has the potential to exacerbate the regressive effects of COVID-19, which we have explored in prior research. The influence of COVID-19 on other big trends affecting the workforce, which we are currently studying, may further exacerbate inequity, making it imperative for policy-makers and companies to take steps to mitigate the consequences and help workers navigate the emerging new world of work