Logo StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada Working from home: Productivity and preferences

by Tahsin Mehdi and René Morissette
Social Analysis and Modelling Division

Text begins

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in telework since mid-March 2020. At the beginning of 2021, 32% of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 worked most of their hours from home, compared with only 4% in 2016.Note  A change of such magnitude raises several questions. To what extent are teleworkers more or less productive now relative to when they were at their usual place of work? For those who are less productive, what are the main barriers to productivity? Once the pandemic is over, how many Canadians would prefer to work most of their hours at home or outside the home?

Answers to these questions are crucial to inform discussions about the sustainability of telework in a post COVID-19 context.

To shed light on these questions, this study uses the supplement to the Labour Force Survey of February 2021. The focus is on employees aged 15 to 64 who are new teleworkers, i.e. who usually worked outside the home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but worked most of their hours at home during the week of February 14 to 20, 2021.Note  To facilitate productivity comparisons between now and when employees were at their usual place of work, the analysis is restricted to those who have been with the same employer since at least March 2019, i.e. at least one year prior to the economic lockdown of mid-March 2020.

The vast majority of new teleworkers report being at least as productive at home as they were in their usual place of work

Of all new teleworkers, 90% reported being at least as productive, i.e. accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as they did previously in their usual place of work. More than half (58%) reported accomplishing about the same amount of work per hour while roughly one third (32%) reported accomplishing more work per hour (Table 1). The remaining 10% mentioned that they accomplished less work per hour while working at home than they did previously in their usual place of work. Very similar trends are found for men and women.Note 

The likelihood of accomplishing more work per hour varied across industries and workers’ characteristics. For example, the percentage of new teleworkers reporting doing more work per hour was relatively high in public administration (41%) as well as in health care and social assistance (45%). In contrast, the corresponding percentage was lower in goods-producing industries (31%) and educational services (25%). Likewise, unmarried individuals with no children reported less often (24%) than married individuals (35%) accomplishing more work per hour. Most of these differences remained in multivariate analyses.Note 

Conclusions about how much work new teleworkers accomplish at home are, if anything, strengthened when the amount of work accomplished per day, instead of the amount of work accomplished per hour, is considered. This is the case for several reasons.

First, a large proportion (48%) of the employees who report doing more work per hour also report working longer hours per day than they did in the past. Second, virtually none of the workers who report accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as they did previously now work shorter hours per day. Lastly, close to half (44%) of the employees who report doing less work per hour now work longer hours per day while being at home, thereby potentially offsetting—at least in part—their lower (than pre-pandemic) productivity measured on an hourly basis.Note  Note 

Barriers to productivity

The employees who reported doing less work per hour faced different barriers to productivity. About one in five (22%) reported a lack of interaction with co-workers as the main reason why they accomplish less work per hour (Chart 1). Close to 20% reported having to care for children or other family members. The remainder faced different challenges, such as accessing work-related information or devices (11%), having to do additional work to get things done (13%), having an inadequate physical workspace (10%), or experiencing difficulty with internet speed (5%).Note 

Chart 1 Main barrier to productivity among teleworkers who now accomplish less work per hour

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 percent (appearing as column headers).
percent
Lack of interaction with co-workers 21.7
Other reasons / don't know 20.6
Caring for children / other family members 19.0
Need to do additional work to get things done 12.8
Accessing work-related information or devices 10.7
Inadequate physical workspace 10.1
Internet speed 5.1

New teleworkers report diverse preferences for telework

New teleworkers were also asked the degree to which they would prefer working from home or outside the home once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Eighty percent indicated that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over.Note  Forty-one percent indicated that they would prefer working about half of their hours at home and the other half elsewhere while 39% preferred working most (24%) or all (15%) of their hours at home (Chart 2). The remaining 20% reported that they would prefer working most (11%) or all (9%) of their hours outside the home.

Chart 2 Preferences of new teleworkers for telework once the COVID-19 pandemic is over

Data table for Chart 2 
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2 All hours outside the home, Most hours outside the home, Half of hours at home/outside the home, Most hours at home and All hours at home, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
All hours outside the home Most hours outside the home Half of hours at home/outside the home Most hours at home All hours at home
percent
Both sexes 9.1 11.1 40.9 24.2 14.7
Men 10.1 10.6 41.9 24.9 12.5
Women 8.2 11.5 39.9 23.6 16.7

This diversity of preferences is observed regardless of the socio-economic groups considered.Note  For example, 43% of the new teleworkers employed in large firms in the commercial sector indicated that they would like to work most or all of their hours at home once the pandemic is over. Forty-percent would prefer working half of their hours from home and the other half elsewhere. The remaining 17% would prefer working most or all of their hours outside the home.

As expected, worker’s preferences for telework are positively associated with their productivity. Of all employees who reported doing more work per hour, 57% preferred working most or all their hours at home (Table 2). This is almost twice the rate of 30% observed among other employees. Virtually all of this difference remains in multivariate analyses. This finding is important: it confirms that workers’ assessments of the amount of work they perform per hour is a strong predictor of their preferences for telework.

Of all groups considered, teachers were the most likely to prefer working most or all of their hours outside the home. Fifty-four percent of them expressed such preferences. This is three times the percentage observed for other employees (18%). Most of this difference holds in multivariate analyses.

Conclusion

Whether relatively high rates of telework will persist once the COVID-19 pandemic is over depends on at least three conditions. First, to satisfy employers’ requirements, employees must generally be as productive at home as they were in the office. Second, employees must express strong preferences for telework in a post COVID-19 context. Third, employers must be willing and able to accommodate employees’ demand for telework.

Using workers’ assessments, this study shows that, at least in February 2021, the first two of these conditions appear to be largely satisfied in Canada. Ninety-percent of new teleworkers report accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as they did in the office. Eighty-percent would prefer to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over. Furthermore, for the minority of employees who report reduced productivity at home, some barriers to productivity, namely an inadequate physical workspace and the need to take care of children and other family members, would likely be reduced over time as schools fully re-open and employers provide further tools to make telework more feasible.

One challenge for employers will be to accommodate the diversity of preferences for telework expressed by their employees. If workers’ preferences for telework do not fully align with those of employers, a new form of job mismatch might emerge once the pandemic is over. On the other hand, increased feasibility of telework will likely increase the pool of potential employers for job seekers, and vice-versa. In the end, job mismatch could be significantly reduced in a virtual global labour market.


Table 1
Percentage of new teleworkers who reported accomplishing less work per hour, the same amount of work per hour, or more work per hour, compared with the time when they were working outside the home, by selected characteristics
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of new teleworkers who reported accomplishing less work per hour Accomplishes less work per hour, Accomplishes about the same amount of work per hour and Accomplishes more work per hour, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Accomplishes less work per hour Accomplishes about the same amount of work per hour Accomplishes more work per hour
percent
Overall 9.5 58.0 32.4
Sex
Men 9.7 59.5 30.8
Women 9.4 56.7 33.9
Age
15 to 34 8.6Note E: Use with caution 62.2 29.1
35 to 50 10.1 57.7 32.2
51 to 64 9.5 54.4 36.1
Education
No postsecondary education (PSE) 7.7Note E: Use with caution 56.3 36.0
PSE below bachelor's degree 9.3 63.8 26.9
Bachelor's degree 7.8 58.5 33.8
Above bachelor's degree 13.5 52.2 34.3
Occupational skill level
Low 6.2Note E: Use with caution 63.5 30.3
Medium 9.9 57.7 32.5
High 9.9 57.3 32.8
Marital status and presence of children
Married/common-law, with children 9.9 55.5 34.7
Married/common-law, without children 8.7Note E: Use with caution 56.3 35.0
Not married or common-law, with children Note F: too unreliable to be published 62.7 32.6
Not married or common-law, without children 11.1Note E: Use with caution 65.0 23.9
Region
Atlantic provinces 12.6Note E: Use with caution 56.9 30.5
Quebec 7.2Note E: Use with caution 57.8 35.0
Ontario 8.6 59.0 32.4
Manitoba and Saskatchewan 13.0 52.9 34.0
Alberta 11.5Note E: Use with caution 52.2 36.3
British Columbia 14.5Note E: Use with caution 61.4 24.1
Dwelling owned by household member
Yes 9.5 56.0 34.5
No 9.7Note E: Use with caution 66.1 24.2
Overall 9.5 58.0 32.4
Industry
Goods-producing industries 8.8Note E: Use with caution 60.3 30.9
Trade, transportation and warehousing 7.8Note E: Use with caution 64.1 28.1
Finance and insurance 5.7Note E: Use with caution 56.8 37.5
Professional, scientific and technical services 9.7Note E: Use with caution 62.3 27.9
Educational services 13.4Note E: Use with caution 60.9 25.7
Health care and social assistance 8.9Note E: Use with caution 46.5 44.6
Public administration 9.2Note E: Use with caution 50.1 40.7
Other 13.2Note E: Use with caution 60.7 26.1
Occupation
Management 6.7Note E: Use with caution 58.4 34.9
Business, finance, and administration 8.6 56.4 35.1
Natural and applied sciences 10.1Note E: Use with caution 58.3 31.5
Education, law and social, community and government services 13.8Note E: Use with caution 58.7 27.6
Sales and services 6.9Note E: Use with caution 60.4 32.8
Other 12.1Note E: Use with caution 59.9 28.0Note E: Use with caution
Hourly wage tier
Less than $31.74 per hour 9.2 62.7 28.0
$31.74 per hour to less than $46.15 8.7 59.1 32.2
$46.15 per hour or more 10.6 52.6 36.9
Firm size (number of employees) - commercial sector
Less than 20 Note F: too unreliable to be published 69.4 21.8Note E: Use with caution
20 to 99 8.9Note E: Use with caution 61.6 29.5
100 to 500 12.7Note E: Use with caution 58.9 28.4
Over 500 8.1 59.4 32.5
Unionized - commercial sector
Yes 6.2Note E: Use with caution 64.1 29.6
No 9.4 60.0 30.6

Table 2
Preferences of new teleworkers for telework once the COVID-19 pandemic is over
Table summary
This table displays the results of Preferences of new teleworkers for telework once the COVID-19 pandemic is over Most or all hours outside the home, Half of hours at home/outside the home and Most or all hours at home, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Most or all hours outside the home Half of hours at home/outside the home Most or all hours at home
percent
Overall 20.2 40.9 38.9
Sex
Men 20.8 41.9 37.4
Women 19.8 39.9 40.3
Age
15 to 34 23.1 40.9 36.0
35 to 50 17.6 41.6 40.8
51 to 64 21.9 39.7 38.5
Education
No postsecondary education (PSE) 17.5Note E: Use with caution 34.0 48.5
PSE below bachelor's degree 17.9 42.5 39.7
Bachelor's degree 19.9 41.1 39.0
Above bachelor's degree 24.4 41.5 34.2
Occupational skill level
Low 23.4 33.8 42.8
Medium 16.8 42.6 40.5
High 21.5 41.1 37.4
Marital status and presence of children
Married/common-law, with children 18.4 41.0 40.7
Married/common-law, without children 21.6 37.9 40.5
Not married or common-law, with children 13.0Note E: Use with caution 54.3 32.7
Not married or common-law, without children 24.6 41.1 34.4
Region
Atlantic provinces 28.5 36.3 35.2
Quebec 18.6 46.0 35.5
Ontario 18.8 40.9 40.3
Manitoba and Saskatchewan 22.0 34.8 43.3
Alberta 24.0 33.7 42.3
British Columbia 23.2 39.1 37.7
Dwelling owned by household member
Yes 19.0 41.4 39.7
No 25.1 39.0 35.9
Overall 20.2 40.9 38.9
Industry
Goods-producing industries 18.5Note E: Use with caution 49.4 32.2
Trade, transportation and warehousing 14.8Note E: Use with caution 46.2 39.0
Finance and insurance 13.4Note E: Use with caution 37.2 49.4
Professional, scientific and technical services 20.2 40.1 39.7
Educational services 38.1 36.5 25.4
Health care and social assistance 20.6Note E: Use with caution 47.5 31.9
Public administration 16.4 38.7 44.9
Other 24.2 39.5 36.3
Occupation
Management 18.5 51.3 30.2
Business, finance, and administration 14.5 39.0 46.5
Natural and applied sciences 18.7 40.6 40.7
Education, law and social, community and government services 34.4 39.9 25.7
Sales and services 20.2Note E: Use with caution 36.5 43.3
Other 25.3Note E: Use with caution 37.9 36.8
Teacher
Yes 53.8 28.5 17.6Note E: Use with caution
No 18.3 41.6 40.1
Hourly wage tier
Less than $31.74 per hour 19.4 38.9 41.7
$31.74 per hour to less than $46.15 20.1 42.0 37.9
$46.15 per hour or more 21.2 41.7 37.1
Firm size (number of employees) - commercial sector
Less than 20 21.5Note E: Use with caution 46.2 32.3
20 to 99 22.1Note E: Use with caution 41.6 36.3
100 to 500 20.1 42.7 37.2
Over 500 16.7 40.4 42.9
Unionized - commercial sector
Yes 19.5Note E: Use with caution 33.5 47.0
No 18.2 42.3 39.5
Works longer hours
Yes 19.8 43.0 37.2
No 20.5 39.7 39.8
Accomplishes more work per hour
Yes 7.7 35.4 56.9
No 26.2 43.5 30.3

References

Bloom, N. 2020. “How Working from Home Works Out. Policy Brief, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

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