Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Innovation Features
Edd Gent
Increasingly visible and accessible, but with caveats
Matt Fieldman
German system offers tips for U.S. counterparts
Belinda Jones
Reaping the benefits of manufacturing intelligence
Marni Baker-Stein
Closing the education-to-hiring gap

More Features

Innovation News
Datanomix chosen for its No Operator Input approach to production monitoring and out-of-the-box data automation
New lines improve software capability and analysis
Printable, steam jet-resistant PCS for automotive applications
VSL hosts special edition of show at new center in Rotterdam
Latest line touts comprehensive coverage, ease of use
Same price, double the resolution and accuracy
Low-cost prevention of catastrophic failures
Diagnoses LVDT failures, disconnects, or short circuits
Using noncontact, interferometric technology

More News

Gleb Tsipursky

Innovation

Does Remote Work Contribute to Inflation?

Let’s see what the facts say

Published: Wednesday, November 2, 2022 - 11:03

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink claimed in a recent interview with Fox that “we have to get our employees back in the office.” According to him, doing so would result in “rising productivity that will offset some of the inflationary pressures.”

Fink didn’t provide any data in the form of statistics, surveys, or studies to support his claims. He simply insisted, without evidence, that in-office work would reduce inflation. So what do the data say?

A widely-cited July 2022 study from the respected National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found strong evidence that remote work decreased inflation, chiefly because employees have a strong preference for remote work. Whether jobs are fully remote or hybrid, employees are willing to accept lower wages to work from home. As a result, the researchers found that remote work decreased wage growth by 2 percent durin- the last two years. Notably, the decrease in growth occurred specifically in the mostly higher-paid, white-collar positions that could be done remotely, leading to wage compression that reduced wage inequality between blue-collar and white-collar work. Given that higher wages result in more consumer spending that leads to inflation, the study concluded that remote work reduces inflation.

Plenty of other evidence backs up the finding that remote work reduces wage growth, such as a June 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resources. It reports that 48 percent of survey respondents will “definitely” look for a full-time WFH job in their next search. To get them to stay at a full-time job with a 30-minute commute, they would need a 20-percent pay raise. For a hybrid job with the same commute, they would need a pay raise of 10 percent.

A different survey of 3,000 workers at top companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft found that 64 percent of workers would prefer permanent work-from-home over a $30,000 pay raise. Indeed, companies that offer remote work opportunities are increasingly hiring in lower cost-of-living areas of the U.S. and even outside the U.S. to get the best value for talent. That’s a major reason why one of my clients, a late-stage software-as-a-service startup, decided to offer some all-remote positions.

These data show that remote work decreases costs of labor and thus reduces inflation. What about Fink’s claims about productivity?

Surveys have long found that workers report being more productive when working remotely, but we might feel some skepticism for self-reported answers. However, it’s harder to feel skeptical of evidence from employee monitoring software company Prodoscore. Its president, David Powell, says that, “after evaluating over 105 million data points from 30,000 U.S.-based Prodoscore users, we discovered a 5-percent increase in productivity during the pandemic work-from-home period.”

And we have become better over time at working remotely. A Stanford University study found that remote workers were 5-percent more productive than in-office workers during the summer of 2020. By the spring of 2022, remote workers became 9-percent more productive, since companies learned how to do remote work better and invested in more remote-friendly technology.

A July 2022 study reported in another NBER paper found that productivity growth in businesses widely relying on remote work, such as IT and finance, grew from 1.1 percent between 2010 and 2019 to 3.3 percent since the start of the pandemic. Compare that to industries relying on in-person contact, such as transportation, dining, and hospitality. They went from productivity growth of 0.6 percent between 2010 and 2019 to a decrease of 2.6 percent from the start of the pandemic.

Case-study evidence backs up these broader trends, as reported in another NBER paper about a study at a real-world company, Trip.com, one of the largest travel agencies in the world. It randomly assigned some engineers, marketing workers, and finance workers to work some of their time remotely and others in the same roles to full-time in-office work. Guess what? Those who worked on a hybrid schedule had 35-percent better retention, and the engineers wrote 8-percent more code. Writing code is a standardized and very hard measure of productivity, and provides strong evidence of higher productivity in remote work.

The evidence demonstrates that remote labor both costs less and is more productive, reducing inflation at both ends. What about ancillary costs?

Employees can save a lot of money, up to $12,000 for full-time remote work, according to a Flexjobs analysis. That involves savings on transportation, such as gas, car maintenance, and parking, or public transportation. Workers also don’t have to buy expensive office attire or eat out at overpriced downtown restaurants. Workers do need to pay somewhat more for cooking at home and higher utilities. Yet these costs are much smaller than the costs of coming to the office.

Companies save a lot of money on real estate, utilities, office furniture, cleaning services, and related costs. An average office space per employee can cost up to $18,000 per year, which means savings can add up fast. No wonder office occupancy is down, and companies are cutting their real estate footprint. For example, Amazon—which allows full-time and part-time remote work—recently paused its construction of five towers in Bellevue, Washington, due to remote work.

Companies are investing more in support for work from home, such as IT and cybersecurity. And more forward-looking ones are providing remote-work support for home offices. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, and Google provided a flat stipend of $1,000 for home offices. As another alternative, one of my clients, the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, researched the best options for home offices and provides a standardized and wide range of home office technology and furniture to its staff. Doing so improves productivity and is a wise long-term investment. Such expenses are much less than the costs of in-office employees.

Thus, in addition to lower labor costs and higher productivity, both employees and employers pay much less to have staff work remotely. All the evidence shows that remote work decreases inflation.

Such information is easily available. Fink could have assigned a summer intern at BlackRock to find the evidence but chose not to do so. He’s not the only one, joining many prominent CEOs in driving employees back to the office. What explains this seemingly contradictory behavior?

As a behavioral science expert in decision-making around the future of work, I can tell you that I’ve observed many leaders exhibiting poor judgment, likely due to a combination of cognitive biases. One is called the belief bias, where our belief in the desirability of an outcome—such as Fink’s desire for workers to return to the office—causes us to misinterpret the evidence supporting this outcome. Another is the confirmation bias, where we look for evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore evidence that does not.

Thus, while the facts clearly show that remote work reduces inflation, improves productivity, and reduces costs, it took a lot of effort to convince some traditionalist executives within my client organizations about the benefits of remote work. Their personal discomfort—due to these cognitive biases—undermined their judgments. It took a discussion about cognitive biases to turn them around and get them thinking about how to avoid trusting intuition in new contexts.

Hopefully, prominent CEOs like Larry Fink and many others will recognize the dangerous consequences for inflation and for the bottom lines of their companies of driving employees back to the office. Otherwise, their companies and the economy as a whole will suffer. Their poor judgment should be a lesson to all business leaders to rely on the facts, and not wishful thinking, in their public communication and decision-making.

Discuss

About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.

Comments

Larry Fink... that's rich.

Larry Fink is not an idiot. He is a liar. 

Monetary policy is always inflationary (targeting 2% annual inflation, calculated through some absurd definition, and how's that going?), and we just cross our fingers and hope (pretend) that the creation of dollars will somehow be balanced by the creation of value due to economic activity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of unprecedented government intervention the economy: lockdowns, masking requirements, social distancing requirements, forced vaccinations... [edited by moderator] all of it extremely disruptive to the workplace, disruptive to supply chains, and disruptive to labor force participation. At the same time, the federal government is spending left and right, while suppressing the development of oil and gas resources. This spending is financed through inflation (there isn't nearly enough tax revenue to fund it), and the increase in prices is exacerbated by an artificial boost to the scarcity of transportation fuel. 

Everyone should keep in mind that inflation is a silent tax on all of us, but it is additionally a regressive tax, which hits the poorest the hardest. It makes all of us poorer, and it especially amplifies the hardship for those already in poverty. It is also a predictable outcome of money creation outpacing wealth creation. I.e., it is a predictable outcome of the last three years of public and monetary policy worldwide. 

So here we have one of the richest people in the world, Larry Fink, saying that us plebians need to be more productive in order to offset the reckless creation of dollars by the Federal Reserve at a time when governments were artificially suppressing the creation of value by interfering with our civil liberties and economic freedom. 

That's rich. 

Fink's motives unclear

Larry Fink isn't stupid.  I think his agenda isn't really about reducing inflation or increasing productivity.  I can't say what it is, but he's smart enough to know that getting people back to the office can't be justified by inflation or productivity.

WFH Effect on Adjacent Employees

The evidence you presented is quite clear that WFH benefits productivity for those employees that can take advantage of that. Is there any data regarding employees that work with WFH employees but whose jobs are not conducive to WFH?

Working in a manufacturing company, I know I was less supportive of the production departments due to WFH. Some of that support would have been more effective on-site. I also was somewhat “out of touch,” reducing the effectiveness of my policies and support in general. I expect the impacts would manifest themselves in production efficiency.

There is also frustration and resentment on the part of those employees whose jobs are not conducive to WFH. Good leadership can mitigate such bitterness, but that does take some effort.

I appreciate your perspective.

Work From Home

Just from an energy standpoint, with constrained fuel supplies could any truly rational person believe that increasing the number of commuters is going to not drive energy prices up. Of course, then there is the domino effect raising prices across the board.

On the managerial side, you have:    - The micromanager who know that, without their enlightened guidance, the job will be       substandard    - The insecure manager who fears that he may be perceived as unnecessary.     - The bull-of-the woods manger (yes, they are not extinct and probably not even on the      endangered species list) who, at the very least, can't get that joy out of that online tirade    - The by-the book manager who fears you may divert from "THE BOOK".    - The entitled manager who may not be able to offload their work on to a subordinate.

In the real world, many years ago on a remote assignment, the project manager told me, "Hours? As long as the work is done on time, I don't care if you ever come in."