Economists who study remote work and productivity used to have a big problem: finding groups of workers to study.

To do it right, you needed to identify people who did the exact same job and divide them into two cohorts, with group one working from home and the other working in an office.

A Stanford University economics professor named Nicholas Bloom and a graduate student named James Liang, who was CEO and co-founder of the biggest travel agency in China, came up with a solution. They used Liang's employees for research, studying 250 call center employees who worked from home, and 250 who worked in an office.

I wrote about their study back in 2017. In short, the work-from-home employees were more productive than the in-office ones. But at the end of the study, half of the work-from-home cohort decided that they missed the office, and came back at least part time.

Thanks to the pandemic, it's no longer hard to find subjects for these kinds of work-from-home studies. And Bloom has kept up his research.

In fact, he wrote recently that we can now predict exactly how the big, pandemic-induced workplace changes we've seen over the past two years will settle during 2022. He says employees will be divided into three distinct groups:

1. Employees who can't work from home (50 percent)

First, Bloom says about 50 percent of all employees simply won't be able to work from home. They'll have to come to an office or other workplace.

If you're running a business that involves retail or manufacturing or health care -- or most service businesses -- chances are that your employees will fall into this category.

Frankly, these are largely the lowest-paid workers, as Bloom wrote in Barron's, summarizing his projections. Moreover, they're "often angry and upset" that they've had to keep showing up in-person during the pandemic, while others skipped their commutes and pared their work wardrobes down to a single "Zoom shirt."

Most employers realize they'll have to pay these employees more and perhaps offer some creative flexibility to make up for the lack of ability to work remotely. As an example, maybe you can move employees (if they want) from an eight-hour, five-day-a-week work schedule to a 10-hour, four-day workweek.

2. Employees who can work remotely, indefinitely (10 percent)

The second category, which Bloom estimates works out to about 10 percent of workers, are those who can work remotely for good. He predicts that these will be workers who share three characteristics:

  • First, they're highly skilled and working in service roles. The examples he gives include IT support, finance, payroll, and editing.
  • Second, they haven't seen any real reduction in productivity while working from home; in fact, they may have become more productive.
  • Finally, for the most part, they're not the workers who have to manage or lead big teams. 

Worth noting: The employees in the study that Bloom and Liang did a few years ago involving Liang's company would fall into this category. 

3. Employees who will work under a hybrid model: some remote work, some in-office (40 percent)

Finally, Bloom says that the remaining 40 percent of workers will fall into a hybrid category: These workers can do a significant amount of their work remotely, but will still need to be in the office for some structured, reliable, and significant part of their time.

Bloom pegs them as working perhaps three days out of the average week in the office, and two remotely or at home. These employees' shared characteristics include:

  • Professionals and executives who have university degrees and credentials
  • Workers who either have to lead teams or are part of teams and "need face-to-face contact to be productive," as he puts it
  • But also workers who have come to value the benefit of having at least some significant chunk of their week to work from home, thus enjoying fewer commutes and "quiet time" 

In short, they enjoy this freedom and are likely to demand it or at least seek out jobs that offer it.

What other changes?

Now, if roughly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce is either going to work from home or work in a hybrid model for the long term, you can begin to imagine the second- and third-order effects this could have on a lot of our society.

For one thing, as Bloom points out, we're already seeing a "donut effect" in real estate in which hybrid workers are leaving city centers and close-in suburbs for the more exurban areas around them. 

They're willing to endure a longer commute (it's only two or three days a week), if it means a bigger house and yard, for example.

True remote workers, for that matter, can relocate anywhere they want. Already, we're seeing more rural states like Vermont, Virginia, and Oklahoma offering financial incentives to remote workers who will consider moving there (and bringing their jobs, spending power, and tax dollars).

Heck, even foreign countries have been waiving visa requirements for remote workers. Want to live in Barbados, Bermuda, or Costa Rica, for example? They all have programs.

Working from home is going to continue to be a big business in and of itself: technology, culture, and best practices will be big opportunities for growth. 

As for offices themselves, well, I'm sorry to say that open offices are now the true wave of the future. It's simply a lot harder to justify private office spaces for people who will only use them 50 percent of the time.

Plus, if the whole point of having people in the office is to improve communication and teamwork, I think I hear a lot of talk about not letting there literally be walls between them.