One Listener’s Reaction to PUAC 2021 Session on The Future of Work: What Does it Look Like?
On Day 2 of Page Up Annual Conference, Professor Nicholas Bloom reviewed his research and participated in a Q&A session around the future state of workplace dynamics.
This quick response is by no means a critique of the session or study. I liked the topic and content as it piqued my curiosity. Think of this piece as my rugged interpretation of what the next iteration of studies would or could be. The culmination of even the most thorough research leaves room and foundation for further studies and includes an acknowledgment of challenges and opportunities as well.
I appreciate the rigor it takes to use science and data as a crystal ball (I am a recovering engineer, after all, who loves numbers, projections, research, and complex concepts). The research led me to areas that I’d like to explore further, sending me down a rabbit hole of weekend research of my own.
To quickly summarize the discussion, Dr. Bloom covered a vast body of research that his team has conducted monthly since May of 2020, which finds that hybrid work is not just the current situation and a quick-fix, but a possible future state for at least half of workers. The other 50% of jobs cannot be done remotely (e.g., front-line workers, essential manufacturing workers).
Perhaps my reaction to the session is a result of the constant DEI lens that I wear, or my inability to relate to the stat about moms with kids under the age of 12 who generally want to WFH (I am a mom of kids under the age of 12 and I miss the office). In my opinion, the entire research framework could have had diversity, equity and inclusion embedded and considered throughout as opposed to being a separate observation. At some point during the Q&A portion, Dr. Bloom mentioned the difference in demographics between hourly workers and managers and professionals. Still, I couldn’t find the specific data and was left to guess what he meant by the “demographic differences found” in hourly workers vs. professionals. My thought process is that who we are can provide some insight into why we responded a certain way on a survey.
I also wonder if the researcher’s questionnaire considered household size and if the breadwinner or caretaker was always mom. Recent research indicates that over 40% of U.S. Moms are either the family breadwinner or co-breadwinners. While the narrative of moms as the primary role of caregiver at home still is largely supported by research and data, what’s missing from this data is the added variable of juggling caregiving with work. Dr. Bloom did point out that the desire to WFH rate was higher for women with children under the age of 12, but it didn’t tell us much about those women. Were they straight women with male spouses or single moms, for example? At the time of the survey, were their kids also doing remote school? The poverty threshold for a family of 3 is a little over $21,000, so how many of these households fell in that category since the survey included individuals who made $20,000 or more? Furthermore, we’ve seen that more dads are taking on the role of primary caregivers, with a desire to spend more time with their children, a trend not reflected.
I’d love to also see weaving in of secondary research in the updated monthly studies. PwC, for example, did a Hopes and Fears Survey this year representing over 32,000 employees internationally. In a deep dive presentation of the survey, the researchers mentioned that much of the data we see around the Great Resignation is a phenomenon of people who have the confidence to reskill or upskill because they are either highly educated (bachelors or greater) or are digital natives. I think that parallels the 50% of subjects in Dr. Bloom’s study that are seeking hybrid work.
Finally, according to the WFH Research team’s findings, technology has been critical in leading this shift. But I also wonder about those whose socioeconomic conditions limit access to technology and the internet. How does that play a factor in the desire or need to go back to the office? I thought about the countless candidate interviews I’ve done with potential employees who take their remote interviews from a public library computer or their phone because they don’t have a personal computer. In the same vein, those whose internet bandwidth suffers because of geography or limited wifi suppliers. I did, later, find a separate study on internet access implications on Dr. Bloom’s research page, if you’re interested. It’s understandable that in a short 55-minute session, the key takeaways would be high level, so perhaps in a world of more affordable smartphones and free wifi in cafes, this was not a must-hit point.
My rabbit hole of research turned up more questions than answers, but I hope that as we start to rely more on data to give us compelling insights into the aggregate story, that the demographic segmentation and breakdowns are shared as well. This will enable us as researchers to more profoundly understand who we are surveying, the impetus for their responses, and the story behind the summary of findings.
In taking my own advice, the DAA report could use some additional segmenting as well if we are to make improvements for our industry in particular. We didn’t have the 48,000 respondents that Dr. Bloom’s study amassed, so some of the data splices might have sacrificed anonymity, but nonetheless, we will work on it.
Overall, I give this session 9 out of 10. Would recommend. It led me to both research and reflect. What has been your experience throughout the pandemic? Do these findings resonate with you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.