Digital Adoption is a Resilience Imperative

Written by Kate Wittels, Jessica Jiang, and Renee Barton
Over the past few months, digital tools have become indispensable to those who can accomplish their jobs digitally. As stay-at-home orders were put in place across the country, some Americans, many of whom were white, more educated, and higher income, were able to trade the open office for the open kitchen. For those workers, over half would prefer to continue to work remotely; Germany is considering mandating that all workers have the option to continue to work from home post-pandemic; and Twitter has announced that its employees will have the option to continue working from home indefinitely. In contrast, other workers, often lower-income, female, and non-white, were unable to conduct their work virtually and had to choose between a paycheck or exposure to the virus.
Recent studies from the St. Louis Fed and the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute estimate that between 33% and 37% of all occupations can be conducted virtually. While some occupations can easily transition to virtual work, such as web developers, accountants, and writers, jobholders in many other occupations, such as teachers, health care providers and researchers, will tell you that, while they can technically work from home, they cannot do their jobs effectively with only a home laptop and residential internet access.
To understand which occupations can work effectively from home and which cannot, we evaluated Occupational Information Network (O*NET) work activity profiles to develop the following four categories of occupations: (1) jobs with the ability to conduct work virtually today, (2) jobs with the ability to conduct work virtually with additional investments or planning, (3) jobs that cannot be conducted virtually and are non-essential, and (4) jobs that cannot be conducted virtually and are essential. We classified all occupations based on these four classifications, evaluating the distribution of jobs across classifications, and considering income, ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and broadband access.

We conclude that a somewhat higher percentage than assumed by the St. Louis Fed and U. Chicago Becker Friedman Institute could work remotely, but that doing so effectively will require investments in universal access to high-speed internet, comprehensive training on virtual tools, and more user-friendly technology. Nationally, we believe only 23% of all jobs can easily transition to work from home effectively – i.e. in the midst of this pandemic, only 23% of American workers are able to perform their jobs at full productivity from home. If there were universal access to high-speed internet, comprehensive training on virtual tools, and more user-friendly technology, we estimate that an additional 19% of jobs could be performed productively in a virtual environment.
Included in this 19% are both jobs where the technology exists, but the training does not (e.g. teachers), and jobs that require technological innovation (e.g. scientists). Nearly a third of these workers (9 million) are in educational occupations, 1.2 million are in health care, and nearly 900,000 are scientists and researchers. While these jobs span a wide range of average income levels – from $46,000 for social service occupations to more than $100,000 in legal occupations – these are mostly middle-class jobs with a median wage of $55,000.
As we recover from COVID-19, and policymakers craft strategies to invest in universal broadband to build long-term resilience, they will need to remember that:

  1. Not all cities are created equal. In New Orleans, where the economy is driven largely by tourism, hospitality, and service jobs, only 19% of jobs can currently be conducted virtually. Conversely, in Washington DC, 33% of jobs can already be conducted virtually. If New Orleans prioritized universal broadband access, training, and technology development, an additional 19% of people could work virtually, meaning the overall share of the economy that could withstand future shocks would be closer to 38%.


  3. Class and gender will need to be considered to obtain results that are both equitable and efficient. Currently, more than two-thirds of workers who could potentially work from home with further investments or planning cannot afford access to high-speed internet. Compounding the technological constraints, the majority of occupations that could work from home with better investment are performed by women (57% compared to a national average of 49%). With schools closed, the need for childcare and household support systems are needed now more than ever. Particularly in denser cities, many workers are finding their living arrangements too crowded to provide a quiet place to think.


  5. Race is unsurprisingly also a major differentiator of those who may benefit from remote working and those who will not. Nationally, non-white workers hold only 31% of jobs that can be conducted virtually, with or without investment. In the aggregate, jobs that cannot be conducted virtually pay less – an average income of $37,000 – and have lower educational requirements – 93% of these jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree. To ensure a more just and resilient recovery, reskilling programs will need to acknowledge racial inequities.


  7. Government will have to create markets, as it has in the past. Technological innovation has transformed numerous consumer products and services, such as food delivery and transportation. Widespread adoption of technology by institutional sectors such as education, health care, and government has not occurred at the same pace. This is in large part because conventional sources of capital (e.g. venture investors) have yet to formulate strategies to navigate these sectors, which often have numerous stakeholders with sometimes competing agendas and complex regulatory barriers. Our long, successful history of government investing in medical research, military technology, space travel, and other major innovations, and then seeing the payoff in citizen well-being, is a precedent to which we should turn.
    The COVID-19 pandemic is a reckoning for how we produce, consume, and learn. As a critical first response, to achieve magnitude of change needed, we need to tailor policy and funding approaches to local dynamics. Through strategic investments in high-speed internet, comprehensive training, and accelerated adoption of virtual technologies, more Americans could have the option to work virtually, allowing them to better withstand future shocks and enabling a more just and resilient path forward.