The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp increase in remote work. Policymakers, public health officials, and employers began asking workers to work from home as part of social distancing in mid-March 2020.
As offices, stores, and schools closed, fewer commuters meant lower traffic volumes. In early April, weekday average traffic volume in Oregon was at 43% lower than for the same week in 2019.
Initially, there was speculation this would be a permanent and dramatic change. Prior to the pandemic, adoption of telecommuting was slow. Company culture and lack of investment in infrastructure made telework an exception. The pandemic forced a swift culture shift. Working remotely became a necessity for many industries rather than a rare privilege.
Many workers liked the flexibility and employers began to think about downsizing expensive office space. As the region watched the flood of workers from San Francisco relocate to less expensive cities, including Bend and Austin, eyes to the local housing market. Would transplants from more expensive west coast cities exacerbate the housing crunch in our region? Should the city and state delay or large transportation infrastructure projects? What would remote work mean for commercial districts in central cities?
New data suggests the shift to teleworking might not be as pronounced as originally thought. By the fall, the number of remote workers across the United States was in decline. Prior to the approval of vaccinations, and even as cases rose, workers were returning to their offices. We don’t yet have good numbers about how many workers in Oregon are working remotely, but national numbers provide insight into the future of telework.
Who is working remotely?
In May, 35% of American workers were working remotely. The number steadily decreased through October, rose briefly through December. In January, at the height of COVID-19 cases, just 23% of workers were working remotely. 
The pattern is consistent across gender and age. Women were more likely than men to work remotely (41% v 31% in May; 26% v 21% in January). (Table 1) This is not surprising as women bare disproportionate caregiving responsibilities and are more likely to hold jobs that support these responsibilities. Women are also more likely to work in industries and occupations that are conducive to remote work. Men, who comprise 50% of the total workforce, are overrepresented in the three industries with the lowest levels of remote work: construction 83% male; leisure and hospitality 47% male, transportation and warehousing 71% male.
Workers age 25 to 54 were more likely to work remotely than other age groups. (Table 2) In January, 26% of workers 25 to 54 worked remotely, compared to 22% of workers 55 or older and just 10% of workers age 16 to 24. Younger workers are more concentrated in service jobs where opportunities for remote work are scarce.
The ability to work from home varies across industries and occupations. Many service, retail, and manufacturing workers are unable to perform the essential duties of their jobs from a distance. Management, professional, and related occupations are the most likely to work remotely, followed by sales and office occupations. (Table 4 & Table 5) Both groups continued to have large contingents of remote workers in January 2021 (41% and 21% respectively). Together, these occupation groups account for the majority of remote workers.
Remote work is closely correlated with educational attainment. Workers with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to be able to work from home. Workers without a high school diploma were the least likely to work remotely (5% in May and 3% in January). Workers with an advanced degree were the most likely to work from home (69% in May and 51% in January).
This could bode well for many people in our region. Portland Metro has high levels of educational attainment. Forty-five percent of adults 25 years or older in Portland Metro have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to thirty-two percent nationwide.
Across the workforce, the ability to work remotely varies, but patterns of remote work are consistent. Remote work is declining. Whether it is driver by workers desire to return to the office or employers desire to have them there, fewer workers are working remotely.
 Employed persons who teleworked or worked at home for pay at any time in the last 4 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic by selected characteristics. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Effects of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic (CPS) (bls.gov)
 US Census, American Community Survey, Table S1501