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Post: : Labor Department makes key change to jobs questionnaire to reflect key shift in white-collar work

As the economy added another 263,000 jobs and the unemployment rate ticked down in September, the jobs report also showed that the share of workers telecommuting because of the pandemic continued edging down, falling to 5.2% from 6.5% the previous month.

The statistic about COVID-19-induced work-from-home keeps telling the story how America’s white collar workers are ebbing away from fully remote work. It’s no flip back to pre-pandemic times, but more employees are making it back into the office at least a little bit more.

But what’s also telling is the fact that the September jobs report marks the last time Bureau of Labor Statistics is presenting this data in its current version.

There’s going to be changes in the questions because the queries in their current wording are “less relevant than they were earlier in the pandemic,” the agency said Friday.

Starting in May 2020, jobs reports have been providing information on COVID-related questions including: “At any time in the LAST 4 WEEKS, did you telework or work at home for pay BECAUSE OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC?”

The September jobs report marks the last time Bureau of Labor Statistics is presenting remote working data in their current version.

In May 2020, more than one third of America’s workforce, 35.4%, answered yes.

But in October, the question became “At any time LAST WEEK did you telework or work at home for pay?” Another question quizzes participants who did work remotely about how many hours they spent during the week working away from the office’s physical premises.

The questions come in a portion of the data where Census Bureau staffers call households to ask about their employment situation and the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the data in its jobs reports, a spokeswoman said. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not decided when it will publish the data, she noted.

The revamped questions are still presented with a questionnaire introduction that nods to COVID’s labor-market consequences. But they are still a sign of the ways remote and hybrid work have become engrained in America’s white-collar sector as the pandemic fades.

“The old question was becoming less relevant,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor.com, a website for job searches and employee reviews.

It may be trickier these days to sift out who was away from the office because of the virus and who was away due to the shift surrounding office work, Zhao said. “At this point in the pandemic, the reason for many who are working from home is because that’s new norm for their work.”

The labor department researchers say they are trying to gather more precise data to paint on the prevalence of remote and hybrid work, he noted.

C-suite response

Earlier this week, a survey of CEOs in America and in other countries asked business leaders how they envisioned their staff’s working arrangements in the coming three years. In a sharp distinction, the most-cited choice for U.S. business leaders was a hybrid arrangement. Globally, the most-cited choice was sticking with in-office work.

On one side, 45% of U.S.-based CEOs told KPMG, the international accounting, auditing and advisory firm, that hybrid work would be their office arrangement looking ahead three years. Meanwhile, two-thirds of CEOs in the global survey said in-office would be the arrangement.

Some companies have gone fully remote. Airbnb 

launched a “live and work anywhere” program for its employees. With more cities instituting strict rules around short-term stays, the company clearly has a vested interest in leading by example and having its employees work from home. Shopify
Slack and Coinbase 

have similar policies.

A large number of companies are allowing their employees to work on a hybrid schedule, meaning a few days a week at home and a few days a week in the office. They include Twitter 
Facebook parent Meta

and, of course, Zoom

  — another company that obviously benefits from people working at least part of the time from home.

A separate survey from the presentation software provider beautiful.ai raised the stakes on sticking with fully remote work. Six in ten managers in the poll said it was “likely” and/or “extremely likely” that remote workers would be the first to get pink slips if recessions forced job cuts.

“Yes, a return-to-office debate is happening,” Zhao told MarketWatch on Friday. “But even setting that aside, remote work is here to stay. It certainly is going to be much bigger part of the workplace.”

(Quentin Fottrell contributed to this story.)

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