On Wednesday, Ford Motor Company announced that its employees currently working from home to slow the spread of COVID-19—approximately 86,000 of its 186,000-member workforce—will begin returning to the office this summer, but when they do, they will have considerably more flexibility regarding when they come in to work or when they work from home (WFH). Ford’s decision aligns with findings in The Conference Board’s report, “COVID-19's Biggest Legacy: Remote Work and Its Implications for the Post-Pandemic Labor Market in the U.S.,” which explores companies’ decisions as to whether WFH fits into their plans going forward.

Before the pandemic, roughly eight percent of workers with office jobs worked primarily from home. Conventional wisdom in most industries still held that workers would be less productive outside the office, but those fears failed to materialize during the pandemic, even as WFH rates soared. Meanwhile, companies saw the long-term promise of remote work—from reduced spending on office space to massively expanding the talent pool available for hire.

“Remote work worked in 2020, with workers and employers reporting increased productivity on recent surveys,” says Gad Levanon, vice president, labor markets, at The Conference Board. “But 2020 was also a year like no other, full of stressors likely to drive employees to work harder and longer. Whether remote work can be as effective in normal economic conditions remains to be seen. Leaders need to be armed with trusted in-house performance analytics—and a clear-eyed view on collaboration and culture—as they seek the optimal balance of remote work in the months and years ahead.”

Dana Peterson, chief economist of The Conference Board, adds “Beyond its impact on individual organizations, the rise of remote work has the potential to transform the U.S. economy and society as a whole. If WFH trends hold, millions of workers may relocate over the next decade in search of lower living expenses and higher quality of life. As employees disperse beyond commuter zones, companies may find it increasingly difficult to reverse a decision to embrace remote work.”

The report found that the pandemic rapidly transformed employers’ attitudes toward remote work. The Conference Board says that survey data and hiring trends point to much of this change becoming permanent. More than one out of three HR leaders surveyed expect 40 percent or more of their workforce to be primarily remote after the pandemic subsides—compared to just one in 20 before COVID-19. Also, occupations that were already trending toward remote work before the pandemic are among the least likely to return to the office. These include computer and mathematical (68 percent WFH due to the COVID-19, as of January 2021), legal (58 percent), and business and financial operations (54 percent). In addition, online job listings reveal how fully remote work is woven into the fabric of labor markets in key fields. A February 2021 analysis found 10.8 percent of ads for actuaries and eight percent for software developers now mention WFH—up from less than two percent a year ago.

Employers are looking farther afield for talent, giving them access to a much larger candidate pool and potentially lower labor costs. Among HR leaders surveyed for report, 10 percent would hire fully remote staff based anywhere in the world, up from five percent pre-pandemic; 26 percent would hire fully remote staff based anywhere in the U.S., up from seven percent; 51 percent would hire remote staff who can occasionally commute to the office, up from 40 percent; and 12 percent would not hire any remote staff, down from 48 percent before the pandemic.

Remote work is highly stratified by race, age and gender, The Conference Board says. It warns that within organizations and across the economy, the ability to WFH risks becoming a fault line that leaves many behind. The report notes that relatively few industrial and manual services occupations can be done at home. Demographic groups concentrated in these jobs are thus least likely to work remotely during the pandemic. It also says that hybrid models that combine remote and onsite work give employees the flexibility to choose what works best for them but may also inadvertently exacerbate gender inequities in the workplace. Organizations considering post-pandemic hybrid options are encouraged to take care to ensure women who choose to work from home are not, consciously or unconsciously, penalized in career advancement versus men who are able to put in “facetime” in the office.

There are also geographic differences within the U.S. The share of workers working remotely due to the pandemic has been highest on the West Coast and in the Northeast. The Conference Board’s report says that pandemic-era policy differences may survive as long-term geographic disparities. Workers and companies in states that adopted more restrictive social-distancing policies were forced to go remote most extensively during the crisis—and are best placed to continue when it ends. All else being equal, Americans are more likely to have shifted to WHF due to COVID-19 if they live in large metro areas and/or areas with high usage of public transportation.