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The Rise of the Distributariat

The shift to remote work during the pandemic has brought both disturbing developments, like the increased use of surveillance technology, and promising ones, like the de-linking of employment from geographic location. But without new rules of the road, workers overall will be worse off than they were before COVID-19.

WASHINGTON, DC – For over a year now, most countries have been undergoing an enormous labor-market experiment triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID-19, only about 3.6% of US workers regularly worked from home. But at its peak, the pandemic forced anywhere between 34% and 62% of US workers to do their jobs from their kitchens, living rooms, and home offices. Across OECD member states, an estimated 40% of workers have been operating from home.

Now that vaccines are being rolled out in advanced economies, we should consider what the “new normal” might look like. According to an April 2020 survey in the United States, 74% of companies are planning to “shift some employees to remote work permanently.” Similarly, a May 2020 analysis by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that companies expect the share of working days spent at home to increase threefold, with many employees operating remotely 1-3 days per week.

Behind these broad scenarios are evolving trends that will reshape how people work. Many of these trends reflect the dramatic rise in e-commerce and e-services, and some are quite alarming. But a few could lead to some positive outcomes for workers, provided that the right rules and guardrails are established.

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