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Working from home during Covid and women’s job satisfaction

Opinion image

The Covid-19 pandemic saw a dramatic transformation in where and how many people work, with governments imposing stay-at-home orders directing all employed persons who could work from home to do so. While the incidence of working from home subsequently declined as restrictions on businesses were eased, the prevalence of working from home has remained much higher than pre-pandemic. In the US, for example, the fraction of workers reporting usually working from home in the previous week tripled between 2019 and 2021, from 6% to 18%. Similarly, survey data for Australia (from the HILDA Survey) show the proportion of employed persons working at least half of their usual weekly hours from home rose from 6% to 24%.

Many have argued that the trend toward working from home is here to stay, with employers discovering potential productivity gains from moving to hybrid work arrangements, and employees attracted by potential lifestyle benefits. With respect to the latter point, a long line of research documents positive associations between teleworking and self-reported job satisfaction. Most of that research, however, was conducted pre-Covid, and therefore in an era when working from home was relatively uncommon and was concentrated on highly selective sub-populations (especially the self-employed). 

We have re-examined this question using data from a large-scale longitudinal survey in Australia (the HILDA Survey), investigating whether changes in the extent of remote working between 2019 and 2021 were related to changes in reported job satisfaction.

For men, there is no evidence that changes in the share of total weekly work hours usually worked from home had any significant association with changes in job satisfaction. In contrast, a strong significant positive (but non-linear) association existed among women, especially among those with children. Mothers who worked at home between 60% and 80% of the time had a level of job satisfaction almost 1 point higher on a 0 to 10 scale compared to when they did not work from home at all. Women without children reported around a 1/4-point increase.

These findings suggest the main benefit of working from home for workers arises from the improved ability to combine work and family responsibilities, something that matters more to women given they continue to shoulder most of the responsibility for house and care work.

The marked gender difference in our findings suggests that the rise in home working may have implications for gender equality. If working from home becomes much more common in the post-Covid era, it will be women who are most likely to take advantage of this. This in turn could facilitate greater labor market participation by women, and particularly mothers. On the other hand, this could also be a factor that will work to further widen the gender wage gap, if wages adjust to compensate for the non-wage benefits of working from home. Furthermore, and perhaps more crucially, in organizations where workers have the flexibility to choose where to work, there is the danger that people who work from home more often may be more likely to be overlooked for pay rises, promotions, and other opportunities that enhance career progression. 

In short, the greater ease of working from home has had immediate benefits for women with children. Whether those benefits persist in the longer term is an open question.

© Mark Wooden, Inga Laß, and Esperanza Vera-Toscano

Mark Wooden is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne, and an IZA Research Fellow.
Ina Laß is Senior Researcher at the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), Wiesbaden.
Esperanza Vera-Toscano is Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.

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