One-third of work in Europe could be remote post-pandemic

23 December 2020 6 min. read

With a Covid-19 vaccine gradually being deployed, many employees remain reluctant to return to working full-time at the office. According to a new study from McKinsey & Company, one-third of work in Europe’s leading economies could continue to be done remotely even after the pandemic subsides.

One of the persisting worries among many bosses during the Covid-19 pandemic is that working from home means staff become less productive. According to recent research, while the majority of employers are still seeing a narrow improvement on their productivity, many companies have failed to adapt their learning culture to engage with employees digitally during lockdown – something which bodes poorly for long-term productivity, as does the huge toll that the lockdown months have taken on the mental health of staff.

On the other hand, many workers have also intimated that while they might welcome a partial return to the traditional workplace, they have little desire to go back to the daily grind of a 9-5 office schedule either.

Potential share of time spent working remotely by sector in the United States

Around 52% of UK staff recently said they had enjoyed a better work-life balance in the lockdown months, something that came as a revelation to 40% of staff, who had not realised how bad things had been beforehand. As a result, if employers cannot meet their needs, more than one-third of workers are also mooting a career change.

In order to examine how well equipped employers are to meet these new demands from their workforce, McKinsey & Company has polled employers across a mix of different sectors and national economies. According to the findings of the consultancy, around one-third of roles could be performed remotely without a productivity loss in the future – however the exact potential for remote work varies drastically between certain sectors.

Understandably, jobs which rely on a heavy degree of manual labour or physical input at the site where a product is created are not well-suited to remote work. According to McKinsey, only about 7% of work in agriculture could be done remotely without the loss of productivity, while accommodation and food services similarly hovered around the 8% mark. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, more than three-quarters of all finance and insurance work could be done from home without it impacting productivity.

Similarly, management, business services, and information technology have the next highest potential, all with more than half of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely. Meanwhile, manufacturing, transport and warehousing and construction again rely on high levels of physical input from labour in person.

Potential share of time spent working remotely by countryThe potential for remote work does not only vary across sectors, however. Even in an apparently globalised world, there remains a significant disconnect in the digitalisation of several of the world’s leading economies. McKinsey found that workers in China and India could only spend between 12% and 22% of their time working remotely before they would lose large amounts of productivity.

At the same time, the UK could see workers spend between 33% and 46% of their time working remotely before the same thing occurred.

This may be because business and financial services are a large share of the UK economy, for example, and it has the highest potential for remote work among the countries examined. However,  other advanced economies like Germany, the US and Japan are not far behind; their workforces could dedicate 28% to 30% of their time to working remotely without losing productivity – suggesting that the drive to digitalise businesses in advanced economies has left them significantly better positioned to adapt to remote work.

According to McKinsey, despite this, even in advanced economies, the majority of the workforce cannot work remotely full time. In the UK, 52% of staff cannot work even a day remotely, due to the physical nature of their work. This rises even further in other advanced economies. Importantly, however, the report also confirms that many staff could work some of the standard working week at home, if not all of it.

Workforce with remote-work potential by number of days per weekAs employees across the UK, US, Germany, France and Spain contend with the assertion of employers that the end of the pandemic – whenever that is – is a cause to return to ‘normal’ office hours, it is worth noting that at least 36% of each of those countries could work a minimum of one day from home, without losing productivity. In the UK, this rises to 48%, while in Germany 27% of workers could work between three and five days remotely and still be as productive. Again, the possibilities for working remotely vary from job to job.

The researchers suggested that a floral designer might do between half and one-quarter of their job remotely, including taking orders by phone or online and contract for delivery through an app – however, floral arrangement itself requires being in a shop where the flowers are stored in a refrigerated case. To make a floral designer’s job more remote would require dividing the various tasks among all employees in a flower shop.

In contrast, credit analysts, database administrators, and tax preparers, among others, can do virtually all of their work remotely. In general, workers whose jobs require problem solving, managing and developing people, and data processing have the greatest potential to work from home.

Looking at this in more detail, McKinsey concluded, “This mixed pattern of remote and physical activities of each occupation helps explain the results. Across all sectors, 38% of respondents expect their remote employees to work two or more days a week away from the office after the pandemic, compared to 22% of respondents surveyed before the pandemic.”

“But just 19% of respondents to the most recent survey said they expected employees to work three or more days remotely. This suggests that executives anticipate operating their businesses with a hybrid model of some sort, with employees working remotely and from an office during the workweek.”