Remote workers most at risk of being replaced by robots, hybrid work guru says

Nicholas Bloom says hybrid, remote work much more successful than anticipated

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Long before a global pandemic normalized working from home, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, was crunching numbers on the topic. But even academia’s biggest cheerleader for hybrid work has been surprised by how much it has stuck.

His latest research shows that 60 per cent of Americans and Northern Europeans don’t have  a remote option, such as people who work at restaurants or drive cars for a living. Another 30 per cent are hybrid, mostly working from home two days a week, and the remaining 10 per cent are fully remote. “Employees typically want to work from home about three days a week,” he said. “If you interview senior managers, they want more like one. So you have, this almost haggling.”

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For Bloom, two days at home is the sweet spot. “Think about a typical week: Monday, Friday I’m at home. I save on the commute. It’s quiet, I recharge. I have time to do email, reading, writing,” he said. “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I’m in the office — a lot of mentoring, meetings, presentations.”

Work Shift contributing columnist Julia Hobsbawm talked with Bloom about how the work-from-home revolution continues to unfold and why remote workers are most at risk of being replaced by robots. (Questions and responses have been edited and condensed).

You called what we’re experiencing a mass social experiment in working arrangements, and the speed and scale of it is what’s surprising and important isn’t it?

I don’t think there’s been anything this big and this fast probably since World War II. What we saw is millions of men went off to fight. Millions of women were called in to work in factories, shops, governments. And society discovered what’s obvious now — but it wasn’t obvious back then — that women can do these jobs just as well as men and in many cases better. That stuck. The men came back and the female labour force participation jumped. It’s the only other thing that’s similar because the pandemic generated this massive jump that everyone turned around and said: ‘Wow, this work from home, it isn’t perfect, but we should be doing a lot more of it than we used to.’

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With AI now in the workspace,  how much will it have an impact on the future of working from home and our job security?

If you are hybrid, you’re coming into the office, let’s say three days a week. AI probably helps you out. It makes you more productive. It helps you design and write stuff.  So for hybrid workers, I don’t see in the near term that it’s really a threat. I f anything, it’s maybe supporting that job.  It’s very different if you’re fully remote.  AI potentially —  particularly if you’re doing a repetitive, relatively basic job — could replace your job. If you think of AI, the software side of it or the visual side or voice side is really pretty good. If this was a Zoom call, I could almost just about be AI. After I didn’t respond very well, you may figure it out. If I was in person, the robot that replaces me is vastly clunky and it’s just never going to work.  If you think of data entry, call centres, HR, payroll  — this kind of thing that’s fully remote —  a lot of this may be replaced by AI in five to 10 years.

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What has been the most surprising piece of data you’ve uncovered in all of this research?

It’s that work from home has worked so much. If you had asked me, ‘If there’s a global pandemic and everyone was forced home, what will happen?’ I would have probably said it would be chaos. The economy will collapse. As it’s happened, it’s worked out surprisingly well. By 2023, we’re probably better off. Productivity is a bit higher from some folks being hybrid. So I’ve just been amazed how well it’s worked and it makes you think, what else is out there we should change?

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