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The Overlooked Benefits of Work-from-Home Opportunities


February 16, 2024

The traditional boundaries that define where and how we work are rapidly dissolving. Driven by advancing technology and worker demand, work-from-home (WFH) opportunities remain common across a range of industries and are growing in popularity. This shift, while significant for all, holds particular promise for one demographic: moms. 

A recent study by Emma Harrington and Matthew E. Kahn delves into the benefits these opportunities can bring for mothers. Using data from US household surveys and time-diaries to assess the prevalence of WFH, they found that in fields where the opportunity to work remotely increased, so too did the employment rates of mothers compared to women without children. Specifically, a 10 percent rise in WFH led to an approximately 0.78 percentage point increase in employment among mothers relative to other women, with significant narrowing of employment gaps in traditionally less family-friendly fields such as finance and marketing. Notably, an analogous effect was not found for men.

The study suggests that WFH has the potential to contribute to gender equality in the labor market by reducing the so-called motherhood penalty, a term that encapsulates the financial and career setbacks women often face when they have children. This contrasts sharply with a fatherhood “bonus” men receive when they have children. 

It also suggests potential benefits for families and children: More WFH opportunities means that caregivers—whether men or women—can get more of the best of both worlds, easing the difficult task of balancing the needs of kids with the opportunity to work. In light of what we know about child development, WFH arrangements may also have significant impacts on the next generation, who can benefit from greater parental attention and care as well as increased family income. 

Those who fear that WFH will undermine productivity should take note. WFH opportunities might also entice American workers—who overwhelmingly value flexibility at work—to stay in the labor market where their contributions add much to production, productivity, and living standards.

Of course, there’s an important caveat. As the pandemic taught us, WFH is a luxury, usually confined to knowledge workers whose job permits asynchronous work. The benefits Harrington and Kahn identify, then, are likely to accrue disproportionately to these workers, who are more likely to be educated and financially well-off. This gives workers a reason to continue to acquire education and skill and employers an incentive to re-examine workflows, systems, and policies to increase the WFH opportunities.

To be sure, remote work is not the panacea for all that ails the labor market, from labor participation, to barriers facing “hidden workers,” and the uncertain impacts of generative AI. Yet in some industries it may help to move the needle in support of a critical segment of our population. Harrington and Kahn provide a glimpse into a future where the labor market is, even by a small amount, more fair and human-centered.