The Government Accountability Office (GAO) took a deep dive into the effects of telework – also known as remote work or “work from home” – and found that while it generally has a positive effect on productivity and performance, the long-term effects of telework remain unknown.

In a new report, GAO analyzed the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), the American Community Survey (ACS), and 44 other reputable studies that examined the relationship between telework and worker productivity and firm performance.

Telework became an important part of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic starting in early 2020. Not surprisingly, GAO found a sharp increase in telework from 2019 to 2021.

In its analysis of the ATUS, GAO found that the estimated percentage of workers who teleworked for any portion of their average workday increased from 24 percent in 2019 to 38 percent in 2021.

Similarly, in its analysis of the ACS, GAO found that the estimated percentage of workers who primarily teleworked in the prior work week more than tripled from 5.7 percent in 2019 to 17.9 percent in 2021.

GAO found that telework also had a positive impact on worker productivity and firm performance. However, the government watchdog noted that it’s difficult to estimate telework’s long-term impacts because some jobs don’t have measurable outputs, and some – like workforce attrition – aren’t measurable yet.

“For example, a study of a Chinese call center found that telework increased productivity by 13 percent. Some studies also found that telework mitigated the negative impact of the pandemic on firm performance and the economy,” the report says.

“Estimating the long-term impacts of telework is difficult however because some economic effects may emerge only over time,” it continues. “For example, studies GAO reviewed identified potential cost savings from reduced office space needs and potential collaboration challenges that could impact worker productivity or firm performance in the longer run.”

GAO noted that the current state of research when it comes to telework “has important gaps” across different jobs and industries.

For instance, some studies found that telework may allow firms to recruit top talent from greater geographic areas – which could improve productivity and firm performance. On the other hand, other studies found that telework may result in less innovation or impede collaboration – which could reduce productivity or firm performance over time.

“Evolving remote work practices, new measures of productivity, and future research could illuminate key opportunities and challenges associated with telework, including how new technologies and business practices might best harness the benefits and manage challenges from the growth of telework across the economy,” GAO concludes.

GAO provided a courtesy copy of its report to the Department of Labor, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Personnel Management. All three agencies provided no comments.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.