Ep 11: The Economist POV: WFH Research’s Jose Maria Barrero Shares In-Depth Studies on Hybrid Work

Wednesday, May 15, 2024
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  • Ideal number of WFH days for productivity and mental health (broken out by education)
  • Should employees have 100% choice? Or more guardrails?
  • Evolving trends (e.g., commuting distance) in hiring for hybrid workplaces
  • The top 3 reasons people want to go into the office (hint: it’s not ping pong)
  • The future of hybrid work: balancing in-person and remote interactions

In this episode, I sat down with Jose Maria Barrero, applied economist, co-founder of WFH Research, and assistant professor of finance at ITAM Business School. In May 2022, he and his WFH Research co-founder Nick Bloom realized there was no timely data on working from home. They knew they could get good information off the ground very quickly and started running a survey of a few thousand individuals in the U.S. Since July 2020, they’ve conducted a survey every month.

Together, we delve into his work with WFH Research, insights on how working from home has evolved, the optimal hybrid schedule, productivity considerations, hiring changes, and more.

The Evolution of Remote Work Since May 2020

Jose Maria Barrero shared that the main statistic they tracked for remote work was the number of paid “working from home” days. In May 2020, around 60% of paid work days occurred remotely. This number has since dropped and stabilized at around 28%, a figure Barrero suggested indicates a “new equilibrium” for the amount of working from home in the economy. This range—between two and three remote days on average—is that sweet spot for knowledge workers balancing productivity, connectivity needs, and personal preferences.

About 28% of paid days in the U.S. in March 2024 were work-from-home days. (Source: Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA))

Barrero pointed out that while two to three remote days may be typical, the hybrid arrangement that makes the most sense depends greatly on specific roles. He noted that “there’s still a lot of dispersion” in needs and preferences, contrasting his own hybrid schedule as a professor—fully onsite for teaching but otherwise mostly off-site—with the needs of managers who may need to come in more frequently for collaborative sessions. This variability is common even within the same industry.

Productivity and Mental Health Implications of Hybrid Work Models

Jose Maria Barrero shared an experiment that found that when call center workers worked from home, they worked a little bit longer during the day and were more productive on a daily basis. A second, more recent experiment with knowledge workers at the same firm found that people were much more satisfied and that the employee turnover rate was lower when people could work some days from home. 

Barrero pointed out that people can be more productive by not having to commute to the office five days a week, as the time they save is added productivity in an economic sense. Factors such as reduced commute time positively impact mental health, while the productivity gains from remote work may vary based on the nature of the job.

We also discussed the varying opinions on the ideal number of work-from-home days for mental well-being. In Barrero's research, he found significant differences by education. Workers with only a high school education were much more likely to say "no working from home" was best for their mental health than workers with a four-year college degree. The difference could boil down to the kinds of jobs people are doing.

Working from home is most prevalent in the tech, finance, and professional and business services sectors. (Source: Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA))

Employee Choice and Team Coordination in Hybrid Workplaces

With such wide variations in optimal remote and onsite splits, Jose Maria Barrero emphasized that personalization and coordination across teams are key. Organizations should give employees some flexibility based on personal needs, but he cautioned against giving employees 100% choice. Fully personalized schedules mean no synchrony, which undermines the purpose of in-office time. If organizations give individuals 100% choice, then that affects workers’ ability to be together to socialize, build relationships, and have discussions. 

Barrero shared that the path forward should blend employee choice within guardrails that guide teams to shared onsite days. He believes we’re moving to a world where different organizations will set up different equilibria. One company might have employees come in four days a week, while another might have them come in one or two days a week. Eventually, employees with different needs and preferences will gravitate toward the jobs that best fit them.

Evolving Trends in Hiring for Hybrid Workplaces

We explored the evolution of hiring practices, specifically how organizations now hire employees who live farther away from the office. Jose Maria Barrero attributed this shift to the rise of remote work and the ability to hire the best talent regardless of proximity to the workplace. He shared an experiment they conducted with a payroll processing company. They compared the distance between people's homes and their workplaces before the pandemic to now and saw that distance increased over time. In 2019, the typical employee lived 10 miles away from work on average. That has crept up closer to 30 miles—about three times bigger than it was.

In a world where remote work is possible, employers can easily hire the best people even if they live outside the commuting distance of an office. If workers only have to come in one or two days a week, they can bear that commute one or two times a week versus doing it daily. Barrero shared that some existing employees have moved a little farther away from the office because they don't have to go to the office every day. In that sense, working from home is a boon to employers because they can hire the best person with fewer constraints.

Crafting Clear and Intentional Hybrid Work Policies

Jose Maria Barrero stressed that leaders should be clear and intentional about why teams come into the office and communicate that vision clearly. It is problematic to ask your employees to go in most days a week and not make the in-person benefits clear to them. Barrero emphasized that telling people they must be in and enticing them with free lunches or donuts don't work well. People have made it clear that's not why they want to be in the office. 

Quality, ease of travel, and equipment are the top three features of an office, according to workers. (Source: Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA))

Barrero believes employers should intentionally craft hybrid work policies to ensure clarity and alignment with employee needs and job requirements. Employees like going to the office to socialize and collaborate in person, and they like staying at home to avoid the commute and save money. When in-office days feel purposeful, employees buy into hybrid strategies more. When the reasons are unclear or underwhelming (like free food), employee engagement suffers.

The Future of Hybrid Work: Balancing In-Person and Remote Interactions

We delved into the optimal amount of remote work, emphasizing the importance of balancing in-person and remote interactions. Jose Maria Barrero shared that there are almost three times more people in hybrid work than in fully remote work. Some in-person components are important for most people who can work from home. While fully remote work may work for some, most knowledge workers benefit from a hybrid model.

We also touched on the pandemic's lasting impact on remote interactions and the increased use of technology for communication. Barrero believes that working from home has stuck because the pandemic forced everyone to learn how it worked. People are now more familiar with remote interactions, such as talking via Zoom or sending messages over Slack. People realized that it works to some degree for many activities and many of us, and so that's why it stuck.


WFH Research is a project started by economists Jose Maria Barrero and Nick Bloom studying the shift to working from home and its implications for businesses, managers, and workers in the United States and around the world. They regularly survey thousands of Americans about their remote work experiences.



Jenny Moebius

SVP @ Skedda | Angel Investor

Jenny is a top Go-To-Market (GTM) leader in the Greater Boston area, where she has a track record of building powerful brands and categories, generating demand (for both sales- and product-led orgs), and creating energizing mission-driven cultures of belonging in the B2B tech space.


Jose Maria Barrero

WFH Research co-founder | Assistant professor of finance

Jose Maria Barrero is an assistant professor of finance at ITAM Business School and applied economist with interests in finance, macro, and labor. He co-founded WFH Research with Stanford professor Nick Bloom to study the shift to remote work in the U.S. during COVID-19 and beyond.

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