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Do COVID-19 Vaccinations Mean the End of Remote Work?

Mike Marks July 8, 2021
Although COVID-19 vaccination rates are rising around the world, the fast moving Delta variant and employee satisfaction with remote work have delayed mass returns of employees to the office. Aternity data on remote vs in-office work through the first six months of 2021 shows that hybrid remote work may be here to stay, so long as IT leaders can provision their employees with devices and applications that enable them to be as productive working remotely as they are in the office.

Six months into 2021, vaccination rates are increasing around the world. At the same time, business leaders are planning their policies for remote work. Google announced a hybrid remote work model, with most employees to have the flexibility to work remotely two days a week. Others, like Morgan Stanley, have said that employees need to return to the office by September. Given that employee choice will be a factor in the policies of some companies implementing hybrid remote work, the key question is to what extent have vaccination rates to date driven a return to the office.

COVID-19 vaccination rates
Vaccination rates are increasing around the world.

Source: Our World in Data, COVID-19 vaccinations, selected countries

Analyzing Hybrid Work Trends Through Aternity’s SaaS Platform

For over a year, our Remote Work Productivity Tracker series has closely analyzed the shift to remote work, examining trends in employee productivity, device and application performance, and, of course, the overall share of remote vs. in-office work. We’ve based these reports on the millions of endpoints from more than six hundred companies being managed by the Aternity Digital Experience Management SaaS platform. As a leader in Digital Experience Management, we’ve based our analysis on a data set comprised of knowledge workers – those who depend on IT for their jobs – in industries such as finance, insurance, healthcare, manufacturing, professional services, etc. Because of that focus, the data we provide on remote vs in-office work will vary from other reports looking at ALL employees.

Trends in Remote Work vs. Vaccination Rates

One would expect to see that increasing vaccination rates lead to a drop in the share of remote work, as employees return to the office to take advantage of face-to-face collaboration and long-awaited socializing. While the hypothesis proves true in some cases, it’s far from universal.

For some countries, even those with high vaccination rates, the majority of employee continue to work remotely, showing that the shift to hybrid work is further away from a “New Normal” than expected. Remote work in some form is here to stay for the long-term.

COVID-19 vaccination rates, remote work
Change in remote work % and vaccination rates for selected countries representing Aternity’s customer base, between January 3 and June 30, 2021, shown monthly. Returns to the office reversed in most countries in June.

 

As the monthly data in the table above shows, recent trends in remote work are dynamic. Data for the months of May and June show that in every country except Israel, the percentage of employees working remotely ticked up or decreased less by less 1% despite significant increases in the share of population fully vaccinated. The likely explanation for this is the response to the fast-moving Delta variant. The graph below shows an increase in the number of daily cases of COVID-19, even in countries with large shares of the population fully vaccinated.

 

COVID-19, delta variant
The number of daily new COVID-19 cases changed significantly for some countries between May and June.

Source: Our World in Data, number of daily COVID-19 cases, selected countries

North America’s Share of Remote Work Dips Slightly Even as Mask Mandates are Removed

The United States and Canada have both seen a slight decrease in remote work share since the beginning of the year, at 0.9% and 5.96%, respectively. This figure is expected in Canada, where the national vaccination rate is 28.1%, the daily number of COVID-19 cases has continued to drop, and lockdowns were in effect longer than most countries.

In the United States, nearly half the population (46%) is fully vaccinated, but the number of daily COVID-19 cases almost doubled between May and June. Although many U.S. states relaxed mask mandates at the end of May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted restrictions for vaccinated people, the Delta variant is causing local regions to reconsider. For example, the Los Angeles county health commission recently urged people to continue to wear masks indoors in public places, whether or not they’re vaccinated. Indeed, the share of remote work rose 3.5% in the U.S. just in the last week of June.

COVID-19 vaccination rate, remote work
The share of remote work in the U.S. has remained consistently high, despite a vaccination rate that hit 40% by the end of May. Canada has shown only a modest drop in remote work.

 

The story that this data shows is a clear one. The shift back to office work will be a gradual one, and remote work is here to stay in some capacity. We expect the share of remote work to decline as the year progresses, but it is not likely to be the swift shift that many experts anticipated.

EMEA Remote Work Holds Steady Despite Vaccine Progress

The impact of vaccination rates on remote work share varies considerably across Aternity’s customer base in selected countries in EMEA.

Since early in 2021, Israel has been among the leading countries worldwide in vaccinating its population. Currently 59.6% of the population is fully vaccinated, and remote work has declined 29.82% since the start of the year. Indeed, 40% of Israel’s population was fully vaccinated by the first week of March. Within two months, the share of remote work dropped by 20% as employees returned to the office. In fact, our data show that around 60% of the employees of Aternity customers have returned to their offices in Israel.

The United Kingdom imposed one of the longest lockdowns in Europe and has aggressively vaccinated its population at one of the fastest rates worldwide. It currently has the next highest share of fully vaccinated people (47.6%) as it heads toward the July 19th “Freedom Day” when Prime Minister Boris Johnson expects to relax most restrictions. The U.K. also shows the second highest decline in remote work percentage (10.87%) since the beginning of the year. Despite the overall move towards in-office work, the share of remote work in the U.K. rose by nearly 4% from the end of May to the end of June, as the number of daily COVID-19 cases increased from 46 per million residents to almost 300. Indeed, the U.K. reported 27,125 new cases on Friday July 2, a 52% increase from just one week earlier.

The data also shows an interesting story in Germany, where 35.56% of the population is fully vaccinated. Despite the significant vaccination rates, the country’s share of remote work has actually increased, rising 3.3% since the beginning of the year.

France has also had a minimal shift in remote work share as it experienced a slight 2.81% decrease since the beginning of the year, even though a solid portion of its population is vaccinated (29.7%). Although the data show that the share increased almost 10% in the last week of June, the declining number of daily COVID-19 cases between May and June may indicate that people are avoiding the office in order to watch the Tour de France, which started on June 26.

COVID-19 vaccination rate, remote work
High vaccination rates in Israel have supported a return to the office, while in other countries, remote work remains high despite increasing vaccination rates.

 

These counter-intuitive results showing continued high levels of remote work despite increasing vaccination rates are validated by a recent Bloomberg article that used Google mobility data to show that workplace activity in major financial centers around the world are still about 50% below normal, pre-pandemic levels.

APAC Trends: Australia, New Zealand, and China

In the APAC region, vaccination rates are relatively low, as are infection rates. All three of the countries below have pursued a “Covid-zero” approach focused more on travel bans, lockdowns, and mask-wearing rather than on aggressive vaccination.

Australia’s population is only 5.8% vaccinated, and New Zealand’s only is 9%. Low rates of vaccination are not surprising given both country’s aggressive moves to curtail travel and impose lockdowns periodically throughout the pandemic.

Through May, Australia had been on track for a notable 14% increase in office work since the beginning of the year. However, the trend reversed abruptly in June, as cases per million tripled from May, resulting in only a modest 2.2% drop in remote work since the start of the year. Currently, the split of office and remote work is about even in Australia, but recent COVID cases are threatening additional lockdowns.

New Zealand has trended in the opposite direction, as it has experienced a 7.33% increase in remote work since January to 38%.

Our World in Data has no vaccination data available for China, but the country’s share of remote work has decreased since January by 5.85% to 34.44%.

COVID-19 vaccination rate, remote work
Both Australia and New Zealand have shown only modest changes in remote work throughout the year, along with low vaccination rates. No vaccination data is available for China.

The Shift to Hybrid Work: What to Expect

While some countries show notable return to office numbers, there is no correlation between vaccination rates and in-office work — at least, not yet. Our data indicates that hybrid models will persist, and that CIOs and IT decision-makers need to keep work-from-everywhere as part of their long-term investment plans.

As countries continue to control the spread of the Delta variant and vaccinate additional segments of the population, we’ll analyze our data to determine if there is a baseline vaccination rate that leads to a more wide-spread return to the office. We expect that remote work will remain prevalent in most areas of the world, and the level of in-office work will be predicated on the nature of work being done and the need for face-to-face collaboration.

 

 

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