Covid-19 briefing: working from home and worker productivity

John Lewis, Andrea Šiško and Misa Tanaka

The Covid pandemic has led to a large enforced shift towards working from home (WFH) as a result of ‘stay-at-home’ policies in many countries. This led to a resurgence in interest in, and new reignited discussion about, the consequences of greater WFH. In this briefing we review the literature on the impact of WFH on productivity. Across a very diverse literature the key lessons are: impacts depend on the nature of tasks, the share of WFH matters, and there is big difference between enforced versus voluntary WFH. And the caveats are important too: cost savings at the firm level don’t automatically translate into economy-wide productivity gains and evidence on long-run effects remains very scarce.

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UK productivity growth from 2008 to 2018: weakness was structural, not cyclical

Marko Melolinna

Monetary policy makers need to know whether the economy is operating above or below its supply capacity. If the economy is operating above its supply capacity, inflation is likely to rise, and vice versa. A crucial component of supply capacity is the labour productivity trend but we cannot observe this directly. We have to estimate it. Thankfully, there are ways of splitting observed macroeconomic time series into estimated trend and cyclical components. Using a variety of methods on UK data, I find that UK productivity growth over the period 1991 to 2018 has been structurally, rather than cyclically, weak since the financial crisis. And, UK trend productivity has been strongly correlated with trend productivity in other advanced economies.

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How important are large firms for aggregate productivity growth in the UK?

Marko Melolinna

Aggregate labour productivity growth has been low in the UK following the global financial crisis in 2008 (Chart 1). The average annual growth rate has been only 0.7% over the period 2008 to 2019, which is around a third of the growth rate seen during the decade preceding the crisis. There are many ways of analysing the reasons for this weakness, but in this blog post, I concentrate on examining the role that the largest firms in the UK have played in the story. Our analysis covering the past three decades from 1990 to 2017 suggests that firm-specific, or idiosyncratic, shocks to the 100 largest firms had a significant effect on aggregate productivity dynamics in the UK.

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How do firms grow as they age?

Marko Melolinna and Patrick Schneider.

Firm age is a main determinant of firm growth and survival. For example, older firms are likely to be larger and grow more slowly than younger ones (see Audretsch & Mata, 1995; Coad et al, 2013). They are also more likely to survive (see Audretsch & Mahmood, 1995, Manjón-Antolín & Arauzo-Carod, 2008). This is why, in this blog post, we look at how firms’ lifecycles – firms being born, aging and dying – are linked to how firms grow. The results show that, as they age, firms in the United Kingdom grow mainly by employing more people, rather than by generating more turnover per employee. And while firms are on average less likely to die the older they get, the cohort of firms that were born since the financial crisis are more resilient than older firms.

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Tight labour markets and self-service beer: is the productivity slowdown about to reverse?

Will Holman and Tim Pike

Firms are increasingly investing in automation, substituting capital for labour, as workers become more scarce and costly. We are seeing multiple examples, from automation in food processing to increasingly-common self-service tills. This push for productivity growth is one of the key themes from our meetings with businesses in the past year, which we think suggests a reversal of a decade-long trend.

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Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?

Dan Nixon

Smartphone apps and newsfeeds are designed to constantly grab our attention. And research suggests we’re distracted nearly 50% of the time. Could this be weighing down on productivity? And why is the crisis of attention particularly concerning in the context of the rise of AI and the need, therefore, to cultivate distinctively human qualities?

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Does productivity drive wages? Evidence from sectoral data

Alex Tuckett

Since 2008, aggregate productivity performance in the UK has been substantially worse than in the preceding eight years. Over the same period, aggregate real wage growth has also been significantly lower – it has averaged -0.4% per annum from 2009-16, compared with 2.3% per annum from 2000-08. The MPC, and others, have drawn a link between these two phenomena, arguing that low productivity growth has been a major cause – if not the major cause – of weak wage growth. The logic is simple – if workers produce less output for firms, then in a competitive market firms will only be willing to employ them at a lower wage.

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Bitesize: Exploring UK sectoral productivity

Ian Billett and Patrick Schneider.

As time goes to infinity, the probability that a productivity analyst will wonder ‘which sectors are driving these trends?’ goes to one. We present an interactive sectoral productivity tool to help you explore this question without any fuss.

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The world trade slowdown (redux)

Gene Kindberg-Hanlon and David Young.

The volume of world trade is now 17% below where it would be had it grown at pre-crisis trend after 2011.  This post argues that most of this gap can be explained by weakness in world GDP, but stalling expansion in global value chains (GVCs) is playing an increasingly important role.  We also argue that this shortfall can’t be explained by shifts in the geographical or the expenditure split of global GDP growth. While world trade grew twice as quickly as world GDP pre-crisis, it is likely to grow at about the same rate as world GDP in the future.  This matters: weak trade could explain half of the 1pp fall in annual global productivity growth since the crisis.

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