Scott Winship and Thomas O’Rourke highlight another case of experts misreading data to reach a false conclusion.

The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic created urgent demand for “high frequency” national statistics. Prior to the pandemic, many economic indicators were available only on an annual basis (or even less frequently). One important exception was the unemployment rate, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates every month. The unemployment rate jumped more than threefold—from 4.4 percent in March 2020 to 14.7 percent in April, reflecting the onset of the COVID-inspired shutdown after the March data were collected.

Soon after the shutdown, researchers interested in its other effects began to field new monthly and weekly surveys. One of these efforts inspired by COVID was the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA), launched by the newly formed WFH Research. The SWAA launched in May 2020, reporting (among other findings) that 61.5 percent of adults who worked did so from home that month.

Understandably, the new numbers from the SWAA and other pandemic-era surveys created demand for pre-shutdown estimates to put them in context. Such estimates—often from large federal surveys—exist in many cases, and it has proven tempting simply to connect those earlier estimates to the new post-shutdown ones. Following this approach, WFH Research concluded that working from home rose to its May 2020 level from a rate of about 5 percent before the pandemic, suggesting a 12-fold increase. In July 2023, the work-from-home rate (31 percent) was still 6 times higher than before COVID.

However, linking similar-seeming but different surveys can lead to inaccurate conclusions about trends. The best data (unfortunately only available annually) measure the work-from-home rate consistently before and after the COVID shutdown. Using two different data sources that span the early 2020 shutdown, we find that WFH Research’s numbers substantially overstate the increase in working from home; the increase since the start of COVID has been half as large as its estimates suggest.