We might be living in the digital age, but that doesn't make our economy immune to physical distancing.

As more and more of the United States locks down to stop the spread of COVID-19, it's quickly becoming clear there's a huge number of jobs that simply can't be done at home.

Ongoing research from the University of Chicago estimates only 34 percent of today's jobs can actually be done at home in their entirety. Plus, even if all those working Americans continue to pump out the same hours each week, that represents just 44 percent of the nation's wages.

"Our findings are significant, that two-thirds of US jobs cannot plausibly be performed at home," says Jonathan Dingel, who studies the nature of economic activity across neighbourhoods, cities and countries.

"As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to pause the face-to-face economy, some cities are better positioned to cope than others based on the fraction of their jobs that might be done from home."

The authors hope their research will help policymakers target those people who need help the most during this trying time.

The results come from responses to two occupational surveys. After determining which jobs could not be performed at home, the results were combined with information from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which hints at the prevalence of each occupation in particular cities and industries.

The initial results of this study suggest large metropolitan areas may hold an economic advantage.

More than 40 percent of jobs in San Francisco, San Jose, Austin and Washington, DC, for example, can be performed at home. Meanwhile, fewer than 30 percent qualified for this distinction in Fort Myers, Grand Rapids and Las Vegas.

1 withmuchofus(Becker Friedman Institute)

Of course, much of this is industry based. Many jobs in finance, corporate management, and professional and scientific services can be brought home - it may not be easy, but they can. Meanwhile, staff in agriculture, hotels, retail and restaurants are not nearly so lucky.

"Social distancing is difficult for everyone, but some people and sectors are disproportionately hurt," said Brent Neiman, who studies international macroeconomics and trade.

"Most jobs in finance or insurance have a chance to continue with some degree of normalcy through the crisis, as they can be performed at home away from others. For just about everyone that works in hotels or restaurants, this is not an option."

Of course, the final estimates are based on the upper limits of what is possible. A great number of the jobs included in the work-at-home category have never before been performed at home, so the cost to the economy and the loss of jobs may be worse than figured. (In 2017, only 5.2 percent of labourers in the US worked at home.)

There's also no straightforward way to calculate such an immense and complicated topic as the US economy, so these estimates will only be helpful when they are buttressed by further research.

"An individual worker's productivity may differ considerably when working at home rather than her usual workplace," the authors suggest, for instance.

"More importantly, there are likely important complementarities between jobs that can be performed at home and those that cannot."

Nevertheless, given the current crisis, it seems like these imperfect yet worrying results are worth considering in the future.

The research has been made available before peer review by the University of Chicago.