When the pandemic hit two years ago, millions of people started working from home because they had to. As the crisis starts to ease, millions are still working from home — this time because they prefer to.
Such flexible arrangements vary widely by industry. But where jobs can be handled remotely, employers are having to adjust. They now must both accommodate an emboldened workforce and create reasons for employees to get together in person.
The pandemic is the biggest shock to American working life since World War II, Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. “And we are never going back to the workplace of 2019.”
According to surveys by Bloom and colleagues, almost 80% of employees able to work from home want to continue doing so in some form. On average, they prefer remote work for 2.5 days a week.
After the pandemic ends, nearly 28% of full-paid work hours are expected to be remote, up from 20% in the past year, Bloom said. And many businesses will choose a hybrid arrangement.
Research by Ladders, a careers website, found almost 19% of high-paying jobs were available for remote work in December. That’s projected to rise to a quarter of high-paying jobs — those paying over $80,000 annually — by the end of the year, the site said.
Workers of diverse backgrounds, income levels like WFH
Working from home has become so popular more than 40% of employees said they’d look for a new job or simply quit if required to go to the workplace five days a week.
Among women and people of color, an even higher share of workers said they’d depart if they lost the remote option. Women with young children especially value flexibility.
“Employers that ban working from home will risk driving these employees out the door,” Bloom wrote, and that undermines corporate goals to improve workplace diversity.
Of course, many jobs cannot be done remotely because front-line workers must work on-site where they’re needed. Nationwide, just over a third of private companies increased remote work since the pandemic, according to a 2021 business survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And in accommodations and food services, fewer than 4% of employers boosted remote work. In retail trade, 15% increased that option.
At the other end of the spectrum, remote work grew at more than half the companies in educational services, information, financial activities and professional and business services. In total, nearly 60 million U.S. workers had the option to work from home in the past two years, the government estimated.
Remote work fosters efficiency
Remote workers also believe they’re more productive and efficient, and some bosses agree.
New York Life Insurance Co. has over 500 employees in seven offices in North Texas. Before the pandemic, about 80% of them came to the office regularly; now about 20% come in and usually for no more than three days a week, said Michael Scovel, managing partner of the Dallas-Fort Worth office.
People love the opportunity to improve their work-life balance, he said. And Zoom calls make it easier to meet with clients and each other. That speeds up training for new hires and eliminates travel time for advisers who used to fly to see clients in New York and elsewhere.
“It’s created a far more efficient business model, and we just had our greatest growth year ever,” Scovel said. “It’s basically made the world so much smaller.”
What’s at risk, he said, is a corporate culture created over many years. He’s trying other approaches to engage people, including a recent trip to Las Vegas for Dallas employees.
“We’re doing things we could have done in Dallas,” he said in a phone call from Vegas. “We just thought this would be more enjoyable — and it is.”
Hybrid as happy medium
Scovel said companies should find a way to accommodate both employees who want to work from home and those who prefer the office: “The key to the future is providing both — and allowing people to determine what’s best for them.”
The Dallas Regional Chamber has been operating under a hybrid work arrangement since October. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are considered “core” hours with employees required in the downtown Dallas office, said Angela Farley, chief operating officer.
On Mondays and Fridays, employees usually work from home, and that’s when she encourages them to focus on solo work, such as writing projects and slide presentations. While downtown, they have all-staff meetings, training classes, team-building and lots of in-person contact — including lunches and after-work happy hours.
“We’re definitely having to do a lot more to make it interesting for people,” Farley said. “I don’t know how sustainable that is over the long term. But we want people to feel like it was meaningful that they came into the office.”
Morale has improved with the hybrid model, she said, especially among young employees who started jobs during the pandemic. “It’s really been good for mental health to be back in that collaborative environment, at least for part of the week,” she said.
Many employers have adopted a hybrid approach, as long as it works in their industry. They’re often concerned about remote employees’ productivity, she said, and the longer time required to really understand how the company operates.
But another issue is more pressing: “It’s harder to keep talent if you’re not allowing at least some virtual option,” Farley said.