In just a few short years, what was formerly a “once-in-a-while” perk at only the most forward-thinking organizations has become a workplace norm in all types of industries: remote work.
The widespread adoption of remote work may have happened out of necessity in the pandemic’s chaotic early days, but it has since become a highly desirable job quality for millions of employees who want the freedom to do their best work on their own terms.
The question is: what’s next?
We’ll explore the current status and the future of remote work using the most recent research available as companies evolve, adapt, and compete in a market that looks quite different from the one that existed at the start of the remote work boom.
The current remote work landscape
The portion of people working remotely has risen and fallen in waves over the last few years, dictated largely by COVID-19 case levels and precautions. Now that those precautions are mostly behind us and companies call their workers back to the office, what do the work-from-home numbers look like?
Some of the best data we have on the remote work landscape comes from McKinsey, which surveyed more than 25,000 people about their work situations. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they have the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, while 35% said they could work from home full-time. In total, 87% of the workforce can work from home one or more days per week.
These numbers are notable for the obvious reason: they represent a massive shift from pre-COVID times. But they’re also noteworthy due to the type of workers covered. These are not just primarily people in digital jobs like IT and business, but those with jobs in fields like maintenance and healthcare where being onsite was once considered a requirement.
Younger, more educated, and higher-earning workers tend to have more options to work remotely. People in computer and mathematical jobs have the highest prevalence of working from home, while those in production and protective services jobs have the lowest.
What we’ve learned about remote work
After observing remote workers on a broad scale for more than two years, researchers have concluded that location flexibility has implications for workers in two key areas.
Commuting is a time suck for most American workers, but remote work eliminates some of that wasted time. The National Bureau of Economic Research studied how working from home impacted people in 27 countries. They found that not commuting or commuting on fewer days saved an average of two hours per worker per week in 2021 and 2022.
And how workers spend that newfound time is surprising; 42% of it was put toward work, while only 35% of it was spent on leisure activities. So, by allowing staff to work from home, companies effectively gained more of their employees’ time.
During the time when they’re working, employees at home feel more productive. A whopping 90% of people who worked remotely said they work at the same productivity level or higher when they’re not in the office. Fifty-five percent said they work more hours when they’re at home versus when they’re onsite.
Since remote work became the norm, so too have workers’ increased expectations surrounding it. Sixty-five percent of workers now say location flexibility is a must when choosing a new job. For millennials, that number is an even higher 70% (and remember, they’re currently the largest segment of the workforce).
Though salary is still the most important factor across age groups when job searching, workers are more willing to budge on it if it means they’ll be able to work from home at least some of the time. Half of workers surveyed said they would take a pay cut of 5% or more if it meant having the freedom to choose where they work. Two percent said they’d give up 20% of their salary for the benefit.
These numbers make one thing abundantly clear: the majority of workers, especially younger ones, want to work remotely, and if their employer doesn’t allow the option, they’re more than willing to look elsewhere for a job. So, if you feel like remote work should be the norm rather than the exception, you’re in good company.
What’s next for remote work?
If employers want to meet the demands of a changing workforce–which they should–they’ll need to make some paradigm shifts in a few key areas. Here are the aspects of work we anticipate will evolve in new ways over the next several years.
Unfortunately, some managers still equate maximum productivity with being physically in the office. It’s not surprising that they feel this way; traditionally, managers have relied on what they can see to guide their judgment. Now that they can’t visually monitor their staff’s activity, they’ll need to develop more flexible ways of managing suited to a hybrid work style.
Transparency will be paramount on both sides–for managers and employees. To effectively lead a remote team, a manager must emphasize goals, responsibilities, and expectations. On the other side of the table, workers will need to do their part to keep their managers in the loop, intentionally communicating progress, accomplishments, and setbacks so that everyone is on the same page even though they’re not in the same location.
Remote work has gotten most of the buzz regarding the increased importance of work-life balance, but it’s not the only aspect of flexibility we’ll see continue growing. Workers will increasingly desire the autonomy in other areas, like the hours they work and the methods they use to be most productive. The top workplaces of the future will prioritize autonomy over control, trusting workers to make their own decisions about not just where they work, but when and how.
According to research by Gartner, introducing greater autonomy into the workplace pays huge dividends in terms of productivity. Employees who were allowed to set their own schedule were 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than those who did not have such a benefit.
More autonomy doesn’t mean workers get to shrug off any form of oversight completely. There needs to be a proportionate shift in accountability to ensure that work is still accomplished effectively. In other words, employees will be called to step up and take on an additional layer of responsibility for their performance in exchange for new levels of freedom.
As a result, workers may see more one-on-one check-ins, constructive criticism, and continued education programming as companies seek out ways to keep them engaged even when they’re offsite.
The Gartner study we cited earlier (which is worth a read if you’re interested in a more data-heavy deep dive on remote work) offered some intriguing findings about the future of remote work. Namely, researchers identified the most productive type of environment when workers aren’t physically tied to the office.
They call it the “human-centric flexible” office. It combines flexible experiences (like the ability to work from home some or all of the time) with intentional collaboration and empathy-based management.
It’s easiest to illustrate with an example. Instead of using a rigid schedule of marathon Zoom meetings so that managers can keep an eye on their teams and workers can act engaged, leaders would rely instead on a mix of synchronous and asynchronous work opportunities. This could include in-person meetings, virtual meetings, working independently in shared spaces (both physical and virtual), and working independently while physically alone. In essence, giving workers many different opportunities to do different types of work under different conditions.
In workplaces that leveraged this specific approach, employees had a 3x likelihood of low fatigue, 3x higher intent to stay with the organization, and nearly 4x likelihood of high performance.
To summarize, COVID-19 opened the floodgates of demand for remote work, and now, there’s no going back. The years ahead will be a period of adjustment as the best employers find new ways to help workers achieve maximum productivity on their own terms while holding them accountable appropriately.