What to do about the increased amount of remote work is all employers can talk about in the United States. Outside of America, where the pandemic is still raging in some places, returning to work is a more difficult conversation. When the pandemic subsides, returning to normal will be the only option for many. But cultural differences in the home, office spaces, and workforce mean that remote work will likely not be adopted everywhere uniformly.
The United States may be one of the hardest-hit countries during the coronavirus pandemic, but abundant vaccinations have America turning the corner. With more than 44 percent of the population vaccinated, lockdowns are being lifted and life is returning to normal. Several of America’s largest employers have announced new workplace policies, allowing workers to work from home in some capacity, while others are still weighing the decision as the country’s recovery develops. The American shift towards hybrid work is backed by a unique mix of changing preferences, growing worker empowerment, and robust broadband infrastructure that isn’t playing out across the globe.
“Hybrid work is a question that addresses country culture, company culture, urban behavioral norms, and generational cohorts,” JLL Managing Director of Strategy and Innovation Consulting Peter Miscovich told Propmodo. Throughout his 25 year career, Miscovich has helped transform nearly 1.5 billion square feet of real estate around the globe, giving him a unique international perspective. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all decision in any sense.”
Nearly 75 percent of the American workforce want some permanent form of hybrid work, according to a Harris Poll survey. Commonly cited benefits of a hybrid work schedule include better work-life balance, reduced commuting time, more flexible scheduling, greater job satisfaction, a cleaner environment, and cost savings. A global consensus on how working from home impacts productivity has been elusive. Americans like working from home because they can. Working from home is contingent on your work-life, residence, and economic status, three key categories that America has a unique advantage in. American homes are the biggest in the world, giving many workers plenty of space for home offices or workstations. American families have the lowest rates of multigenerational households. American broadband penetration rates and speeds are among the best in the world, especially considering the nation’s size. Working from home doesn’t work for everyone in the United States, but it’s working for tens of millions. When you have everything you need to do your job at home, going into the office seems like a waste of time and money.
America only represents just over four percent of the world’s population. “If you’re an Indian worker living in a family home with multiple generations, it’s very hard to work from home,” Miscovich explained. “You likely enjoy going into the office, it gives you access to technology, air conditioning, and sustenance. The office in many countries is an improvement on your home conditions.”
Even in areas with good broadband infrastructure, home size is a limiting factor. Americans have done their best adapting what space they have into suitable working areas. Many are lucky to have full-fledged home offices, others have converted closets, some enjoy simply working at the kitchen counter. No matter where it still takes space, which Americans have plenty of. The median single-family American home is 1,600 square feet, according to Zillow, giving Americans an estimated 600 to 800 more square feet than other nations. America’s obsession with detached single-family homes has pushed the average home size ever higher.
Americans not only have bigger homes but also fewer residents. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans lives in a multigenerational household, far below averages across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In fact, Asian and Hispanic families living in America, two of the fastest-growing demographics, account for the majority of Americans living in multigenerational homes. Working in a multigenerational home is a serious challenge. Being responsible for online learning and caregiving seriously cuts into the workday, pulling employees away from work constantly, further blurring the line between work and home.
Reliable fast internet and plenty of space to work free of distraction means the office can’t offer much. American employers are leaning into things like collaboration and socialization to draw workers back to the office. For millions beyond America’s borders, access to a decent internet connection and a little space to think is all the incentive they need to get back to the office.
The viability of remote work differs across countries, with more advanced economies having a higher potential to transform themselves. The U.K., Germany, and United States could potentially shift nearly 40 percent of all workforce hours to remote work. The top emerging economies, China, India, and Mexico, can only foreseeably transition less than 20 percent of workforce hours, according to McKinney’s global survey. Larger parts of emerging economies are based on labor that requires physical and manual activities in the manufacturing and agriculture industries. In many cities, there simply aren’t enough desk jobs for working from home to have a serious impact on the national economy, even if they had the broadband infrastructure and space at home to facilitate the transition.
American workers are finally getting leverage over their employers. A record number of job openings is creating competition for workers at every level of the economy, resulting in rising wages and more workplace accommodations. The average reservation wage for college degree holders in the United States is up nearly $10,000, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Approxamily 49 percent of companies are finding it hard to retain workers, up 30 percent year over year.
“Companies are going to have to work harder to attract and retain talent,” Randstad North America CEO Karen Fichuk told the New York Times. “We think it’s a bit of a historic moment for the American labor force.”
Americans are using the historic moment to examine the employee-employer relationship, starting a process in the United States that never ends in Europe. Remote work in Europe has been a small but significant portion of economic activity for two decades, holding relatively steady. In Europe remote work is ticking up in the wake of the pandemic, but nothing like we’re seeing in the United States. Labor movements in Europe have worked to establish the home as a private space, creating issues with remote work around regulatory action by the state, trade union activity, and administrative inspection. Europeans working from home have pushed back against the ‘always online’ nature required by remote work, pursuing ‘right to disconnect’ laws in legislative bodies across the continent.
Working from home means blurring the lines of work-life balance, something many European lawmakers aren’t keen on doing. In 2017 the French government enacted a policy allowing employees to disconnect from work emails while out of the office. The American workforce is much more willing to be digitally accessible, we’ve all seen a family member answer work emails while on vacation. America’s twisted relationship with work-life balance is rebalancing, driven by employee leverage. In Europe, where workers regularly report higher levels of work-life balance, that relationship doesn’t need to be reexamined as thoroughly, limiting the potential of remote work to transform the office.
No right answers
It’s hard to generalize, especially when talking about nations of hundreds of millions. Workplace and employment trends vary by region and city in every country, even within the United States employers have taken widely different approaches to remote work. A push for remote work can be seen everywhere across the globe to some degree, but nowhere is it having as much of an impact as the U.S.
“No one has the right answer, everything is evolving, “ Miscovich said. “There’s a need for experimentation, to maintain a learning mindset. We have to consider all the influencing factors before anyone can make clear conclusions.”
Just as company culture impacts office use, so too does national and regional culture. The push for remote work is a perfect storm for American employers. Having enough space and technology to make working from home viable, American workers are leveraging a unique labor movement and economic conditions to reshape the nature of work and their relationship with the office. As important as the remote work trend is to understand, it is equally important to understand that American trends are not necessarily global ones.