The American worker has undergone quite the evolution in the past few generations. We’ve gone from a country founded with a majority of blue collar jobs to ever expanding cities occupied by white collar “knowledge” workers. White collar jobs have become the goal of many young Americans with promises of an easier lifestyle and higher salary—so much so that blue collar jobs are experiencing a labor shortage. However, job burnout at desks and concern about mental health have younger generations reevaluating what they want out of their jobs. Companies are searching for the right balance of being in the office and working remotely for their employees, both present and future. Is it hybrid? Is it remote? Does anyone really know?
Some workers have gone fully to one end of the spectrum and many are calling themselves digital nomads. According to Emergent Research and MBO Partners, there was a 49 percent increase of Americans who described themselves as digital nomads from 2019 to 2020. Even more substantial, nomads with traditional jobs rose from 3.2 million to 6.3 million. Unable to go to the office, the digital nomadic lifestyle wasn’t desirable for many until they tried it. Now the workforce is more distributed than ever. Toes have been dipped into what work could be like and not everyone wants to go back to traditional office life.
There is an ongoing fear for many managers: will people want to come back? With months of predictions and hopes, Eden Workplace and Wakefield Research partnered to do the first survey of employees already back at the office. The results of the 1,000 nationally representative employees surveyed in July 2021 are quite favorable for offices. In fact, 70 percent of respondents are glad to have returned and the overwhelming majority (85 percent) want access to an office. While the nomadic and remote lifestyle may be attractive to some, only 15 percent wanted a full-time remote schedule.
To optimize the office environment and the hybrid schedule, managers need to understand why people want access to the office. Now that many have returned in some capacity, managers can make future decisions based on data instead of assumptions. The survey revealed that 51 percent of people missed having a proper office setup, a number that grew from 44 percent back in February. Other reasons to enjoy being back in the office included access to office amenities like gyms and snacks and avoiding the distraction at home while striving for a work-life balance. The survey also analyzed the variation between men’s and women’s feelings about returning to the office and about employer-mandated vaccines.
The most popular reason to come back according to 62 percent of respondents in Eden Workplace’s report was the people. “If someone says they have a long distance relationship with their romantic partner, others will say ‘that’s tough.’ When you say it’s a long distance relationship with your colleagues, people say ‘that sounds really flexible and nice,’” explained Joe Du Bey, CEO and co-founder of Eden Workplace, which makes software for hybrid companies. “But the reality is that there are challenges with remote work, just like in other types of relationships. It’s hard to build relationships or stay close. Building rapport with colleagues is something that gives work meaning.”
If someone says they have a long distance relationship with their romantic partner, others will say ‘that’s tough.’ When you say it’s a long distance relationship with your colleagues, people say ‘that sounds really flexible and nice.’ But the reality is that there are challenges with remote work, just like in other types of relationships.
Those relationships are important for productivity and a company’s culture, too. A report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine contributed to the growing evidence that a healthy workforce provides a competitive advantage. And, companies that have an enjoyable culture have higher employee retention. In today’s competitive employment landscape, retention is very valuable. “The world is entering into a talent migration that’s bigger than anything we’ve seen before. We call it the #GreatReshuffle, an unprecedented moment in the history of work where all of us are rethinking not just how we work, but why we work,” said Ryan Roslansky, CEO of LinkedIn, in a post.
Understanding where people want to work is also vital for successful future hires. Knowing the majority of people want access to an office, companies need to think more critically about their hiring practices. For example, companies may want to offer positions in cities where they’ll have offices even if they don’t currently have space there. If companies want to appeal to 85 percent of the workforce, they should give them a place to work.
One of the arguments for a remote-first company culture is that companies are no longer restricted by geography and can hire the best people for the job. “If you are a company with global reach, hiring the best people and hiring the best people near you could be the same thing. You could appeal to 100 percent of the workforce if you offer remote and in-office experiences,” said Du Bey. Diving into the math, he explained that totally remote companies have access to 15 percent of the population; “You get to go for the best talent of that 15 percent. Where is the best talent? In the 15 or 85? Maybe both but there are more people in the 85 percent. Companies with a hybrid strategy can capture from both pools and I’d rather fish from 100 percent of the workforce.”
Companies that offer options to their employees are supporting the flexible lifestyle that today’s majority wants. Acknowledging that one size doesn’t fit all isn’t a pain-free process and there are going to be challenges; after all, less than 8 percent of almost 90 million meeting rooms worldwide are video-enabled according to Frost and Sullivan’s “State of the Global Video Conferencing Devices Market.” However, companies that take the initiative to do what their employees want will reap the benefits. We have learned so much in the last couple of years, and distance might make the heart grow fonder but there is no replacement for in-person work.