New year, empty office?
As employers prepare to update their return-to-office policies for 2024, employees are questioning what matters to them the most in a job — and the ability to work remotely is number one on their list.
Flexjobs, a search site for remote jobs, surveyed over 8,000 workers, with 63% voting remote work as the most important thing in a job, narrowly beating out salary. In fact, two-thirds of respondents are willing to take a pay cut to work remotely, highlighting the demand for continued flexibility four years since the start of the pandemic.
And despite the job market slowing down — the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that workers are now quitting their jobs at pre-pandemic rates — it seems remote work could still motivate employees to rethink their current employers. Fifty-six percent of workers reported to Flexjobs that they know someone who has quit or plans to quit due to return-to-office mandates.
“Because working remotely is seen as such a benefit to so many people, they are spending some time taking stock and thinking about what it is that they want to do next if their current position is mandating to return to office,” says Toni Frana, career expert at Flexjobs. “Even as things return to normal, remote work is a thing workers still desire to keep.”
According to ResumeBuilder, 90% of employers plan to ask their employees to return to the office in some capacity by 2024, which is at odds with employee sentiment. Frana points out that arguments against remote work are often contradictory to employees’ experiences, too. For example, while some employers list drops in productivity as one of their reasons for mandates, 77% of employees believe they are more productive working remotely, according to Flexjobs.
“There are distractions both at the home and office, but distractions are possibly easier to manage at home where you can use tools like ‘Do Not Disturb’ on Slack,” says Frana. “You can’t really do that when someone is at your door or cubicle.”
Frana also notes that workers can structure their day more freely when a commute isn’t bookending their days. This means spending more productive time and energy on their professional and personal responsibilities on a schedule that is more structured toward their needs. The 9-to-5 structure, which can easily turn into an 8-to-6 or longer depending on the workplace culture and commute, doesn’t universally make everyone more productive, underlines Frana.
“So many people have had the opportunity to work from home over the last few years, and they realize they can exceed goals even while their team is remote,” says Frana. “Meetings, for instance, might actually be more efficient online than everybody coming into the office.”
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics seem to reflect this, with employee productivity spiking by 4.4% in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021, before dropping in 2022 amid record inflation rates. However, productivity is up by 1.3% in 2023’s latest business quarter.
Additionally, Flexjobs respondents overwhelmingly felt remote work is better for their well-being, with 93% saying the ability to be remote positively impacts their mental health and 90% echoing this for their physical health. Frana suggests that the lack of commute adds a stronger sense of work-life balance while being home gives workers more agency over what they eat and how they move their bodies. Taking a walk during lunch or stretching in the middle of the day can be harder to do at the office, especially if the work culture demands their employees “look busy,” says Frana.
Still, with the after-effects of high inflation hitting Americans and slowed hiring rates, it may be hard to imagine so many workers willing to sacrifice pay for remote job options. Frana notes that between the money workers save on gas, car maintenance, dining out, coffee and a business wardrobe, it may be worth it. But as employers make good on their promises to return to the office, time will better tell what employees prioritize
Meanwhile, Frana advises employers to at least survey their employees and hear their concerns around mandates. Compromise and continued flexibility will still be critical to retaining top talent, emphasizes Frana.
“This is a time where employees and employers can talk to each other and listen to the feedback they are giving each other,” she says. “Reevaluate your remote or hybrid policies, and if they’re working, see if there are ways they can be enhanced to meet the needs of your employees.”