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Remote work / Workplace culture

Workplace flexibility is in retreat — depending on who you are

Where you live, what industry you’re in, what you do and your company’s culture will dictate a wide variation in your experience with remote work.

Remote work. (Photo by Chris Wink)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

On any given Friday, fewer than 1 in 3 professionals are in the office. On Tuesday, more than half are.

At this stage of the societal tussle about just how flexible work will be after the great pandemic disruption, the real lesson is how far from uniform the experience is. Though national in kind, the return-to-office story is a very local one by degree. Where you live, what industry you’re in, what you do and your company’s culture will dictate your experience with remote work. Even the day of the week shows considerable variation in how busy an office is.

As of January, half of employees reported working primarily onsite, and 28% were primarily remote, according to LinkedIn’s latest Workforce Confidence Index. Just 18% were on a hybrid schedule, growing steadily since 2021 but still less than those fully remote. That national average hid remarkable variation, as indicated by data from Kastle, the building security firm that uses its data to great marketing effect. In metro Austin last month, nearly three quarters of professionals were in offices on the average Tuesday — the busiest office day. In Washington DC, that total was barely half. Nearly as many Philadelphia workers were in the office on its busiest day as were on Houston’s slowest — Friday.

In 2020 and 2021, pandemic restrictions made every office worker a remote worker. In 2022, labor shortages shifted remote work to the negotiating table. Workplace flexibility is an enviable perk, especially for working parents.

Research credibly shows that in-office time supports creativity and bonding. Enter hybrid work, in which employees choose where to work two to three days a week, and commute the rest.

Software-building jobs and tech companies were leading the way with remote work. They’ve since been humbled to the tune of a quarter-million layoffs in the last six months.

With economic worries, employers returned to the offensive and began demanding more of their employees. From a peak of 20% of all job postings in March 2020, fully remote job listings slid back down to 14% in November 2022 — still nearly triple the pre-pandemic rate. Nearly 3 in 4 businesses said their employees rarely or never worked remotely in 2022, according to a recent survey from the U.S. Labor Department.

Nearly half of software engineering hours are being done remotely, per McKinsey projections. But many early-stage startups appear to prioritize team time in-person, and financial services firms are largely demanding it. City offices boast amenities and culture; suburban business parks are retooling themselves for convenience. Other companies and industries use remote work as a differentiation. After its own round of layoffs, Spotify has retained its work from anywhere program.

Work flexibility can also mean very different things to different industries. Researchers differentiate between jobs with flexible hours and a fixed salary (like the remote web developer) versus those with flexible hours and hourly pay (like a call-center operator). The former might likely be an economic winner, while the latter correlates to declining market power, according to a new paper published by the UK-based Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Confused by conflicting research that appears to show that remote work is both more productive and less? That’s because there’s also variation in the effectiveness of remote work across people. Many veterans really are more effective working on their own schedule. But those earlier in their careers and others with a preference for in-person work suffer isolation and burnout. A few workers do appear to apply for remote jobs so they can cheat the system.

What does it all mean? Given the onrush of research during the pandemic, if you want to make just about any argument about remote work, you can find the supporting arguments. That’s because work is so personal. Leaders must decide what fits their organization, and let workers flow to what is best for them. The pandemic won’t leave us with one normal but with many, and we’re better for that.

Series: Builders

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