The start of the pandemic nearly three years ago ushered in a golden era for remote work. Increasingly, it seems that the shine is wearing off flexibility for workers among some managers and employers.
Corporate announcements such as Elon Musk’s demands for in-person work at Twitter and Tesla and studies on the impact of remote work on workplace culture and worker productivity present troubling developments.
Is the new norm of work-from-anywhere flexibility–which significantly benefits women–a mainstay or will we see a return to the old norms of being chained to a desk? That’s hard to answer, but there are signs we should be concerned about.
The tech industry has been a pioneer in remote work for years before the pandemic. However, during the pandemic, remote work surged. According to the Census Bureau, between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home tripled from roughly 9 million people (5.7%) to 27.6 million people (17.9%) of the workforce.
McKinsey research finds that a remarkable aspect of the growth of remote work has been its spread “to all kinds of jobs, in every part of the country and sector of the economy, including traditionally labeled “blue collar” jobs that might be expected to demand on-site labor as well as “white collar” professions.” Workers want more remote work and are willing to leave their positions to secure it.
Businesses that offer remote software continue to experience solid growth. The Wall Street Journal reports one estimate that corporate spending on remote-work technology is expected to reach $352.6 billion this year, up from an estimated $332.9 billion in 2021.
However, the trajectory of remote work faces real uncertainty. Turbulent times may be ahead for remote work.
According to the career website LinkedIn, a record one in five jobs advertised in the US offered remote work in February 2022. This figure had fallen to just 14% by September.
Increasingly, companies are reassessing flexibility even as remote work has been more fully embraced in the workforce. Tech giants Apple and Google mandated workers to return to the office part-time this year.
Elon Musk sent shockwaves recently after announcing that he was calling the Twitter and Tesla workforces back into the office for at least 40 hours each week.
Employers are also increasingly taking a more aggressive approach to enforcing compliance with a hybrid model. In a survey of over 500 managers at companies requiring employees to be in the office at least once per week, over two out of three (69%) are or will crack down on their office attendance policy. In some cases, they may factor office attendance into performance reviews and some have even fired office truant workers.
In addition, tech companies have been shedding millions of square feet of office space by canceling their leases in places such as San Francisco, Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, Texas, and elsewhere. That may be a sign that not all of these companies plan to bring everyone back in-house full-time all the time.
The expansion of remote work is undoubtedly a positive step forward for American workers, especially women. Workers have the leverage to negotiate for concessions on when and where to work in this tight labor force.
Despite what some (tech) companies may do, remote work will not disappear but we may have to brace ourselves for its growth to slow. As the pandemic winds down, employers may be tempted to revise their remote policies and bring workers back to the office for a few days or five days a week.
Flexibility in work is incredibly important for many people and they are unlikely to give it up any time soon.