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Work Culture

Who will determine the future of remote work?


Published on March 14, 2023

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When you scan the recent headlines, it’s easy to think the era of remote work is ending and the vibe is shifting back to extremely hardcore office culture. 

CEOs from many leading companies are pushing for the pre-pandemic paradigm with return-to-office mandates. Others have tried luring workers back with irresistible perks like free beer and pickleball.

But it hasn’t been easy to convince employees to give up the flexible work options they enjoyed while learning to be productive working from home. In a backlash to the resurrection of myths that offices are the only places where “culture, connection and creativity” can happen, workers at one company petitioned the decision and launched a Slack channel devoted to "Remote Advocacy."

Some researchers blame the absence of clear-cut policies for the growing gap between employees and employers. But if you dig deeper than the headlines, the data tells a more complicated story. 

According to McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey, the popularity of remote work is actually spreading across demographics, occupations, and geographies. Fifty-eight percent of employed respondents said they can already WFH for all or part of the week, including 35% who can work from home five days a week. Eighty-seven percent of people take the opportunity to work flexibly when it is offered.

Most remarkably, these responses come from workers in every part of the country, in all kinds of industries, including blue-collar jobs. So why is the demand for remote work jobs growing even as the supply is shrinking?

Surveying the landscape of opportunity

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home in the U.S. tripled. Meanwhile, companies discovered remote work could save over $10k per employee every year. 

In fact, permanent remote work programs have been adopted by several companies—including Dropbox. In our first-ever Life in Virtual First survey, 93% of Dropboxers surveyed agreed that they could do their jobs effectively from home.

As it turns out, the issue isn’t that remote work isn’t working. It’s that it’s working so well, more people want the opportunity to try it—and fewer employers are willing to provide it.

Kweilin Ellingrud, co-author of the McKinsey study, says her team was interested in how economic opportunities vary by gender, race, income, education, and geography. “We were concerned that COVID was affecting groups unequally, and that the recovery would also be unequal,” she says. 

As the survey reveals, that concern was justified; there's a lot of people who wish they could work remotely, but cannot. Women, parents, and junior members of organizations are the ones who say they want more flexibility to work from home but have the least opportunity to do so.

Remote work is working so well, more people want to take advantage of it.

Yet for those in technical, business, and finance roles, their highly valued skills give them more leverage when it comes to work flexibility. These are the employees setting the stage for the future of remote work—and companies need to offer them flexibility to attract and retain their talent.

This could mean that employees in certain industries have the potential to move the needle on remote work that may cause ripple effects throughout other groups and industries.

“It's similar to a lot of HR policies,” says Ellingrud. “If a lot of companies in your same industry offer much longer maternity/paternity leaves or healthcare benefits, you have to be in the same competitive space.”

Will technology give more people the opportunity to work remotely?

As tools like Zoom, Slack, and Dropbox Capture have made remote work easier for knowledge workers, technology that will make remote work easier for blue collar workers is finally on the horizon, too.

“Automation was already affecting jobs,” says Ellingrud. “and then through 3 years of COVID, that automation accelerated further.”

Though factory workers can’t yet monitor machinery from home, the technology to perform some tasks remotely might not be far away. 

“Imagine, for instance, the quality assurance team in a factory,” says Ellingrud. “Do they all have to be right there physically? Maybe some support teams could rotate, so part of the team does the in-person coaching, and any in-person sampling needed, but not everybody is in person every day.”

Ellingrud says jobs in the four occupational categories of customer service and sales, food service, production, and office support and assistance make up about 80% of the automation potential and occupational switching taking place between now and 2030.

Looking ahead at the impact artificial intelligence could have on remote work, Ellingrud says AI and other technologies are shifting the skills we'll need. In the upcoming years, she predicts, there will be less demand for manual work and more demand for both technical and social and emotional skills. 

“We’ll need less of simple problem solving work because AI will do it faster and with less errors in some cases than a human can in the future,” she says.

Finding better ways to measure productivity

After years of learning how to WFH as a safety measure, we’re now able to look at remote work as an enduring option—one that might help mitigate the burnout so many experienced while working longer hours during the pandemic. 

After years of learning how to WFH as a safety measure, we’re now able to look at remote work as an enduring option.

Without the commute to bookend the workday, many accidentally slid into overtime without even noticing. As they’re called back to the office, some workers wonder how they can keep up that pace. “While we talk about quiet quitting, others would say, ‘I can't do another two or three years of that,’” Ellingrud says. “For some, work is at an intensity that is unsustainable going forward.”

On the other side, managers who were accustomed to monitoring their teams in the office remain skeptical—even though studies show people can be productive working from home. The question is: How do we persuade them to shift focus from hours logged to outcomes achieved, no matter where the work gets done?

As companies find better ways to measure productivity, they’ll be better able to determine which working arrangements are best for retention, engagement and productivity. And as technology evolves to include better ways to work efficiently outside the office, the more comfortable company leaders will be offering more flexibility to more of their workforce.

“There is no one size fits all,” Ellingrud says. “Over these next few years, we'll see what works for different industries and cultures, and hopefully get clearer best practices over time.”