Business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Bezos became champions of remote work, supporting the argument that forward-thinking Silicon Valley would usher in a new and more progressive future for the world of work. One where employee well-being and family time were placed ahead of the traditional five-day office work routine.
So we all thought. Many of the same CEOs have since changed their tune, claiming instead that remote work hampers productivity and employee relationships. Now more than 90% of bosses say that regular office-based work will return by 2024, and they're inclined to give raises to those who do.
Are we seeing a remote work rug pull in the post-pandemic landscape? Was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella right all along when he said that “we are replacing one dogma with another”?
To better understand the debate and where businesses stand on it, we've analyzed the remote work policies of the 100 largest companies in the U.S. to see how their policies have changed since 2020.
- In-office days at America's major companies have increased since 2021, rising from 1.1 to 3.4 days per week on average in 2023.
- The U.S. now lags behind major developed economies in remote working, with just 11.5% of fully remote roles. It previously led the world in remote working in 2020, with 61.5%.
- Remote roles have decreased overall by a quarter since 2021 across major U.S. industries.
- The arts and entertainment sector has seen the largest shift in working arrangements, with on-site working rising by 72% in two years.
- Almost eight in 10 people (78.2%) are worried about RTO mandates, with 83.7% of respondents noting that their organization has adopted this policy.
- Two-thirds of people (66.5%) still support remote work, despite businesses moving to take this choice away from them.
Data reveals organizational shift in remote work patterns across U.S. in 2023
The world is in a different place in 2023 than it was during the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. As businesses around the world settled into the reality of remote work, the news cycle was awash with think pieces around the “future of work”, with many welcoming the opportunity to reshape our collective relationship with work amid high burnout and mental stress. At the time, a Cisco survey found that just 9% of global employees expected to fully return to the office when they reopened.
America's largest tech companies set trend for RTO policy
How has the shift played out in America's largest businesses? Many now suggest that the era of remote work is reaching its end. To better understand the shift taking place, we analyzed remote work policies of the 100 largest businesses in the U.S. from 2020 to 2023.
As you might expect, almost every organization adopted a fully remote policy during 2020, adhering to the restrictions of the pandemic. This year saw an average of just 0.1 days per week of office work across the workforce, with one notable exception — Broadcom, bucking the trend.
However, we can see a noticeable shift as the U.S. emerged from the pandemic, with organizations averaging 2.1 days of office work by 2022. We can also see that the five GAMMA businesses — Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, and Apple, were above average in their office requirements, with staff working 2.7 days on average in these tech giants.
Microsoft became the first of the big five to implement a return to the office policy (RTO) in late February 2022, allowing staff to still work from home for 50% of their week. While Meta, Google, and Apple all implemented similar policies during 2022; Amazon seemingly defied the odds, refusing to give a date on when staff will be expected to return to the office.
The e-commerce giant had an abrupt change of heart, withholding promotions from employees who ignored their RTO mandate during 2023. We can see an equal shift in our research, as businesses overall increased their in-office demands from 2.1 days to 3.4 days per week on average.
U.S. lags behind developed countries for remote work
While America's tech giants drew much of the headlines for their RTO policies, they are far from alone. Despite research from Upwork predicting that 36.2 million Americans will work remotely by 2035, the latest figures show that only 11% of its workforce operates from home — down from 61.5% during the pandemic.
Across the world, we have seen a rollback of restrictions as society reverts to its pre-pandemic habits. The U.S. was once ahead of major European countries in protecting staff in the comfort of their homes, despite tougher restrictions and enforced ‘stay at home' orders. However, it has steadily reduced over time to just 11.5% - lower than Malta (43.5%), Finland (24%) and Luxembourg (18%).
Despite a national lockdown, just 29.8% of France's workforce remained remote during 2023. It remains one of the lowest countries in our research when it comes to full-time remote work - just 1.3% of its workforce does so.
11 out of 14 major industries have increased on-site roles in 2023
In addition to the 100 largest companies, we have also analyzed how work arrangements have changed among major U.S. industries. Despite much of the pandemic-era hype around remote work, only four sectors - hospitality, healthcare, information, and utilities, saw an increase in the proportion of fully remote roles.
Overall, the information sector has seen the largest shift to remote in the post-pandemic environment, with 20.5% of roles now off-site, compared with 16.5% in 2021. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, remote jobs in IT are on the rise, and the sector has bucked the trend overall, due to the fact that it is best placed to handle remote work.
However, we can see that 11 out of the 14 sectors have increased their proportion of on-site roles within the last two years, with the arts and entertainment industry seeing the largest shift. In this space, remote roles have reduced from 26% to just 14.7%, while on-site jobs have risen to 42.6%.
While McKinsey's American Opportunity Survey revealed in 2022 that 58% of Americans prefer to work from home for at least one day per week, our analysis shows that only half of its major industries have seen an increase in hybrid roles.
Survey reveals Americans still support remote work despite RTO mandates
In addition to the data, we conducted a survey of 1,101 Americans to gauge their attitude on remote work in the post-pandemic climate. Three in five (60%) are still working remotely on a full-time basis, while just over a quarter (27%) have returned to full-time office work.
Of the people we sampled who are working in the office, almost three quarters (73.9% said they were going in four or more days per week. With just 12.8% adopting the hybrid model, it seems as though its popularity has waned among our participants.
Around two-thirds of people (66.5%) supported remote work, while 85% agreed that all jobs, where possible, should be remote-first. This runs contrary to the RTO mandates we see from America's largest organizations.
We can also see from our research that there is a wider concern for these policies. Nearly eight out of 10 people (78.2%) said that they were worried about an RTO mandate, and 83% said that it would affect their perception of a company or brand if it enforced such a policy.
While businesses continue to push a return to the office, it seems that our respondents are serious about keeping their freedom to work remotely. Nearly two-thirds of people (62.8%) said that they would be prepared to accept a lower salary if it meant they could continue to work from home.
The future of remote work
It's clear that the debate around where people are allowed to work has shifted from the position of 2020. Far from the bright future where employees had the choice and flexibility to work how they feel best, tension is rising between staff and businesses who are increasingly bullish on their demands for full-time office attendance.
In the U.S., we can see that while organizations are clear about their goals to bring people back into the office, this isn't matching up with the wishes of the employees. While not everyone is brought into the belief that we should all work from home, our survey reveals frustration among the workforce around the demands of RTO policies.
This tension will likely define the debate around the future of work for years to come. Neither side has the power and influence to definitively shift the attitude in one direction or another. However, our survey shows that staff would be willing to accept lower pay for greater flexibility around remote work. Will businesses buck the trend, or will the RTO policies leave staff in a bind?
This research consists of two sections—one which analyzes data around remote work trends, and one consisting of a survey about returning to the office.
First, we conducted manual research analyzing the remote work policies of America's 100 largest organizations, finding information about their policy from a range of reputable news sources and official websites, as well as LinkedIn.
Next, we analyzed international trends in remote work policy, comparing the U.S. to other nations using official sources and research from wfhresearch.com.
Then we analyzed WFH Research's Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA) to break down RTO policies across a range of industries between 2021 and 2023. The SWAA is a monthly survey of between 2,500 to 10,000 U.S. residents aged between 20 and 64.
Finally, we conducted a survey of 1,101 U.S. adults, with responses compiled between 12/19/23 and 12/20/23. This survey asked a range of questions about remote work and RTO policies, as well as perceptions of businesses that force their staff to return to the office.
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