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Lessons From the American Workplace as Pandemic Officially Ends
Trendency: there isn't one single solution, one-size-fits-all approach, or a simple answer that’s going to make everyone - or maybe even just a plurality - of American workers happy
After years of research into workers’ moods and preferences as we enter into a new era of American jobs post-pandemic, what is the main conclusion? There is most certainly not one single solution, one-size-fits-all approach, or a simple answer that’s going to make everyone - or maybe even just a plurality - of American workers happy when it comes to work/life balance or how much time they spend in the office. Nevertheless, this year’s first HR update taught us a lot of lessons about how people are feeling right now and about what seems likely to come.
Have Companies Found the Right Working in the Office vs. Remotely?
Just a little over three years ago, office workers around the globe were experiencing their first week working from home. Many thought this would be the start of a few weeks’ break from commuting and being in the office, but it turned into so much more than that. After three trips around the sun, some of us are still working remotely full-time, while some of us are returning to the office, all while some people never left to begin with. The Great Resignation left a lot of companies scrambling to keep employees happy. When some pushed for a return to the office once vaccines became available, we were left with a lot of questions: what’s the right balance of working in person vs. remotely? Will employees ever really be happy with the answers their companies give them? And, has any of this gotten better over the past year?
The short answer is no. This dilemma hasn’t improved since last year, not significantly. Just about 3 in 10 workers (32 percent) say they’re in the office the right amount - everyone else is either working onsite more than they’d ideally like to (42 percent) or not on site enough (26 percent).
This balance has fluctuated significantly over the past year, with no signs of stopping. After an increase in workers who wanted to work remotely most (if not all) of the time at the end of last year, the desire for remote work eased in Q1 of 2023. Despite that decrease, half of Americans still report wanting to work remotely 50 percent of the time or more. In theory, this should be easier for smaller companies and organizations to deal with, but, regardless of organization size, it’s clear that not many are really getting this balance right. Currently, small organizations (50 employees or less), despite being known for their flexibility, are basically tied with the largest organizations (1,000+ employees) for the percentage of employees who feel like they’re in the office the right amount. Spoiler alert: it’s only one-quarter of employees. Before mid-sized companies start patting themselves on the back, it is worth noting that both 50-100 employee organizations and those with 500-1000 employees saw double digit increases in the number of employees who say they’re in the office more than their ideal amount.
While the overall desire for more time in the office has been increasing this calendar year, a plurality of workers feel they’re in the office too much, including a majority of office employees. More than half (55 percent) of this type of worker says they’re on site more than they’d ideally like to be, while just 1 in 5 says they have the right balance. Service, school/medical, and manufacturing workers feel fairly similarly, with about 2 in 5 saying they’re on site too much, and another one-third (32 percent - 28 percent) saying they’re not on site enough.
The desire to work from home most of the time is constantly fluctuating, but it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. Of course, this preference differs depending on who you are and how the different aspects of your life affect your ideal work vs. life balance, including familial status. Unsurprisingly, familial status has a significant impact on how you feel about your time in the office vs. working remotely. While the pandemic did bring a small, positive benefit in that, at work, you don’t have to ignore the fact that you have children or other life responsibilities any more, that doesn’t necessarily equate to better balance of office hours.
Half of married Americans (48 percent) and those with kids (48 percent) feel that they are in the office more than their ideal amount. That doesn’t mean everyone wants to work from home, however; about 3 in 10 for both groups (27 percent and 30 percent, respectively) feel they’re not in the office enough. However, regardless of marital status or whether you have children, everyone is struggling to find the right balance. Just 21-30 percent of all four groups say they’re in the office the right amount.
How Much Time Should We Actually Be Spending in the Office?
Despite there being no clearly-defined answer about how much time workers want to spend at or away from the office, many have suggested that a 50/50 split could be easy and beneficial for many (although it would have seemed radical just three and a half years ago). So, we wondered, have we found the closest thing to a “right answer” as we’re going to get?
Right now, American workers want to spend a little bit more time in the office vs. working remotely on average; however, this has been fluctuating back and forth over the past few years. Currently, about 2 in 5 Americans fall in the all-or-nothing category - meaning they either want to be in the office all the time or working remotely 100 percent of the time, with no in-between. Just about one-quarter of Americans are looking for a true 50/50 balance.
Considering some age cohorts knew nothing but office work before 2020 and younger generations are entering the workforce remotely at higher numbers than ever before, do these preferences, perhaps, become more clearer by age group? Preferences on time spent in the office do differ greatly by age, and they’ve also fluctuated significantly over the past year. On average, every age group wants to be in the office a majority of the time, including workers under the age of 30. The workers who currently want to spend the most time in the office are those in their 40s; meanwhile, those in their 50s currently want to spend the least amount of time in the office (~56 percent of the time), followed by workers under 30. However, the average amount of time each group wants to spend in the office never hit 60 percent, highlighting how important flexibility and giving employees the ability to work from home (or even just have the choice to) will be for companies moving forward.
So who’s more likely to want to work remotely and who’s more likely to want to be in the office? Office workers, workers in their 50’s, and workers in the Northeast top the list when it comes to wanting to work remotely, with about one-third of each group wanting to work remotely more than half the time. However, when grouping in those who want a 50/50 split, the regional preference shifts to the West, with more than 3 in 5 (63 percent) of workers on the west coast wanting to work remotely half the time or more. On the opposite side of the equation, workers in the Midwest, those in their 40s, and - interestingly enough - workers who have kids indicate the highest preference for in-office work, with half or more of workers in these groups wanting to spend more than half of their time in the office.
What Does This All Mean for Career Happiness (or Contentedness)?
We’ve established that flexibility and the ability to choose working in the office or remotely a combination of the time is probably the best bet for most companies in this post-pandemic era. We’ve also established that companies aren’t doing a very good job of figuring that out, so how does this translate into workers’ overall views of their careers? Well, while people are feeling positive about half of the time or more, it varies by certain factors such as age and it has also changed quite a bit for some people over the past six months, with the current trend heading downwards since the beginning of 2022. Just about one-third (33 percent) of American workers are feeling positive about their careers 80 percent of the time or more, down from 41 percent in April of 2022.
An overall decrease in positive feelings is being driven by workers in their 50s, who saw a dramatic 24-point drop in the percentage of people feeling positive about their careers 80 percent of the time or more. However, this change didn’t result in a higher percentage of people feeling negative most of the time; nearly all of the workers in their 50s who are feeling more negative than they did in October are now saying they feel positive about 50-79 percent of the time. Interestingly, workers in their 30s are feeling significantly more positive about their careers, with a 10-point increase in the percentage of those feeling positive 80 percent of the time or more.
Many conversations surrounding flexibility say that the ability to dictate your day can impact parents the most, which is understandable - but the team at Trendency (with a team of people who both have kids and don’t) has had a different theory that we believe has been proven by this spring’s HR update. Parents ended 2022 on a more negative note compared to workers without kids, after both groups peaked in positivity in spring and summer of that year. However, this has flipped in the past six months, with non-parents experiencing a significant dip in positive feelings about their careers, leaving parents feeling more positive as of Q1 of 2023. What does it mean? Well, the Trendency team points to this as additional proof that having kids does not influence the overall feeling of workers when it comes to their careers.
Lastly, even regional or area type locations can impact workers’ outlooks on their careers. Americans living in the suburbs have the highest concentration of very happy workers (feeling positive 80 percent of the time or more), while those in urban areas are the happiest overall (50 percent of the time or more). On the regional side of things, the northeast has the highest concentration of very happy workers while the South has the happiest workers overall. Out of all seven categories, rural areas have the highest concentration of unhappy workers, followed by the West.
Companies and organizations have a lot of work to do to figure out what works for their employees; each group of employees is different, has different needs, has different wants, and should be treated as the unique group of people with real lives and real preferences that they are. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this dilemma, there is one factor coming into play that is going to have a huge impact on employee satisfaction: flexibility.
At the same time organizations need to do what is best for themselves and a broad answer of the “right approach” has better odds of failing than succeeding. What organizations need to come to grips with is that whatever decision they make some employees will not like it, and they will have a tough time recruiting some people. But that is OK. Openness on plans and keeping track of how your employees are feeling will go a long way in keeping most workers in a positive place.
Regardless of what any one organization decides to do, the job of the HR department (or person) is not going to be easy moving forward.