America’s vaccine rollout is happening faster than expected, with the general population now eligible to get their shot this week instead of in May or June, as originally anticipated. In turn, some office workers in the United States are going back to the office sooner than we thought. When they return and how often they’re expected to be at their desks, however, could vary widely.
And as the return to the office picks up, the extent to which American office workers are allowed to continue working from home — which the vast majority of them have done during the pandemic — stands to affect everything from their satisfaction at work to where they are able to live.
This summer, offices are generally opening on an optional basis and will open with more expectations for workers to be present this fall. The most flexibility will go to knowledge workers. These high-skilled workers, whose jobs are mediated by computers, will be much more likely than before the pandemic to be allowed to work from home at least some of the time in what’s called the hybrid work model. But everything from which employees can work from home to the number of days they can do so will depend on a number of factors, including their job, company, and industry.
Even among industries well-suited to online work, there is a range in who is allowed to work remotely or not.
On one end of the spectrum are the finance and law sectors, whose workers have been less likely to work from home all along despite a high potential for their work to be done remotely. These industries are going back to the office sooner, and workers will be less likely than in other types of work to be allowed to complete their work remotely thanks to work cultures that prioritize in-person interactions, whether they’re necessary or not.
On the other end are a variety of industries including tech, where some companies like Twitter and DropBox are giving employees the option to permanently work remote. Of course, even within tech there is variation. Amazon, known for its brutal corporate culture, plans to have most of its white-collar workers back in the office by early fall, saying it wants to return to an “office-centric culture as our baseline.”
Meanwhile, companies that choose not to allow workers flexibility in where they work will be met with resistance. The vast majority of employees — 89 percent — say they want to be allowed to work remotely some or all of the time. So companies with stricter office rules could have trouble attracting and keeping talent, with one in four employees saying they might quit their jobs after the pandemic, mostly because they want to look for work with greater flexibility.
Whether you can continue to work remotely varies by your job and industry
The question of whether a given industry is sending workers back to the office early is hardly binary. The future of office attendance depends on a number of factors.
McKinsey Global Institute looked at more than 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations to figure out which had the greatest potential to be done remotely. The authors found that jobs where primary activities include updating knowledge and learning or interacting with computers could largely be done remotely without productivity loss. Meanwhile, jobs that required handling and moving objects or controlling machinery, unsurprisingly, had to be done in person.
That means that while some jobs within a company might go partially or completely remote, others are less likely.
Anu Madgavkar, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute, gave the example of an e-commerce company, where employees on the business development team “with rapid iterative types of cycles should be encouraged to spend more time together in physical spaces designed for interactions.” Meanwhile, people doing backend web development at that same e-commerce company “can spend much more time working on their own” from home.
“Within a company and even within teams, there’s a gradation going on,” Madgavkar said.
Activities particularly reliant on being in person include things like creating a company culture, negotiations, sales, first-time conversations with clients, onboarding, coaching, feedback, and problem-solving, especially within interdisciplinary teams.
As a whole, jobs with the highest remote potential were concentrated in a few sectors, including finance and insurance as well as management and professional services. Sectors with the least potential included construction, food services, and agriculture.
McKinsey estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the workforce could work from home three to five days per week without any loss to productivity. It’s 40 percent if you look at those who could work from home at least one day a week. Job categories with the highest number of remote job postings on FlexJobs, a job site for remote work, were computer & IT, project management, and marketing.
However, just because a job can be done effectively remotely doesn’t mean that it will be.
A number of industries have cultural barriers to remote work that prevented them from being done remotely, even during the pandemic. Again, despite having jobs with a high potential for remote work, law and finance jobs tend to require more office time. People in those industries worked remotely only a little over half of the time during the pandemic.
Law and finance are also likely to remain resistant to remote work post-pandemic. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has said he wants “nearly all” traders and bank branch employees back at physical locations, pointing to the shortcomings of remote work for maintaining a company’s culture. His opinions mirror many others in the finance industry. The financial publication Bloomberg wants its employees back as soon as they’re vaccinated, making it a standout from the media industry, which is generally adopting a hybrid model.
While privacy and data security in finance are certainly a concern with working from home, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle from a technical point of view (as evidenced by all the work in those fields that did get done with much of the workforce working remotely). Rather, it’s a cultural one.
“Some industries that technically could do it, maybe culturally are not ready,” Orsolya Kovács-Ondrejkovic, associate director of people strategy and human resources at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), told Recode.
Investment banks, in particular, have been known for their controversial work requirements, often based on executives’ caprice. Look no further than investment bankers in New York having to commute to Greenwich, Connecticut, for work. It’s also worth noting that during the pandemic, employees working from home reported their employers to the Securities and Exchange Commission for corporate wrongdoing at a record clip.
Law firms nationwide have had occupancy rates above average throughout the pandemic, according to data from Kastle Systems, an office security company that collects anonymized swipe-in data from 41,000 businesses across the country. Currently, law firms have a 40 percent occupancy rate, about 15 percentage points higher than the cross-industry average.
Many law firms have a staid, old-school culture. Notably for those afraid of spreading disease in open office spaces, law firms are also more likely to have private offices than peers in other white-collar industries. Really it depends on what leadership does, and leadership at finance and law firms typically don’t seem to be fully on board with remote work.
That could hurt those industries in the future.
“Can these companies still do it and ask people to go back? Yes, and people probably will,” Kovács-Ondrejkovic said. “But whether this will cause them an issue with their talent pipeline in the next five-ish years? Probably.”
The issue will be particularly pressing in coming years among young people, she said, who’ve now had experience working from home successfully.
“I think for them,” she added, “it will just feel very, very antiquated to be five days in an office.”
Industries like tech and STEM, where talent is in high demand and where future job growth is predicted, will more likely have to offer remote work.
“If you’re in an industry where talent is scarce, then you will get a sense pretty quickly that workers want flexibility and bake that into the talent value proposition,” Madgavkar, from McKinsey, said. “Or you will use [remote work] to target and tap talent pools in cities you weren’t able to harness previously.”
The percentages of people who actually worked from home during the pandemic would be a good indication of what percentage of people in those fields might work remotely — at least some of the time — post-pandemic, according to the authors of a BCG and The Network study published in March.
While it’s unclear how much office work will be done remotely, the prospects are at least much brighter than they were pre-pandemic, when less than 5 percent of the workforce worked remotely.
The move back to the office is just starting
So far, the average weekly office occupancy in April across all industries in 10 major US cities jumped slightly to 26 percent last week, according to Kastle Systems data. Occupancy rates were highest in Texas cities, with Dallas, Austin, and Houston all above 30 percent, and lowest in San Francisco, whose office occupancy was 14 percent.
The low national occupancy rate has remained mostly steady for the last year, but Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems, expects it to rise sharply in the coming months, after the working-age population goes through its vaccine cycle. It will likely take a few months after being widely available for Americans to book and get both vaccine doses and for them to be fully effective.
Ein, whose business relies on selling software for physical offices, is particularly bullish on the return to the office. Once employees are vaccinated, “there won’t be any reason people shouldn’t be back in the office,” Ein said. “Even people who leaned into working from home early on are talking about getting their workforce back.”
He says they’re eager to do things that are difficult to do from home, such as rebuild their work culture and collaborate with new employees.
On the other hand, people who’ve gotten a taste of working from home will likely want to continue doing so. The aforementioned BCG study found that nearly 90 percent of workers want to work from home some or all of the time. And many employers are seeing remote work as a cheaper alternative to pricey office real estate, or at least a way to cut down on some of their real estate footprint.
There’s also been huge growth in the availability of remote jobs. The number of postings for fully remote jobs on FlexJobs rose 76 percent between 2019 and 2020, while the number of partially remote positions rose about 20 percent (there are now roughly equal numbers of each on the site).
All that said, the future of office work will likely look more like a hybrid model, somewhere in the middle of being fully remote and fully in the office. Jamie Hodari, CEO and co-founder of the coworking office space company Industrious, likens the difference in remote work allowances before and after the pandemic to the difference between high school and college. In high school, people’s behaviors and days were much more regulated compared with the relative autonomy college students have to come and go as they please. As such, office workers will have a lot more autonomy in where and when they work.
Hodari takes the metaphor further, urging for a balance between remote and in-person work: Jobs that are completely remote may run into trouble maintaining their culture and completing certain tasks, much like online colleges have much lower graduation rates than in-person colleges.
Employers that offer workers a mix of remote and in-person work will be able to maintain their company culture and accomplish necessary in-office activities while also giving workers the flexibility they want. Jobs where that’s not the case could run into tension between employers and employees. In any case, if your boss is making you go back to the office and you want to stay remote, your prospects for finding a new remote job have never been better.