If you’re one of the approximately 50 percent of Americans who worked remotely during the pandemic, you’re probably wondering if remote work is in the cards after the pandemic is over. The vast majority of people say they’d like to work remotely at least part of the time, but that desire is running up against the reality of there being fewer remote jobs than there are people who say they want them. Only about 10 percent of jobs on popular hiring platforms include remote work.
That’s a boon for jobs offering remote work. Take Zillow, for example, which saw a huge spike in applicants due to a new remote work option. The real estate marketplace announced last summer that it would allow the vast majority of its workers — 90 percent of its more than 5,000 employees — to work from home at least part of the time. That represented an about-face for a company that, before the pandemic, had demanded that most employees come to the office regularly.
The move also positioned Zillow, which is hoping to eventually add 2,000 positions, at a desirable spot in a very tight labor market, in which many companies are struggling to get enough staff. Nearly 56,000 people applied to Zillow in the first quarter of 2021, up 50 percent from last year when there were more jobs posted.
“If we weren’t doing this, I think it would be tremendously difficult to be filling our positions right now,” Dan Spaulding, Zillow’s chief people officer, told Recode. “We are doing this, and it is still difficult — but I think we found an edge.”
The company’s relative success amid a hiring crunch and resignation boom illustrates the immense draw of remote work. Employees are tripping over themselves to scoop up a relatively small number of partially and fully remote positions. Zillow isn’t the only company seeing a surge in applications for remote jobs. And while the overall number of remote jobs is increasing, there are currently far more people who say they want these jobs than there are open positions.
Before the pandemic, many Americans hadn’t regularly been able to work from home, but that changed during lockdown. And for many employers and employees, the new arrangement worked surprisingly well. People were just as productive as they were before but they got to skip their lengthy commutes and spend more time with their families. As it turned out, much of what people did in an office could be accomplished pretty easily with wifi, a laptop, and Zoom. Now, as companies reopen their offices this fall, the ability to work remotely is at the top of their employee wish lists, with some valuing it higher than a pay raise.
Indeed, up to a third of office workers say they’ll quit their jobs if they can’t work remotely at least some of the time, and people are quitting their jobs at the highest level on record. Some 4 million people quit their jobs in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a figure that represents 2.7 percent of the workforce. And there are more jobs open than ever before.
Needless to say, employers are finding it difficult to fill positions. Companies that offer remote work are having an easier time. Companies that don’t offer it may want to start.
The growth of remote work and remote work demand
Data from a number of job sites illustrates the growing popularity of remote work, which for the purposes of this article includes jobs that allow working from home some or all of the time. On LinkedIn, the share of US jobs that allow remote work increased fivefold, from less than 2 percent in May 2020 to about 10 percent in May 2021. Those jobs are getting 25 percent of all applications. ZipRecruiter saw similar growth in remote jobs, which it says are getting four times the number of applications as jobs that don’t have any remote options.
“A lot of people are competing over very few [remote] jobs,” Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s labor economist, said. “And then there’s very little competition for the in-store, at-workplace, in-warehouse kinds of jobs.”
Retail workers are leaving en masse, many lured away by other entry-level jobs offering higher wages and work from home.
“The biggest shift has been toward remote work being even an option for these lower-wage, less-senior jobs,” Pollak said. “That wasn’t a thing before.”
On LinkedIn, the most in-demand remote entry-level opportunities are in customer service (support, data entry), business development (which includes cold-calling), and product management.
Pollak says she’s noticed many industries that haven’t typically been associated with remote work are letting employees complete at least some of their tasks at home. Home health aides, for example, used to have to go into offices to complete their paperwork. Now, some of their employers are allowing them to do that portion of their job where they wish. Sales reps and even construction managers are finding that some employers are offering part-time remote positions.
Still there’s a gap between the desire for remote work and the availability, especially in fields outside of knowledge work.
Of course, the biggest growth in remote work options is where many would expect: the tech industry. Tech had already been facing challenges getting qualified workers. Given the current state of affairs, these software engineers and data scientists have an even stronger upper hand.
“It’s insanity. We’ve never seen the demand so high for top tech talent,” said Josh Brenner, CEO of Hired, which focuses on finding sales and tech workers for its client companies.
These trends are playing out in demands for higher wages, better benefits, and remote work for tech employees. And it seems to be working, as evidenced by what employers are offering on recruitment platforms.
Nearly half the jobs on Hired’s platform now include remote work. That’s up from 10 percent at the beginning of last year. The biggest growth areas for remote work are consumer mobile, security, real estate, and analytics, according to Hired.
FlexJobs, which was already geared specifically at remote and freelance work, has seen the share of jobs on its platform offering at least partial remote work go from 60-70 percent in 2019 to around 90 percent now, according to career development manager Brie Reynolds.
Employees whose jobs are calling them back into the office, she said, aren’t necessarily quitting, but they are actively searching for remote jobs.
“For those companies that are not putting remote work in place in some capacity, over the next few months there’s probably going to be quite a number of people who are jumping ship to go to a more remote job,” Reynolds said.
How remote work could benefit employers
This isn’t just employees getting what they want in a tight labor market. Many of the people Recode spoke to spun this as a way for companies to actually meet their diversity goals. Removing geographic and time constraints means employers can reach out to a much wider pool of qualified candidates. Women and people of color are much more likely to prefer remote work than their male or white counterparts, according to a recent Slack survey.
Women frequently cite child care as a reason. LinkedIn’s group product manager for careers products, Ada Yu, sees offering remote work as a way to attract more women, who disproportionately left the workforce during the pandemic.
“Flexibility of schedule will really help employers try to recruit, retain, and engage with parents in general, but especially women,” Yu said.
Black employees say remote work is better for their sense of belonging. They are 20 percent more likely to be open to remote work than employees on average, according to Hired’s Brenner.
“We’ve seen that once companies start opening up these remote searches, they’re able to also achieve their goals in terms of bringing in a more diverse employee base,” Brenner said.
The future of office space
It’s so far unclear what the rise of remote work will mean for office space, especially since many companies are adopting hybrid work plans in which employees will spend only part of their time in the office. How much office space they need will depend, in part, on how much their employees end up coming to the office.
Currently, only 9 percent of large companies say their office portfolios will get “significantly smaller” in the next three years, according to the latest employer survey from real estate services company CBRE. Some 72 percent of companies are anticipating modest office space reductions. Instead of drastically downsizing, companies are altering their floor plans to have fewer dedicated desks and more shared space for people to work together when they’re in the office.
Zillow, for now, is keeping its office space (though, to be fair, it held long-term leases so it doesn’t have much of a choice). Instead of downsizing, the company is redesigning its offices to be more geared for collaboration, which it says will be the main objective when its remote workers do come into the office.
About 60 percent of Zillow employees anticipate working from an office once a month or less going forward. The company plans on bringing in fully remote employees a few times a year.
“We do feel that in-person collaboration is still going to be really important coming out of the pandemic,” Zillow’s Spaulding said.
The vast majority of collaboration, however, will have to happen online.
For those who want remote jobs but are unable to get them, more jobs are likely to become remote in the future as companies use the perk as a way to attract much-needed employees. The desire to work remotely doesn’t seem to be going away, and more jobs can be remote than already are.