Is the desire for fully remote roles dwindling? Yes, dramatically, according to Flexa Careers’ most recent installment of the Flexible Working Index, which tracks where, when, and how people prefer to work and what companies offer.
In August, 60% of job searches on Flexa’s global directory for flexible jobs were for fully remote roles. Yet it plummeted to 44% in September — a drop of 26 percentage points and, in pleasing symmetry, 26.4% — using a sample size of 43,569 searches by those hunting work (83% in the U.K. and 3% in the U.S.) and over 1,290 job adverts.
Interestingly, employers also mirrored the decline: only 10% of fully remote roles were advertised in September. The figure was 24% just a month earlier.
Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa Careers, pondered whether the “onset of what looks likely to be a tough winter for many” meant that workers were craving workplaces warmed — and paid for — by employers.
“Over the coming months, having access to a heated office with amenities will be prized by many feeling the cost-of-living sting,” she said. However, employers should not forget that employees still value choice and freedom in their working environments, warned Johnson-Jones.
“The increased demand for remote-first further illustrates this, as remote-first is the working environment that offers both the freedom of working remotely, but also the choice of an office,” she added.
Could we be witnessing the start of seasonal fluctuations in demand for fully remote jobs? “This end-of-summer transition could be something we see becoming an annual trend,” Johnson-Jones answered. “It reflects the ongoing need for employers to remain flexible, nimble and offer choice when it comes to talent attraction.”
Work-life balance being redrawn, again
Perhaps the drop in searches for fully remote roles hints at a deeper trend — employees and employers alike have concluded that being out-of-the-office five days a week is counter-productive. Moreover, it is increasing well-being issues and loneliness for some employees and, in turn, making it harder for employers to attract and retain talent.
“There has been a growing realization that fully remote working is not all that we made out, either for the individual or the company,” said Russell Donders, director of international market development for digital learning firm imc.
He said that humans are social animals and that fully remote working is not necessarily natural or healthy. “The initial perceived benefits are being outweighed by the need for social interaction, knowledge exchange, peer learning, and a general break between work and life — all of which have brought the ‘new’ work-life balances into question,” Donders added.
Worryingly, he revealed evidence of worsening levels of well-being triggered by employees not being in the office. “I have seen numerous cases worldwide, both inside and outside our company, where remote working has caused significant mental health problems as a result of a new of welcomed absenteeism,” he said.
Social-economic nuances will impact the degree of damage and willingness to work entirely remotely or not, Donders pointed out. For example, a father nearer to the end of his career with a home large enough to have an office would be likely to miss the office less than someone starting their first job, living in a flat, working on their bed, or a shared kitchen.
“Over the past few months, during interviews, many applicants have explained to me that they are sick of years of working from home, that they want to go to a workplace, and they want to feel physically part of something again,” said Donders. He added that this was a “deep-routed” need.
Lack of social connection between colleagues
Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the Chicago Booth School of Business, agreed that remote working had become increasingly isolating for many people. The lack of “social connection between colleagues” had led to a rise in “loneliness, instability, and stress,” she said.
Her research, published in 2020, found that people have much better relationships, work better with each other, and feel less lonely if they are physically with others. “The bottom line is that remote-only roles do not foster the social collaboration human beings need to thrive and excel at work, said Fishbach. “And people are starting to clock this.”
She predicted that the popularity of remote-only roles would “continue to regress,” although many workers will seek the flexibility of partially remote jobs. “The recent decline suggests that employees are becoming more sophisticated and less opportunistic when it comes to thinking about work and genuinely considering their fundamental needs when making decisions around employment,” added Fishbach.
John Riordan, non-executive director for Boundless, HR and ops compliance firm, took a different angle on the Flexa Career findings. He countered that because organizations were still firming-up hybrid working policies it followed that prospective recruits wouldn’t search for fully remote roles. Instead, it was a question of semantics and altering terminology.
“The term ‘fully remote’ is an enormously flexible construct, and now, more than ever, almost every large company is trying to work out if they are ‘office only’ or ‘remote only’ or in the ‘hybrid middle,’” he said.
Messy hybrid middle
Riordan added that WFH Research showed that “employee return to the office” numbers were “significantly lower” than employers had hoped. So, as employees hear more in the news about hybrid options, it is “logical that some of the search volume focused on fully remote roles” has been dialed down, and variants have become louder.
Indeed, new research published by Semrush, an online visibility management software-as-a-service platform, found that in the U.S., interest in remote work grew over 300% from July 2021 to July this year. Notably, this does not break down how many searches were for fully remote roles.
Meanwhile, WeWork results this summer suggested growth, with an increase in memberships of 33% year on year. “This could be interpreted as a response to a global shift of employees returning to an office,” said Alexia Pedersen, EMEA vp at learning and media company O’Reilly.
Commenting on another statistic from Flexa’s Flexible Working Index that found jobs asking people to work “core hours” rose 165% month over month, Pedersen wondered if the increase was down to companies trying to support a flexible approach and supporting workers with young children. “To attract and retain talent there is a recognition that companies can support a flexible approach to working hours,” she added.
While organizations including Twitter, Shopify, and Lyft, among others, have pinned their colors to the fully remote mast, a massive number of companies are still holding out, perhaps hoping that the balance will swing back in favor of a return to the office.
It’s undoubtedly still messy, stated Dr. Alison Watson, head of the school of leadership and management at Arden University in the U.K. But she has spotted a global trend towards “a slow return” to the office.
Slow return to the office?
“About a third of workers have returned to work [the office] in the U.S. and half the workforce in Japan,” Dr. Watson said. “In Australia, more than a quarter of workers are now returning to the office, with this number rising to a third in Germany and France.”
Given this information, business leaders ought to carefully consider the needs of their organization and workforce before “jumping to any conclusions” and committing to all-or-nothing work policies, she advised. “A wholesale return to the office may be practical for some organizations, but those that have adapted to agile working may now find it restrictive, for both the business and its colleagues.”
Finally, Dr. Watson stressed the need to engage employees to discover what they want in terms of both location and time flexibility. “Leaders should review their processes and discuss working arrangements, including options for hybrid working, with workers on an individual basis so that working arrangements are beneficial for all parties,” she added.