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Remote Work Is No Longer New, So Why Do Companies Still Struggle With It?

By Josh Brenner

The current work landscape reflects a seismic shift as return-to-office requirements displaced remote work from its status as the new normal. This sudden transition has propelled employees, who had grown accustomed to commute-less days and heightened flexibility, back into a corporate world representing an artifact of the pre-pandemic work life.

Resuming in-person work has introduced significant challenges to professionals navigating these evolving dynamics of the workplace. It simultaneously presented new opportunities for companies to take advantage of this shift and attract not-so-passive candidates of a hidden tech talent pool. Meaning, employed workers who would quickly move to an opportunity aligned with their preferred work environment.

The Good and the Bad of RTO

A Hired survey of employers’ hiring plans for 2024 found that 50% of companies plan to hire for hybrid roles, while 22% are opting for in-office, and only 17% fully remote. Which begs the question: What are the main drivers of the RTO trend?

Many companies report that a physical work environment offers more optimal conditions for enhanced collaboration, culture immersion, improved communication, and easier IT training and mentoring. While these arguments are valid for some, it’s critical to note that bringing some workers but not others into the office can create an inequitable dynamic between different groups of employees.

Then, too, some supervisors and managers prefer in-office teams so they can physically see the progress of their team’s projects, as well as allocate time for real-time mentorship and training. This heightened level of oversight often fosters better rapport with in-office workers, while perpetuating the perception that in-office workers are more productive.

This may create a disparity in career advancement for remote workers given research findings showing that 41% of employers say in-office workers are more likely to be promoted and included on high-profile projects and opportunities for growth.

In addition to the risk of career stagnation, a RTO plan comes with a series of associated costs. Employees, in exchange for flexibility, may incur additional expenses such as pet care (e.g., dog walking), daycare fees for hours before and after school, and commuting costs (increased auto insurance, gas, transit cards, garage fees, wear and tear on the vehicle, etc.). This trade-off can be akin to taking a pay cut for many.

However, the most concerning aspect of this perception is its adverse impact on members of underrepresented groups, who have a higher inclination toward remote work than their white male counterparts.

Impact of Return-to-Office on DEIB

An analysis of job-seeker preferences on ideal work environments reveals that 85% of surveyed women prefer fully remote roles, compared to 78% of men. This divergence is easily understood, considering that women are statistically more likely to shoulder caregiving responsibilities.

The inclination toward fully remote roles aligns with the need for flexible schedules, affording more time and flexibility to manage parenting and household responsibilities. In industries like tech, where women are already underrepresented, and approximately half tend to leave the tech field by age 35, the option for remote work transcends being merely a nice-to-have. It is a prerequisite for fostering equal opportunities.

This preference is not exclusive to gender dynamics. It also resonates strongly with BiPOC individuals who have cited remote work as a necessity to circumvent adverse workplace experiences, such as microaggressions and discrimination.

Another frequently overlooked factor is the geographical bias of requiring RTO. Many companies, specifically in the tech sector, are situated in traditional tech hubs (like San Francisco and New York) that are notorious for their high living and commuting costs. This can be especially difficult for members of underrepresented groups to access due to geographical and financial disadvantages.

In recognizing the intersectionality of these preferences, it’s evident that embracing remote work is not just a matter of convenience but a crucial element for cultivating an inclusive and equitable work environment.

Recruiting Advantage of Remote-First Flexibility

There is clear evidence that inclusive workplaces are not just a corporate and social responsibility, but are a compelling recruiting advantage. When defining “diverse” in terms of education, background, race, gender, experience, etc., 63% of tech workers said working on a diverse team was a top priority to them.

For companies grappling with the challenge of recruiting diverse and qualified talent, the current landscape presents an optimal opportunity to act. A hidden tech talent pool is now available, marked by the discontent expressed by 21% of men and 27% of women actively seeking to change their current work environments. In fact, 32% of surveyed in-office workers are actively looking for new remote or hybrid roles. This underscores the urgency for organizations to strategically embrace a remote-first working model, or at a minimum, more flexible working conditions.

Ultimately, when contemplating working models, organizations thoroughly assess the gains and potential losses associated with opting for a return-to-office strategy. Those receptive to employee preferences are better positioned to attract top talent, harness broader skill sets, and embrace richer, diverse perspectives in a time where maintaining a competitive edge is pivotal to driving innovation.


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