Why Extreme “All-or-Nothing” Work Rhetoric Stands in the Way of Meaningful Change

We need to step back, take a breath and get our bearings about what’s really happening with remote, hybrid, and returning to the office if we hope to approach the flexible “next” of work deliberately and thoughtfully.

In the past few weeks, we’ve had “all or nothing” commentary (some border lining on apocalyptic) from Peggy Noonan’s WSJ OpEd, “The Lonely Office is Bad for America,” Malcolm Gladwell’s commentary that “Working from Home is Destroying Us,” and Jaime Dimon, JP Morgan CEO’s,  description of remote work as “management by Hollywood Squares.

To be sure, there are important pros and cons to different flexible work models that require good faith debate. Unfortunately, this extreme rhetoric reinforces the bias that everyone (especially young people) wants to work from home all the time forever, which sadly distorts the truth about what today’s workers actually say they prefer. Not to mention it stands in the way of reimagining how, when, and where we will work most effectively going forward.

Recent Gallup research provides us with some insight into worker preferences. First, of 125 million U.S. workers, 44% have jobs that require them to be ONSITE all the time. That’s almost half the workforce. That means a little more than half (56%) have jobs that CAN be done, at least in part, remotely. And, when you look at the way 56% of workers with remote-compatible jobs say they WANT to work, most of them prefer spending some time onsite.

Here’s the breakdown (as a percentage of the total workforce):

  • 33% can and want to work flexibly some days onsite and some days remotely (According to recent research by Stanford’s Nick Bloom, days working from home are averaging 2.5 days, which means onsite is 2.5 days)
  • 6% can work remotely but prefer to work onsite full-time
  • 17% can and want to work remotely full-time

While percentages will vary by industry, that means 83% of the U.S. workforce overall either must or wants to work onsite some or all the time, while only 17% would prefer to work remotely full-time. (That’s not an insignificant number but it’s not “everyone.”)

Yes, there are important questions to answer that more and more organizations are starting to tackle:

  • How do you plan, coordinate and execute work, develop talent and sustain your culture when 50% of your workforce is onsite full-time (44% who have to be and 6% who want to be), 33% of your workforce is onsite some days, and 17% is rarely, if ever, onsite?
  • For the 44% of the workforce that can’t do their jobs remotely and need to be onsite, what type of flexibility (e.g time and process flexibility) could they consider?

But, first, we have to recognize that most workers want to or have to “go back” to a worksite at least some of the time. But not in the exact same way as each other (one-size-will-NOT-fit-all) or, in many cases, not the way they worked before the pandemic.

We have to move past this myopic focus on work as a “where” and that it’s only about the office or home. We need to think about all employees, not just one segment. And, we have to optimize and operationalize flexible work in a way that benefits the business, employees, and even our surrounding communities.

Why is this important? Because McKinsey & Company’s new data on employee experience factors that impact attrition and retention reaffirms that people LEAVE for more money and career development/ advancement opportunities. BUT people STAY when they have ADEQUATE workplace flexibility and meaningful work.

Adequate is the operative word. Doesn’t have to be exactly the flexibility they want or expect (which shows room for compromise), but it needs to be real and meaningful enough, or they will look elsewhere.

The only way we are going to figure out what that looks like TOGETHER is if we move beyond extreme language and thinking, and meet in the middle.