Gallup’s latest survey of U.S. in-house workers came a week ago with a definitive headline: “Remote work persists and is trending permanent.” The polling firm’s conclusion is based on figures that 45% of those workers continue to telecommute (25% full-time and 20% part-time). And while many nuances must be used to describe the overall picture in the U.S., the fact is that the changes imposed by the fight to contain the coronavirus in many work sectors and the transformation that experience has brought about in the priorities of many workers seem to be here to stay.
One need only look at the federal government, which with 2.1 million workers is the largest employer in the U.S., to understand the new reality. Two weeks ago, as the threat of the pandemic and the delta variant continued to recede and vaccination progressed, in large part because of immunization mandates, the Joe Biden Administration lifted the restriction for government agencies that had limited the presence of civil servants in their facilities to 25%. The 20-page memo included, however, the design of a permanent plan to expand remote work in the immediate future and, potentially, in the long term.
Something similar is happening in the private sector. The current pandemic situation and the Administration’s guidelines for companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or ongoing testing are allowing a gradual return to offices that has accelerated in recent weeks according to data from Kastle Systems, a company that measures security cards used to enter companies in 10 cities. That return is especially pronounced in places like New York in the finance sector.
Companies, however, are applying lessons about remote work learned in pandemics and also adapting to workers who have revalued flexibility and are leaving or threatening to leave inflexible positions. Many do not plan to fully open their offices until the end of the year or early next year (such as Apple or Google), some like Microsoft have postponed this reopening indefinitely and there are many cases of those who will allow part of their workforces to continue telecommuting (40,000 employees in the case of Pricewaterhouse Coopers), adopting a hybrid model or implementing more flexible schedules. Even companies like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan that initially enacted the five-day return to the office have backed down, moving closer to the will of workers and avoiding the flight to industry rivals more generous with remote work.
Like everything in the USA, the telework situation must be analyzed not only according to regional differences, especially significant in the case of the current impact of the virus, but also and especially with two essential filters to address any issue in the country. One is that of endemic and growing inequality, and under that we see that teleworking options, which never existed for essential workers, have also been practically nil for many of the employees in the lowest paid jobs. Seventy-nine percent of those blue collar workers had already returned to their in-person jobs by March while 67% of the higher paid white collars continue to work fully or partially remotely according to Gallup’s recent survey.
The other filter is that of the deep and also sharpening political divide, and the issue of remote work is also seen from a partisan perspective, with Democrats broadly open to flexibilization and Republicans favoring a return to the pre-pandemic model.