Employers need to fully embrace flexible work the way workers have

New data shows American thirst for fully remote or hybrid work has not been slaked after more than two years.
Feature Hybrid Work Here To Stay Panel

New research from McKinsey shows that Americans overwhelmingly accept the opportunity for hybrid work, when offered to them.

The third edition of McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey offers data on how flexible work fits into the lives of a representative cross section of workers in the United States. McKinsey worked alongside the market-research firm Ipsos to query 25,000 Americans in spring 2022.

The most striking figure to emerge from this research is 58%. That’s the percentage of Americans who reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, and extrapolated from the representative sample, it’s equivalent to 92 million people from a cross section of jobs and employment types. Thirty-five percent of respondents report having the option to work from home five days a week. What makes these numbers particularly notable is that respondents work in all kinds of jobs, in every part of the country and sector of the economy, including traditionally labeled “blue collar” jobs that might be expected to demand on-site labor as well as “white collar” professions.

Another of the survey’s revelations: when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it. This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions. This represents a tectonic shift in where, when, and how Americans want to work and are working.

Taking a deeper look at the results of the McKinsey survey offers the following insights:

1. Thirty-five percent of job holders can work from home full-time, and 23% can do so part-time.

McKinsey did not ask about flexible work in its previous American Opportunity Surveys, but an array of other studies indicate that flexible working has grown by anywhere from a third to tenfold since 2019. A mere 13% of employed respondents say they could work remotely at least some of the time but opt not to.

Forty-one percent of employed respondents don’t have the choice. This may be because not all work can be done remotely or because employers simply demand on-site work. Given workers’ desire for flexibility, McKinsey experts believe employers may have to explore ways to offer the flexibility employees want to compete for talent effectively.

2. When offered, almost everyone takes the opportunity to work flexibly.

The results of the survey showed that not only is flexible work popular, with 80 million Americans engaging in it (when the survey results are extrapolated to the wider population), but many want to work remotely for much of the week when given the choice.

Eighty-seven percent of workers offered at least some remote work embrace the opportunity and spend an average of three days a week working from home. People offered full-time flexible work spent a bit more time working remotely, on average, at 3.3 days a week. Interestingly, 12% of respondents whose employers only offer part-time or occasional remote work say that even they worked from home for five days a week. This contradiction appears indicative of a tension between how much flexibility employers offer and what employees demand.

3. Most employees want flexibility, but the averages hide the critical differences.

There’s remarkable consistency among people of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and educational and income levels: the vast majority of those who can work from home do so. In fact, they just want more flexibility: although 58% of employed respondents say they can work from home at least part of the time, 65% of employed respondents say they would be willing to do so all the time.

However, the opportunity is not uniform: there was a large difference in the number of employed men who say they were offered remote-working opportunities (61%) and women (52%). At every income level, younger workers were more likely than older workers to report having work-from-home opportunities.

People who could but don’t work flexibly tend to be older (19% of 55- to 64-year-olds offered remote work didn’t take it, compared with 12–13% of younger workers) or have lower incomes (17% of those earning $25,000 to $74,999 per year who were offered remote work didn’t take it, compared with 10% of those earning over $75,000 a year). While some workers may choose to work on-site because they prefer the environment, others may feel compelled to because their home environments are not suitable, because they lack the skills and tools to work remotely productively, or because they believe there is an advantage to being on-site. Employers should be aware that different groups perceive and experience remote work differently and consider how flexible working fits with their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies.

4. Most industries support some flexibility, but digital innovators demand it.

The opportunity to work flexibly differs by industry and role within industries and has implications for companies competing for talent. For example, most employed people in computer and mathematical occupations report having remote-work options, and 77% report being willing to work fully remotely. Because of rapid digital transformations across industries, even those with lower overall work-from-home patterns may find that the technologists they employ demand it.

A surprisingly broad array of professions offer remote-work arrangements. Half of respondents working in educational instruction and library occupations and 45% of health care practitioners and workers in technical occupations say they do some remote work, perhaps reflecting the rise of online education and telemedicine. Even food preparation and transportation professionals said they do some work from home.

5. Job seekers highly value having autonomy over where and when they work.

The survey asked people if they had hunted for a job recently or were planning to hunt for one. Unsurprisingly, the most common rationale for a job hunt was a desire for greater pay or more hours, followed by a search for better career opportunities. The third-most-popular reason was looking for a flexible working arrangement.

Prior McKinsey research has shown that for those that left the workforce during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace flexibility was a top reason that they accepted new jobs. Employers should be aware that when a candidate is deciding between job offers with similar compensation, the opportunity to work flexibly can become the deciding factor.

6. Employees working flexibly report obstacles to peak performance.

The survey asked respondents to identify what made it hard to perform their jobs effectively. Those working in a flexible model were most likely to report multiple obstacles, followed by those working fully remotely, and then by those working in the office. McKinsey’s research didn’t illuminate the cause and effect of this situation. It could be that people who face barriers are more likely to spend some time working from home. It could also be that workers who experience both on-site and at-home work are exposed to the challenges of each and the costs of regularly switching contexts.

Some obstacles were reported at much higher rates by specific groups. For example, about 55% of 18- to 34-year-olds offered the option to work fully remotely say mental-health issues impacted their ability to perform effectively, though only 17% of people aged 55 to 64 said the same. Workers with children at home who were offered full-time remote-work options were far more likely than their peers without children to report that problems with physical health or a hostile work environment had a moderate or major impact on their job.

Competition for top performers and digital innovators demands that employers understand how much flexibility their talent pool is accustomed to and expects, notes McKinsey researchers. Employers are wise to invest in technology, adapt policies, and train employees to create workplaces that integrate people working remotely and on-site — without overcompensating by requiring that workers spend too much time in video meetings. The survey results identify obstacles to optimal performance that underscore a need for employers to support workers with issues that interfere with effective work. Companies will want to be thoughtful about which roles can be done partly or fully remotely — and be open to the idea that there could be more of these than is immediately apparent.

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