At the start of the pandemic, the narrative was that remote work was drudgery for young workers stuck in cramped apartments and bliss for their elders living in spacious home offices. Juniors lacked in-person learning, while their superiors focused more on how to spend the savings from fewer train tickets.
In fact, attitudes toward remote work are far less polarized.
The majority of traditional office workers seem to appreciate the ability to work from home (WFH) at least one day a week. There is some variation by age, but it is not large or consistent enough to be meaningful.
A recent study by consultants McKinsey & Co. found that workers aged 18 to 34 were 59% more likely to leave than those aged 55 to 64 if their employer did not offer a hybrid work arrangement.
The broader Work Arrangements and Attitudes Survey (a collaboration between the Universities of Chicago, ITAM, MIT and Stanford) presents more nuanced results. Workers in their twenties were more likely to start looking for a new job if their employer denied them hybrid work. But those over 50 were the most likely to quit on the spot. (Of course, younger workers may generally have more itchy feet, and older workers may have their eye on retirement.)
Much depends on how you ask the question. Invite workers to think about the option of working from home for two or three days in terms of increased pay, and 30-somethings will value it the highest. Ask what pay rise would be needed to work on their employer’s premises five days a week and it’s the over-50s who want the biggest raise.
The important point is that support for a hybrid arrangement is high across the board. The appeal of reduced commuting time – often the most cited benefit of remote working – clearly goes beyond older workers. Young workers may feel the impact of transport costs more strongly on their disposable income; the most central parts of public transport networks are often the busiest. Meanwhile, millennials have had a few years to get used to coworking and negotiating common space with roommates.
What does all this mean for employers? The tightness of the labor market and the need to attract emerging talent will continue to force most large companies to offer the option of at least some remote work. The catch is that the long-term impact of this change remains unknown.
Part of that early pandemic meme — the loss of on-the-job learning and in-person interaction — should remain a concern. Lower office occupancy means less knowledge transfer between generations and weaker internal relationships. These can be seen as sources of competitive advantage as much as the ability to attract talent. When things go wrong in companies, the explanation often comes down to culture.
Even though activity can be neatly divided into solo tasks best done remotely and collaborative tasks best done in the office, something inevitably gets lost in the divorce – learning by imitation and the ability to knock on the metaphorical open door. from a colleague, for example. These advantages do not disappear with hybrid working, but they are likely to be diminished.
So expect employers to offer the hybrid option while encouraging desktop use. One thing that could help on this front is to provide more flexible working hours to avoid peak hours and deal with non-work commitments. According to a King’s College London survey of London workers, the second main reason why WFH is attractive is the ability to manage domestic and social responsibilities. Travel expenses can become a more explicit part of salary negotiations.
Companies must also address what people see as the downsides of office work – often the prevalence of distractions. For example, Alphabet Inc.’s Google reportedly plans future offices to give people more space. This reinforces the trend for corporate tenants to seek higher quality space in prime locations. Vacancy rates for prime office space were just 4% in central London compared to 8% overall at the end of 2021, according to property consultants Cushman & Wakefield. Developer British Land Co. recently pre-let a building in London’s financial district four years ahead of its scheduled completion.
But modernizing offices in the world’s major cities for the post-pandemic era won’t happen overnight. Unless attitudes change drastically or the balance of power between employers and employees shifts, the hybrid experiment will have plenty of time to yield results.
Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Previously, he worked for Reuters Breakingviews, the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.