Office workers all over want the same thing: flexibility.

An illustration of a filing cabinet in a reclining chair
Adam Maida / The Atlantic;

June 29, 2022, 7 AM ET

Life has returned to some semblance of pre-pandemic normal across much of the industrialized world. Travel restrictions have mostly been removed. In the West, masks have mostly been removed from public transportation. Restaurants, theaters, museums, sports stadiums and concert halls are filled with locals and tourists alike.

One place has not returned to its pre-pandemic status. COVID-19 forced hundreds of millions of office workers around the world out of their workplace and into their home offices. The great remote-work experiment began when nobody asked for it, and is still going on for many white-collar workers. It is only now by choice and habit. A significant proportion of workers have been reluctant to return to the office five days a week despite the fact that many workplace have reopened their doors. Some people never go into an office again.

In the United States, about a third of office workers returned to in-person work by the end of the first quarter of this year, according to data shared with me by Future Forum, a research group at Slack that surveyed more than 10,000 knowledge workers across six countries. Only 26 percent of Britain, 28 percent of Australia, 32 percent of Germany and 35 percent of France have returned to work. In Japan, more than half of white-collar workers are back in the building, but elsewhere, most employees either continued working fully remotely or split their time in a hybrid model, according to a published survey. In the U.S., Australia, and Britain, about a quarter to a fifth of workers don’t go into an office at all, and in Germany, Japan, and France, it’s about one in 10.

Some of the differences are due to the type of industries and the makeup of the workforce. Wealthier countries tend to have more of the kinds of jobs that allow them to work from home. When I asked experts about the main reasons they prefer hybrid and remote work, the most common answer was that they commute. People who have to brave traffic congestion in cars or journeys on crowded public transportation may be less inclined to return to the office, even if it is convenient. In countries such as Britain, where before the Pandemic, workers would on average spend more than an hour commute each day, it has since been used to catch up on sleep, do household chores, or care for family and pets. Nearly three-quarters of workers in London say they won’t go back to their pre-pandemic ways.

Practical considerations such as the size of peoples homes, their living situations, and the reliability of their internet connections are some of the things that come into play when deciding to return to in-person work. Rates of remote working are low in Southern European cities, for example, because apartments tend to be smaller there than they are in other parts of the world, according to Nicholas Bloom, an economist and co-founder of the WFH Research project. It’s possible that cramped living quarters have made remote work less desirable in countries like Japan. Young people are more eager to return to the office, but workers with children tend to place a premium on working from home at least some of the time.

  • Photo of induction stove top and gas stove with blue flame
  • A valet races against the clock

According to a survey of over 30,000 workers in 25 countries, office workers prefer a hybrid model that allows them to split their time between home and the office by having an option to work remotely at least two days a week. On average, those surveyed would trade a 5 percent pay raise for flexibility.

There is a perfect amount of days to work from home.

The executive leader of Future Forum told me that flexibility is basically table stakes for most of the knowledge-worker population. Employers are being forced to rethink where work happens and when. 94 percent of people want flexibility about their schedule, even though 78 percent want flexibility about location.

Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago and a co-founder ofWFH, said that most people value the interaction they get, and the networking and the socializing that they get, in the office. The presenteeist bureaucratic model that has defined office work over the past several decades has certainly broken and I don’t expect it to return

That isn’t a belief that all companies seem to share. Despite the fact that non executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week, many top executives stress the importance of office-working. More than half of the business leaders surveyed for Microsoft’s 2022, Work Trend Index expressed fears that productivity had taken a hit as a result of the shift away from in-person work, but 80 percent of employees surveyed thought so.

Managers fear remote work.

The new age of work might favor workers. If a business requires its employees to return to full-time office work, those employees have other options. This uncompromising message may have had less to do with an antipathy toward remote working than it did with a way of cutting payroll without having to make formal job cuts. Many companies have already announced longer-term flexible-working arrangements, and some are using them as a recruitment tool.

In May, after the company announced that most of its employees would be able to work from home on a permanent basis, the careers page of the company received over one million visits. Future Forum found that people who don’t get the flexibility they’re looking for are more likely to look for a new job in the next year. According to Jane Parry, an associate professor in the business school at Britain’s University ofSouthampton, work arrangements are becoming a top issue in interviews.

Employers reckon with what a shift to more flexible working arrangements will mean for the future of the office, they must also consider the impact that resisting this move could have on business. In countries such as Japan and Germany, companies are already experiencing a decline in workforces because of aging populations. The head of the BDA, Germany’s employers’ association, said that accommodating arrangements and respectful attitudes toward the wishes of employees will be the new normal.

It’s a question of whether the change is permanent. If a looming recession puts power back in the hands of employers, they will be able to stop or reverse the shift to hybrid work. The trend is already unstoppable according to the experts I spoke with.

Top talent is always in demand, even during a recession, according to Future Forum. Things get worse, not better, if you lose the wrong people.