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The Looming Battle Over Remote Work - office 932926 1920

Fully 64% of workers at some of the country’s biggest companies would choose working from home permanently over a $30K raise. These survey results come as more offices are beginning to navigate the way forward post-pandemic. (The Business Journals)

NH: Last month, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of the Washingtonian magazine, wrote a controversial op-ed in the WP on the future of telecommuting. In her article, she suggested that employees who continue to work remotely should be demoted to contractors.

The next day her staff went on strike. Merrill promptly walked back her stance. 

Disagreements like this one are cropping up at companies around the country. As vaccination rates rise and Covid-19 cases fall, executives must decide if remote work will continue post-pandemic. 

So what is the current state of telecommuting? According to Gallup, fully 51% of all workers are still remote. In blue-collar industries, that share is only 14%. But in white-collar industries, it soars to 72%. 

The Looming Battle Over Remote Work - Remote

Many executives want these numbers to shrink. But many employees don't. Let’s look at the numbers.     

Surveys show that a large majority of workers want to continue telecommuting. Gallup found that of employees who are still working remotely, 67% want to continue the practice. A Bloomberg and Morning Consult poll found that 39% of workers would even consider quitting if their company wasn’t flexible with remote work.

And a study by Blind of 3,000 workers from major companies (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) found that 64% would rather work from home than take a $30,000 raise.

Many tech companies are trying to accommodate their workers' telecommuting wishes. Spotify (SPOT) announced it would give its employees the choice to work remotely or in the office. And Facebook (FB) announced employees may either ask permission to be completely remote or will only be required in the office 50% of the time. Even before the pandemic began, tech firms were unusually accommodative of remote work. 

In contrast, many "Old-Wall" executives want workers to show up in person as soon as possible.

JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon announced that 50% of his employees would be working from the office by July. He further commented that telecommuting “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle.” A survey by PwC of 133 US executives found that nearly 40% believe employees need to be in the office at least four days a week. 

But even some big old-economy firms are changing course. Ford Motor Company (F) execs had originally planned for all workers to return to a normal office work schedule. But after a company-wide survey found that 95% of office employees wanted the choice to telecommute, Ford announced it would change course and allow remote work indefinitely. 

IMO, companies that are longing for a return to office life should tread lightly.

Raj Choudhury, a professor at the Harvard Business School, believes workers will leave companies that don't offer flexible telecommuting. Smaller competitors may also try to poach top-level employees by offering more generous work-from-home benefits. This may already be happening. According to the most recent JOLTs data from BLS, 2.7% of US workers left their jobs in April.

That's the highest monthly rate of job leaving since 2000. Anecdotally, many workers cite the end of remote working for their reason for leaving.

Before Jamie Dimon orders his workers back to the office, he should look more closely at the Blind survey. The survey's crosstabs show that 47% of JPMorgan respondents said they would rather work from home than take a $30,000 raise. 

This suggests JPMorgan may have to pay a lot more money for employees to return to the office with any enthusiasm. 

Combine higher payroll with the cost of midtown office space, and maybe even an "Old-Wall" Boomer exec like Dimon will reconsider his stance. 

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.