When email, instant messaging, and video conferencing became ubiquitous in the workplace, many thought the writing was on the wall for the traditional office. Soon most office workers would have the freedom to choose where, when, and how they do their work yet still be connected with colleagues. For a while it seemed that this scenario was at least partly coming true. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey show that from 2003 to 2016 the share of workers doing some or all of their work from home grew by almost one-sixth from 19% to 22%.
However, corporate attitudes on remote work may be starting to cool. IBM, where 40% of their 300,000+ employees worked remotely as recently as 2009, decided earlier this year to corral all remote employees to just a few central locations. More recently, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how various companies, including Aetna, Reddit, and Best Buy, were also in the process of reining in remote employees, preferring to have workers in the office to increase control over the workday and promote collaboration among team members.
Companies may be facing an uphill climb here for two key reasons. First and foremost, workers’ interest in flexible work arrangements is on the rise. With Indeed job search data we can see just how job seekers’ preference for flexible work arrangements have changed over time. The chart above displays searches for the terms most often associated with flexible work, such as ‘remote’, ‘telecommute’ and ‘work from home’, as a share of all searches on Indeed. The share of searches for flexible work arrangements has steadily increased, and is up nearly one-third over the year for July 22nd 2017.
The second factor working against employers is an increasingly tight labor market. In today’s labor market–with a 4.4% unemployment rate and about 1 unemployed job seeker per job opening–a shrinking talent pool may be increasing the ability of workers to bargain for benefits they want like working from home.
A few major companies abandoning their remote work policies by no means spells the end of workers’ freedom from the office. Many companies that find flexible arrangements conducive to their business will continue to offer them in order to attract the most talent possible. However, employers that would rather not offer telecommuting may find themselves at a disadvantage, particularly if the labor market tightens further in coming years.