Pew on work: It's not about proximity. It's all about flexibility.



It’s rare, but sometimes life turns on a dime. Reverses course. What was true yesterday, simply isn’t today. Does this sound familiar? I think we can all agree, since the pandemic, work simply isn’t the same as it was “yesterday.”

Hitting the pause button after the original COVID-19 outbreak gave us all new perspectives, not least of which is how we think about work.

And while now you know you prefer a Tuesday morning walk to the hip new bakery, instead of braving the lines on Saturdays, what does the rest of the world think about its new flexible worklife?

To find out we reached out to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, about their new research on how we work today.

The center looked at how remote work was impacting and changing the workforce back in 2020 — and then again in January of 2022. And they found that a whole lot of people, when given the option, are now choosing flexible work for themselves.

It’s not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s likely that even as some workplaces continue to open, many workers will continue to work outside the office by choice.

First, a sense of just how much flexible work habits are here to stay. Only about 20% of the survey’s respondents were working from home before the start of the pandemic. By October 2020, 71% of those workers were working from home all or most of the time. Then, in January 2022, even as many offices opened back up, 59% of that group were still working from home all or most of the time.

What’s perhaps more interesting is why those numbers have stayed so high. In the height of the pandemic, 64% of workers who were mostly working from home were forced to because their offices were closed, while 36% were doing so by choice. Fast forward to this year, when that breakdown has almost flipped: 61% now working from home by choice, and only 38% because their workplace was closed or unavailable.

“Their reasons for working from home have changed,” says Rachel Minkin, a research associate at Pew, focusing on social and demographic trends, and a coauthor of both the 2020 and 2022 studies.

It’s not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s likely that even as workplaces continue to open, many workers will continue to work outside the office by choice.

Despite the complications of working remotely and the different kind of pressures it brought, many workers felt the benefit of the flexibility and plan to continue to work with this kind of adaptability going forward.

In part, that has been aided by the fact that workers felt they had the proper technology, equipment, and workspace at home to adequately do their job when they first went remote, according to Pew.

In the 2020 Pew survey, 43% of workers said it was very easy, and 37% said somewhat easy, to meet their deadlines while working from home. A majority also had access to the technology and workspace they needed.

In 2022, it seems that the remote workforce is hitting its stride and wouldn’t have it any other way. Pew asked workers to compare their new flexible work paths with how they used to work. 64% who hadn’t worked remotely very much prior to the pandemic said it was now easier to balance work and personal life, and 44% said it was easier to get their work done.

The new kind of flexible work environment isn’t just about being able to telecommute. (Remember that word?) Of those new to working remotely during the pandemic, Pew found 38% said that the flexibility that came from the new distance work made it easier to handle family responsibilities. That’s because working remotely allowed for shifted work hours, less time commuting, and other kinds of important adaptability.

The kind of flexibility workers now seek – especially those from higher education levels who are more likely to have flexible jobs — includes working from home at least some days each week. But there’s more to flexibility — like working earlier hours, taking a break in the middle of the day for self-care or childcare, or working late at night when you are free from the grind of meetings and have more space to think.

Another trend, that started for many out of necessity during the pandemic but has grown into a choice, is the flexibility to relocate entirely.

“One pandemic trend that we have tracked is the small but growing share of workers who say they've relocated,” says Minkin. “That could be permanently or temporarily. And we saw from 2020 to 2022, this increased from 9% to 17%.”

It's clear from Pew data the trend isn’t slowing. In fact 78% of respondents now say they would like this kind of work to continue after the pandemic subsides; that’s up from 64% when workers were surveyed in October 2020.

Because these trends are likely to continue, it’s a good idea for companies to continue to allow these policies and support their workers accordingly — with scheduling, with technology, and even with new kinds of culture building.

In 2020, 65% of those surveyed by Pew said that using remote communication tools at least some of the time was a good substitute for the traditional in-person contact we get at the office. Tech doesn’t replace humans, so leaders should continually think about better ways to create communication and community through these remote tools, in combination with some in-person connections.

With a tight labor market, flexibility is becoming a must-have for candidates. After all, happier, more loyal workers ultimately deliver better business results as well. And it’s something to keep in mind for employers who don’t currently offer flexibility. You’d be surprised how far avoiding long lines to get your homemade doughnut goes toward creating a satisfied workforce.