The pressure to return to the office has died down for the most part, yet surprisingly, employees are finding their way back to the desks they left in 2020 anyway.
Fewer American workers are doing their jobs remotely than last year, according to Morning Consult’s new 2023 State of Workers report, which polled around 3,500 employed adults. The study found that 63% of employed U.S. adults currently do most of their work in person, compared with 60% of the 3,500 surveyed in 2022. The percentage of people who work remotely, 23%, dropped from 27% last year.
Kastle Systems, a security company that tracks patterns in employee key-card entries, has seen average occupancy rates across the 10 largest metropolitan areas sit just south of and around 50% for the past few weeks. The busiest day tends to be Tuesdays, while Fridays are unsurprisingly the lowest.
Whether that’s workers’ preference, however, is a different story. While the share of people who told Morning Consult they would prefer to work remotely, 27%, isn’t far from the percentage of people still doing so in 2023, there’s a big gap in preference for those workers going into the office—46% of employed adults said they prefer to work in person (up by three percentage points from last year), compared with the 63% who are.
There’s also a discrepancy between those who would prefer hybrid work, 25%, and the 12% of workers who say they currently do most of their job in a hybrid model.
The main reason workers who preferred to work in person said they wanted to trek in: productivity. Bosses convinced that getting workers back to the office will make them work harder will likely bask in this news, but it should be taken with a grain of salt and the understanding it’s all about preference. Past surveys, like this one from Slack’s Future Forum, have found that some workers say they are most productive when they can work from home.
Leading the in-office pack is Gen Z. “Generationally, a larger majority of Gen Z adults do most of their work in person compared with their older counterparts, and this young cohort also shows the strongest overall preference for working in an office,” the study reads. Just shy of 90% of Gen Z workers who prefer the office cite productivity as the reason.
There’s precedent that suggests Gen Z also simply gets the most out of working in person, being fairly early in their careers. In September, data from Stanford economics professor Nick Bloom and WFH Research found that the fear around young employees wanting to work from home forever couldn’t be more misplaced. Workers ages 20 to 29 were the least likely to prefer working fully remote, which Bloom attributed to their need for in-person mentoring and socializing.
Of course it’s never a one-size-fits-all easy solution. According to Morning Consult: “Companies with in-person work policies and young workforces should take note of what gives Gen Z pause about coming to an office. Top reasons include not wanting to commute, not liking the work-life balance, and feeling more comfortable working remotely.”
But the biggest change in the return to office story, according to Morning Consult, has been among millennials and middle-income adults.
“The share of millennials saying they do most of their work remotely dropped 6 percentage points, from 29% to 23%,” the study reads. “The drop was even steeper for those who earn $50k to $99k annually (from 30% to 21%).”
From the very beginning of the will-they, won’t-they, “if you build it they will come,” iron-fist return-to-office wars, all the majority of workers seemed to care about and want was flexibility. They wanted the flexibility to decide on any given day which way of working best suited the needs of their work in that moment.
It’s why Bloom said during a February episode of McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast that companies should not only fully embrace hybrid work, but sufficiently organize hybrid plans that have anchor days when everyone comes into the office and “quiet or deep work” days at home.
The decline of remote work—and the workers who say the office makes them more productive—make it seem like the flexibility narrative is changing. But it’s really about the power of choice—allowing workers to decide where they are most productive. According to Bloom, that’s not going anywhere.