I started pondering this post several weeks back while sitting on a beach in Mexico sipping a Margarita and enjoying the first real vacation since the start of the pandemic. Two days later, Elon Musk sent the tweet heard around the world, “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.”
Other than the hilarity of the utterly Orwellian description of “remote work,” it did give further weight to the question I had started to ponder, “has fully remote work hit its high-water mark?” Of course, no one would ever accuse the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter (TBD) of not marching to the beat of his own drum, so I don’t think it is fair to take any broader conclussion from his tweet. Rather, this post is based more on our observations of the market, particularly over the past six months.
The beginning of the pandemic ushered in what some thought and hoped to be a new normal. Companies were forced out of necessity to have their employees work from home, and perhaps to the surprise of many, the transition was relatively painless. By and large, we found that for many roles, people could execute the primary tasks of their job working from home.
As weeks turned to months, and months turned to more than a year, there was a widespread belief amongst a large portion of the workforce that this would become the new normal. I would say perhaps as many of 40%-50% of the candidate with which we spoke during this period were only interested in fully remote roles, and there was an assumption that all roles were remote (even if the location was listed clearly in the message or posting).
I had predicted that by the end of 2020, not more than 15-20% of roles would be fully remote, and at least in the Trust professions (Audit, Risk, Compliance, and Governance) that proved to be prescient.
But, as new variants brought new waves of Covid, and Return to Office dates kept getting pushed back, I started to wonder if there may be a larger sea-change at hand – after all, the longer this went on, the harder it would be to get the genie back in the bottle. It was also an eye opening when, in the back half of 2021, we had a couple large clients (companies that had invested huge sums in beautiful campuses and which hadn’t had a significant remote culture prior to the pandemic) pivot to fully remote. I wondered, “maybe this is going to be more permanent that I had thought?”
The first half of 2022, however, has told a very different story. Make no mistake, there are still fully remote roles available, and I suspect that to some extent fully remote work is here with us to say. But, what has become very clear is that growth in the number/percentage of roles that can be fully remote roles has most definitely leveled off, if not regressed. Interestingly, a quick Google search (of course, if it is on the Internet it must be valid) cited a Apollo Technical survey listing the number of fully remote roles globally at 16%. Why has that been the case?
Bear in mind that with a few exceptions, companies or department do not go fully remote because they think is the optimal scenario for the productivity of their company. No, most companies or departments transition roles to fully remote for one of two reasons: 1) they are afraid of losing employees, and 2) the are having trouble and/or are concerned about recruiting new employees.
I believe there are several key factors that suggest that, at least for the intermediate term, we may have seen the peak of fully remote roles. First, there was a major (and quite possibly coordinated effort) in the first half of this year to get employees (albeit in a hybrid remote scenario) back into offices. Perhaps not coincidentally, Google (March 2), Apple (March 4), and several other major tech companies announced their Return to Office plans within a few days of one other. The message was clear, “don’t think you are going to jump ship and go to one of the other tech giants, they are doing the same thing we are.” And we saw similar coordinated efforts in conjunction with mayors of major cities (San Francisco and New York among them) and employers in those downtown areas to get employees back into offices.
Second, market economics have shifted. It is quite possible that we will not again in our lifetime experience a more candidate-friendly market than what we experienced in 2020 – 2021. But those dynamics have shifted, as the Fed is, perhaps intentionally, pushing the country into recession in an attempt to get inflation under control. While it would take a monumental economic collapse to dramatically alter the supply/demand equation for Trust professions, even releasing just a bit of the pressure results in less panic hiring, and less of a feeling of urgency to make positions fully remote.
Third, most companies have successfully executed a Return to Office plan (with the new normal being hybrid remote), and the world did not end. Huge portions of the workforce did not quit en masse. And, from what we are hearing, a lot of professionals are actually are enjoying having some in person contact with their co-workers. I think in some ways, the longer the pandemic went on, that many people developed a mental barrier to returning to an office (the equivalent of falling off a bicycle and not being able to get on it for some time). With that band-aid finally pulled off, I think many people are developing a more balanced view of going into an office (especially if limited to a few days a week). Make no mistake, commuting isn’t awesome; but much like going to the gym, most people are not excited beforehand but they feel good that they went after the fact.
I certainly make no bold predictions for the long term, and I do think that some percentage of fully remote work is likely with us to stay. But, reading the tea leaves, my guess is that for the next several years, if not longer, fully remote roles will be limited to perhaps 10-20% of all opportunities. We are also seeing that the a large percentage of remote roles are at the Staff/Senior level roles (where competition for candidates is extreme), and less so in managerial and the executive tier. Finally, just because a role/department offers fully remote roles today, there is not guarantee that will be the case in a year or two. We’ve already seen one major client backtrack on their remote work policy.
What are the implications:
The first thing one needs to remember is that if you are limiting yourself to looking at opportunities that can be fully remote, you are reducing your marketability (perhaps significantly) in two ways. First, unless we see a dramatic change in the percentage of roles that are fully remote, you are limiting yourself to perhaps 10-20% of the professional opportunities in the marketplace. By definition, having fewer potential opportunities to explore is a limiting factor. Do I have better odds of finding the best career opportunity if I have 10 potential employers, or if I have one or two? You could be passing up some great companies or professional growth opportunities in the process.
Second, you are potentially reducing your marketability by having to compete with many more candidates. We have noticed on jobs that we post that we will on average get as many as 80-100% more applicants for a fully remote role. What that means from a candidate perspective is that you have taken yourself out of a market where you are the scarce commodity, and have instead inserted yourself into a scenario where the remote role is the item of scarcity. As a result, you have much more competition, and by definition, far less leverage.
I am not inherently against fully remote work. I think for some people, and for a variety of reason, it could be essential. For others, it may be just a choice that they make for themselves or there family. That said, I continue to be weary of longer-term career implications of fully remote work – particularly for people in the early part of their careers who are looking to climb the corporate ladder.
I continue to be a big believer in choosing company and opportunity first, and if that happens to be fully remote, then great. But I do think that a decision to pursue/consider only fully remote roles over time has the potential to be career-limiting. And I am especially weary of scenarios where an isolated employee is remote but all or most of the rest of the department are onsite or hybrid.
Moreover, those candidates that we are placing in fully remote roles, we are counseling to go above and beyond to make some strategically timed trips throughout the year to get facetime with your key stakeholders – even if that facetime is not required.
Fully remote work is likely here to stay. However, recent trends suggest that it is far from becoming the predominant paradigm. It may well be one day, but in my opinion, that one day is a long way off. Realizing this reality and making your career choices and pursuits with a full understanding of both the market realities, and the pros and cons of remote work fully in mind, one can help avoid career missteps and potential regret down the road.