Tesla, Amazon, Disney, JPMorgan, and there are many others. It's an understatement to say that news about remote jobs, at least in the press, has been dominated in recent times by the return-to-office movement. While this call may take different forms depending on the company concerned, the message remains more or less the same:
"Remote work doesn't work. We need to go back to the tried-and-tested formulas - nothing can replace face-to-face teams".
And if that's not enough, the heads of major multinational groups are quick to add another layer. At the recent Davos Economic Forum, the CEO of L'Oréal did not hesitate to be dramatic. For Nicolas Hieronimus, full-time remote workers show "no attachment, no passion, no creativity". In short, they are dead weight for the organization that employs them.
But what lies behind such attacks? Why strike so hard? And what if, paradoxically, these invectives were, in fact, nothing more than the testimony of a wounded "old world" that is gradually dying out? In other words, have the remote jobs already won?
Work from home is not born from COVID
The widespread adoption of remote work can be attributed to the COVID-19 crisis, an indisputable fact. Successive confinements have compelled organizations to embrace remote working on an unprecedented scale.
But to stop there would be to miss the point. The success of remote jobs was not built solely on the health crisis. It merely acted as a trigger for a revolution that was already underway. According to a report by IT Devolutions, a company specializing in security solutions, remote working opportunities grew by 173% between 2005 and 2018, 11% faster than the workforce as a whole. COVID-19 didn't create remote working. It merely accelerated a trend that was already well entrenched in reality and just waiting to explode.
So, are the calls for a return to the office (RTO) realistic?
Management can always bang their fists on the table and force employees to return to their physical desks. Indeed, they have done so, even going so far as to threaten rebels who refuse to comply with the injunction with dismissal from the company. But that doesn't mean the RTO strategy has been successful. Take financial giant Goldman Sachs, for example. Back in 2022, it was one of the first to remind its troops to return to the office. As a result, more than a year later, office occupancy was still 15% lower than before the pandemic.
When interviewed by Jobgether, the head of a French HR consultancy working for big companies was categorical:
"Yes, the injunctions to return to the office do exist. Yes, some companies impose days of presence. But that's not enough to get employees to come back. They don't understand such a demand, even though they consider themselves more productive when they work from home. Under these conditions, they don't want to endure 1.5 hours to get to work and 1.5 hours back. From their point of view, it's a waste of time, a source of stress, and brings nothing to the company."
Return-to-office has no impact on employee productivity
This observation is not limited to certain geographical areas. Resistance to return is global. It has been observed in the USA, Canada, England and France. It also exists in Australia and India. Management, for their part, put forward the argument of a loss of productivity (or a fall in innovation) to justify their demands. But the question is, do companies themselves believe this?
According to a report recently published by Atlassian, this may in fact be a huge bluff. In fact, almost all of the executives surveyed (100 Fortune 1000 CEOs and 100 Fortune 500 CEOs) admit that returning to the office has had no impact on employee productivity. Better still, they also overwhelmingly believe that distributed working is the way of the future, and is destined to grow in popularity.
If this is the case, why call employees back to the office?
The injunction has less to do with issues essential to the economic and financial health of companies, and more to do with a question of power. Managers, in particular, have undoubtedly suffered from remote work. The crisis has often been brutal, calling into question their place within teams when they find themselves dispersed at a distance.
But instead of reflecting on new processes and redefining their tasks, many have preferred to rely on schemas which, in remote mode, no longer work. As a result, their certainties and their place within the company are shaken by a quasi-existential blues. In this sense, requiring teams to return to the office is an attempt to regain the power that managers feel they have lost. Except that it doesn't work, and management is now realizing this.
In 2023, Envoy conducted a survey involving more than 1,000 executives and managers from US companies. An overwhelming 80% of these executives expressed they would have approached their company's return-to-office strategy differently had they had access to workplace data for informed decision-making. Put another way, this means that such policies have been put in place without the benefit of unassailable data. And if there are any regrets expressed, it's that these injunctions have had far from the desired effect.
RTO is doomed to die
The future of work looks very remote indeed. There will be no turning back. The strong trends that drove this mode of work organization continue to be at work. The quest for meaning, the demand for flexibility, the right balance between private and professional life, have become basic requirements for generations X and Z. They will continue to be driven by subsequent generations.
For Nick Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, the case is well-founded. For him, the back-to-work movement is doomed to die. While it's true that the end of the pandemic associated with calls has led to an overall decline in the number of remote jobs, this is only a temporary effect. The year 2024 should be one of stabilization before "a steady climb by 2025 and beyond as new technologies improve and enable remote work".
But stabilization doesn't necessarily mean dead calm. The world of remote work will be traversed by trends that will dynamically influence its trajectory over the coming months. Jobgether has listed 4 of them.
1. IT will continue to dominate remote job offers
Unsurprisingly, the technology, IT and financial services sectors will continue to provide the majority of remote jobs. Web developers, software engineers, data scientists and cybersecurity experts are just some of the professions for which remote job offers are continuing to grow. But the IT sector is not alone. According to Jobgether data for 2023, the service, industrial, healthcare and retail sectors, as well as public administration, are among those offering a significant number of remote positions.
2. Artificial intelligence to optimize processes
Artificial intelligence has a transversal impact on all businesses and sectors. The world of work from home will be no exception. Artificial intelligence should help optimize the processes governing the work of remote teams, even when they are separated by thousands of kilometers. It can streamline the coordination of teams across different time zones through intelligent planning, and improve project management by predicting deadlines and identifying resource requirements. In addition, its predictive analytics capabilities will provide insights into employee performance and well-being, so as to maintain and, if necessary, improve the dynamics of remote working.
3. Africa's remote dynamics
The African continent boasts an increasingly skilled workforce. Some of its capital cities, such as Nairobi in Kenya, have become veritable technology hubs. In this context, a recent study revealed that the number of companies recruiting in Africa for remote positions had increased by 800% in the space of a year. The region promises to be a major player in the future development of remote work.
4. The end of the return-to-office calls
Companies, having come to terms with the failure of their return-to-the-office policy, are about to make their Copernican revolution by offering their employees ever greater flexibility. Of course, they won't all turn into fully distributed companies, but will evolve towards a truly hybrid model. As Raj Choudury, associate professor at Harvard Business School, explains:
"In 2024, companies will move from a rigid form of hybrid being imposed top-down to more flexible forms of hybrid being adopted by teams" (Flex Report 2024).
Remote hiring is now a must
In Raj Choudury's analysis, this is perhaps the most important point. Nothing will be done against employees' deepest aspirations. After an acceptable salary level, flexibility has become talent's second priority. Without it, companies will be unable to recruit or retain the best profiles. In this context, the ability to work remotely is now one of their best arguments for hiring and retaining staff.