Is remote work here to stay? Here’s what experts think.

Workplaces may have to adjust to a new, more flexible work model, they say.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Co-working spaces, like these in Kiln Park City, are one example of the flexible workplace model many experts see as continuing after the COVID-19 pandemic has dissipated.

When COVID-19 started spreading in the spring of 2020, offices around the world shut down — but Jared Olsen’s didn’t.

Employees of Olsen’s software company, JobNimbus, had only just started working together in a WeWork space after years of working fully remotely.

“We were like, ‘Whoa, there’s magic happening together,’” Olsen said of finally working under the same roof.

While most people set up work spaces in their homes, Olsen and his team rented a “gigantic office space” big enough to stay “socially distanced” — as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were recommending people stay at least 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of infection. Olsen, a self-proclaimed “workplace culture enthusiast,” said the experience has shaped his company’s culture, which he encapsulates in a phrase: “There’s power in together.”

Still, remote work as a concept has stuck. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 27.5% of private sector employees worked remotely “some or all the time” in August and September 2022. A recent working study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Bureau of Economic Research put that number closer to 53%.

“Remote work is definitely here to stay,” said Cristen Dalessandro, sociologist and senior researcher for the O.C. Tanner Institute. “The data is clear: Employees want that as an option.”

“Option” is the operative word here, Dalessandro said. A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 people found employees want “the best of both worlds.” Nearly three out of four people surveyed want the chance to work remotely; but nearly as many people want “more in-person interaction with their colleagues.”

The question, then, is less about whether remote work will stick around, but to what extent?

“You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” said O.C. Tanner researcher Daniel Patterson. “Companies are still finding what’s the right balance of in-office versus out of office.”

A time and place for remote work

Arian Lewis creates the kinds of flexible workspaces a new, hybrid work model demands. From an amphitheater furnished on one side with built-in wooden benches topped with loose cushions — one of the many shared spots in a Kiln workspace — Lewis shared his insights into entrepreneurship. One of a company’s strongest pillars, he said, is its culture.

Lewis, Kiln’s co-founder and CEO, said his workspaces have responded to companies’ evolving needs.

“People are downsizing out of traditional offices,” Lewis said to an audience at startFEST, a preview to September’s Silicon Slopes Summit. “They need more of a gathering space.”

Tech companies are seemingly the perfect candidates for remote work, Lewis said. “But there’s a time and a place.”

In the early stage of a company, “teams need to be together,” Lewis said, because it’s too hard to get on the same page remotely if colleagues don’t already have rapport.

Young people, too, want and need mentorship that’s hard to find remotely. Generation Z, the youngest members of today’s workforce, actually prefer in-person work, studies have shown. Their social lives are more tightly connected to their jobs, and some don’t have the work experience to manage themselves effectively from home.

“The assumption that [young people] want a completely remote job, that’s a misconception,” Dalessandro said. “Logically, a lot of them are just starting out in their career. Collaboration is really important. They need mentors, just like older folks do. They need support; they need experience on the job.”

How to hybrid

Numerous studies, including the Tanner Institute’s, suggest hybrid workplaces — those that offer schedule and location flexibility — are the future. Such workplaces outperform their rigid counterparts in employee retention, satisfaction and engagement — if they do it right.

It matters how hybrid workplaces are designed, research shows. One of the challenges for remote workers is professional growth and development — it’s hard to build relationships or prove one’s worth on a daily basis from home. Hybrid workplaces, then, should prioritize career development and create new ways for employees to engage with each other and with company leaders.

Office spaces create a physical boundary between work and home life. Working from home offers no such barrier, and O.C. Tanner’s research suggests employees who struggle to set boundaries while working from home burn out more frequently. Successful hybrid environments need to set clear policies and expectations about hours, remote work expectations, and what, if anything, needs to be done in a physical office.

Employer sentiment about hybrid workplaces has not yet caught up to employees’ desire for flexibility. More than half of company executives want employees in the office “at least three days a week,” surveys show, and roughly 30% worry about the effects of hybrid work on workplace culture.

“Organizations want to protect themselves as much as possible,” Patterson said. “One place they can extend control is in the office.”

But such control could work against them. Some employees would rather quit than lose the flexibility to which they have grown accustomed.

Olsen has built flexibility into his office’s culture, he said, but he also is committed to a culture of working together. There are things he can’t replicate in a remote work setting: Energy, impromptu collaboration, culture.

“Is remote work here to stay?” he said. “I don’t know. In my mind, it never left, and it probably shouldn’t have.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.