The threat of losing remote work might strike fear in the hearts of its staunchest proponents—namely parents, caregivers, rural dwellers, or really anyone who enjoys having the flexibility to wake up at 8:59 a.m. should they so choose. But all good things must come to an end; in this case, some bosses are just about fed up with entertaining the expanse of options employees want. Now, stunning new research—from academic experts on remote work, no less—shows that a whopping 60% of American workers are in the office five days a week. But there’s a catch.
As of May, 59% of full-time employees currently work from an office five days a week, according to the latest batch of data from Work From Home Research, compiled by professors Nick Bloom (Stanford) and José Maria Barrero (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México Business School). Another 29% workers have a hybrid arrangement, and just 12% work fully remotely.
A similar figure emerged from a Bank of America research note on Wednesday, which surveyed 1,000 consumers to find that 60% of them no longer work from home for most of the week.
These figures follow two years of meager stabs at return-to-work mandates. After all the stop-and-go rollouts, false starts, and frustration at every level, bosses may finally be getting their way. And taken together, the side-by-side data just might put to rest the assumption that hybrid work, much less fully remote work, has hope of staying power. However, it’s a vastly different story for the workforce as a whole and the white-collar subset, who are far from a representative sample.
White-collar work isn’t all work
The situation is not as stark as it seems. The 59% of workers figure from WFH Research excludes contractors, self-employed folks, and part-time workers, Barrero, one of the authors, told Fortune in an email on Wednesday. “There are many people in that sample that do frontline jobs, for example in retail, manufacturing, or hotels and restaurants, and they naturally don’t work from home because of the nature of those jobs.”
In other words, you can’t work on a construction site or at a 7-Eleven from home.
Elsewhere in the study, the same breakdown reappears, this time focusing on those who completed a four-year college degree. In their case, hybrid work is a much bigger piece of the pie (42%), owing to the fact that many “teleworkable” jobs, as Barrero called them, require a college degree (although they may not for long). Plus, Barrero added, there are still countless college-educated workers—doctors, nurses, plant engineers—with primarily in-person jobs, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Among those who have the capability to do their jobs from home, a hybrid plan wins out by a landslide. Fully remote work is more common for this group, naturally, than the greater sample, but it remains a markedly smaller share than hybrid or fully in-person. That’s hardly surprising to the researchers, who know that workers are happy to meet up with their colleagues on a semi-regular basis—so long as it’s on their own terms.
Hybrid always wins
Employees equate the value of a hybrid work arrangement with about an 8% pay increase, according to research Bloom published in October. That means they’d opt for a hybrid policy—or to hold on to it if they currently have it—even if their boss offered them almost 10% more pay to return to work full-time. Workers in the tech sector put the value of working from home two to three days a week at slightly over 11% of their current pay, Bloom’s research finds. (No wonder so many Google employees are incensed over the company’s latest return-to-office mandate.)
It’s no surprise, then, that bosses and workers disagree on which way to move forward. Bosses, on the whole, have come to believe that remote workers are significantly less productive. (Some bosses, like Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon, are more outspoken on that point than others.)
They might have a point. An October 2022 report by Liberty Street Economics, an arm of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, made calculations based on the American Time Use Survey, a nationally representative survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that measures both the amount of time people spend on various activities and where those activities occur. It found that remote workers “decreased time spent working” each week and increased their time spent on “leisure and sleeping”—by three and a half hours.
On the other side of the coin, studies have proved that workers find hybrid work to be more productive, more lucrative, and, often, better for their mental health. Add in skyrocketing inflation when it comes to buying work clothes, transit passes, and desk lunches, and working from home is almost always more cost-effective.
Looking ahead, the general working population is indeed going to skew more fully in person, Barrero predicts, while the highly educated subpopulations (or really anyone who can work from anywhere) will likely stay home where they can.
“These breakdowns have been pretty stable for much of the past year, other than some modest shifts away from fully remote work,” Barrero said. “I would not expect big moves given this recent history.” The share of days worked from home has remained stable—“moving basically sideways”—at around 28% since mid-2022.
Even if the remaining 72% of the week becomes in person rather than at home, Bloom thinks most workers can rest easy—if their companies are smart.
“In 2023, we’ll be laughing at anyone who does anything else but hybrid,” Bloom predicted to Fortune last fall. So the tide may be turning against remote work in many managers’ minds, but not quite yet in practice.