The pandemic has already changed almost everything about how we live and work — and the changes will almost certainly keep on coming. Just a little over a year ago, we had in-person meetings, lunch dates with colleagues and commutes. Today, we’re perhaps inching closer to reclaiming some of those traditions, but the only thing that’s certain is that we can’t be certain about what comes next. We may never fully go back to what we considered “normal” before the pandemic, but we will have to be prepared for even more changes — and for those constant changes to become the norm.
Adapting to this state of flux — constantly changing working conditions and locations, new health and safety requirements, emerging technologies and more — is our next normal. To find out why, how and where these changes are happening, we surveyed 1,213 American workers, along with 1,589 existing Randstad customers.
What we discovered is that the world of work is changing more — and faster — than we anticipated.
While many organizations didn’t — or couldn’t — go remote during the pandemic, many others did. As vaccination numbers climb and new infection rates fall, many companies are puzzling out whether to bring everyone back all of the time, allow those who can work remotely to stay there or something in between. As it turns out, that “something in between” is likely what the workforce of the near future looks like.
This hybrid approach — with some working remotely at least part of the time and some staying onsite — is rapidly gaining popularity. Companies ranging from Ford to Salesforce are adopting this approach, and many more are likely to follow suit.
This approach allows employers to downsize worksites and save on both real estate and utility costs. After all, if only a fraction of the workforce is onsite at any given time, there’s no need to maintain a facility that can house everyone. It also enables employers to hire from a wider talent pool for roles that can be done remotely. And for workers in roles where remote work is possible, it gives them a raft of options about where work can happen.
The option to work remotely might feel like winning the lottery for some. But for others, the increased reliance on technology that comes with it, along with the isolation and difficulty turning “off” at the end of the workday, make remote work less attractive than being onsite.
While three out of four remote workers (75%) said they're more reliant on technology than before the pandemic, just one out of four (24%) said that fact caused concern. It's most worrisome among those aged 45 to 54 (35%), while those aged 18 to 24 were most likely (60%) to say they weren't bothered at all by an over-reliance on tech.
But it may not be the tech that makes remote work less attractive for some. This is especially true for Gen Z and older millennials. Twenty-two percent of those aged 18 to 24 said they weren't able to take breaks during the day, and 18 percent of those aged 25 to 34 agreed. This may be due to the demands of childcare or complications from shared living arrangements, both of which are far more likely to impact younger workers than the rest of the workforce.
For employers, this means providing remote workers with the tools and benefits they need to be productive, rested and focused will be critical down the line. Some employers seem to have already taken this to heart: 27 percent of all remote workers said their employers began offering them work phones during the pandemic, while another 25 percent said their employers gave them monitors. Twenty percent were also given office chairs. These small gestures can mean a lot, especially to those who may not have the space for a proper home office.
Even when — or if — the pandemic ends, today's safety protocols won't end anytime soon, especially for companies whose workforces have or will return at least partially onsite. Among employers that went at least partially remote during the pandemic, 38 percent said they were bringing workers back onsite with modifications like temperature screenings and staggered scheduling. And among employees who weren't able to work remotely, almost three quarters (72%) said their employers had implemented safety standards as a response to COVID-19. Our survey found that these employees considered mask mandates (88%), social distancing (63%) and temperature checks (44%) to be most important as of the end of Q2.
For employers, these findings mean that, when remote work is simply not an option, safety must be priority number one. Companies that understand this and take action will benefit, while those that don't will struggle to hire and retain talent. In fact, one study found that workers who felt unsafe at work due to COVID-19 were more than three times more likely to say they'd look for new jobs than those who said they felt protected at work.
Our survey found that nearly one in five Americans (19%) changed jobs during the pandemic, and another 37 percent considered doing so. The most cited reason for changing jobs was compensation (42%), though many workers also considered perks and benefits (30%), the opportunity to work remotely (23%) and workplace culture (23%) as primary reasons for their switch. Men were more likely to consider compensation (51%) than women (33%), and workers aged 25 to 34 cited workplace culture (33%) and remote work (30%) as primary motivators.
Out of the survey respondents who indicated they are remote workers, one out of four (24%) said they relocated in the past year. Lower cost of living was the leading reason (43%), followed by proximity to family and friends (39%) and access to amenities like schools, parks and shopping or dining.
Taken together, these findings indicate that the U.S. workforce is still motivated primarily by compensation, but they're also enjoying the newfound flexibility of remote work. This often manifests in the form of remote workers decamping from major metro areas for smaller, more affordable locales.
For employers, this can be a potential boon to hiring: If your workforce isn’t required onsite, then the whole country — or potentially even the world — is now a viable hiring pool. A company located in Grand Rapids, for example, isn’t necessarily limited to finding the best Java developer in town or even one who's willing to relocate. With a remote workforce, they can now hire the best dev on the market, period.
Our survey also found that employee health became a greater priority during the pandemic — and that it will remain so even after the pandemic wanes. Forty-one percent of workers surveyed told us that their employers began offering new health and wellness-focused benefits during COVID-19. Among them, flexible work hours were most prevalent (20%), followed by general health and wellness benefits (14%) and mental health assistance (12%).
While offering such benefits certainly comes with a cost, it's one employers are increasingly happy to pay — and rightly so. Roughly two in five adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic — four times the rate of those who reported these symptoms in the first half of 2019. Meanwhile, the global cost of poor mental health, resulting from lost productivity, absences and turnover, is around $2.5 trillion annually.
businesses can expect to receive, on average, just over $4 for every $1 spent on effective mental health initiatives for employees.
In short, making an investment in health and wellness isn't just the right thing to do. It comes with measurable ROI for businesses — and our survey found that while many businesses are already making such investments, many more have some serious catching up to do.
This report is intended to capture a snapshot of our constant state of “next” — a workplace responding to a yearlong, life-changing event. Our findings are designed to help organizations and their workforces plan, prepare and pivot to thrive in our next normal. We hope these insights deliver clear, actionable next steps companies can take to hire and retain their employees more effectively and grow strategically in our rapidly changing world of work.