Workforce Wire

Return-to-office fears: Remote workers worry about falling behind in careers

Key Points
  • New data from CNBC and SurveyMonkey shows that more than half of workers expect in-person employees to have better career opportunities in the future than those who work remotely.
  • Big companies are calling more workers back in-person, including JPMorgan Chase, and the survey shows that most professionals in finance believe those who are in the office will have greater career success.
  • Younger workers, who prioritize career advancement, are more likely to say they expect to be back in the office, but a majority of all workers (58%) say they highly value being able to work in-person with colleagues.
MilosStankovic | E+ | Getty Images

Last March, as concerns about the coronavirus came into focus, office workers hastily left their cubicles for an indeterminate amount of time and left behind notebooks, computer monitors, desk plants, and mugs of half-drunk coffee. Executives spent the last year doing everything possible to help their employees adapt to the new normal, while a question lurked in the background: would people be able to or want to  come back?

The latest CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey reveals one key factor pulling workers back to the office even if they might otherwise be more comfortable at home: career advancement. 

More than half of workers (52%) expect those at their company who work in-person to have better career opportunities in the future than those who work remotely. New collaboration tools like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have made it possible for a dispersed workforce to collaborate on projects and attend meetings in much the same way that they would if they were all in the same building. Yet, there are some aspects of work that aren't easily scaled digitally. 

Despite all the advances in technology, working remotely is clearly perceived to be a drag on career growth: just 15% of workers say they think remote employees at their company will have better career opportunities than those who work in-person. Another 31% say remote and in-person workers will have equivalent career opportunities. 

Younger workers typically prioritize opportunities for career growth over other factors that comprise job satisfaction. In previous iterations of the CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey fielded in 2019, 23% of workers age 18-34 said "having opportunities to advance" was the most important factor in their overall happiness at work, compared with 14% among workers age 35-54 and 6% among workers age 55 and over. 

In these latest survey results, fielded among 8,233 employed adults across the U.S. from April 8-18, these same younger workers are more likely than others to want to work from the office more often. Among those still working remotely, fewer people aged 18-34 say they expect to be working fully from home six months from now, and more expect to be working fully from their office or workplace or working mostly from their office or workplace. 

Younger workers get a huge benefit from being in the office — they may get pulled into projects that will allow them to learn new skills, or they may strike up a conversation with the CEO in the elevator — but those benefits multiply if their more seasoned colleagues are there in-person as well. 

Many of these longer-tenured colleagues have appreciated the convenience of working remotely, especially as so much of daily life has been turned upside down due to the coronavirus. Being able to work from home eliminates the time and frustration of commuting and frees up time for people to spend doing things they love, whether that's being present with their children, getting more exercise, or watching Netflix. 

Workers see value in being back in the office

But, there are downsides to remote life, too. After more than a year spent working from their couches and dining room tables with their spouses and children as their new cubicle-mates, most workers are probably re-thinking the benefits of being able to work from the office. A majority (58%) say they get a lot of value from being able to work with their colleagues in-person. 

"Seeing colleagues in-person again" is the top reason that workers who are still doing their jobs from home say they are looking forward to returning to the office, beating out "having a separation between work and home" and "having a better work environment or equipment."

Work happiness remains steady through pandemic
Work happiness remains steady through pandemic

Some jobs simply can't be done remotely, but many white collar professions — advertising, financial services, and legal professions, for example — can be done from anywhere with a strong WiFi connection. Still, workers' enthusiasm for remote work varies substantially by industry. 

For example, 46% of finance professionals are still working from home, but by a 4-to-1 margin (48% vs. 12%) they say that in-person workers will have better career opportunities than remote workers at their company a year from now.

On the other hand, nearly half of workers in the technology industry (47%) say remote and in-person workers will have equal opportunities for career growth at their organization, and the margin between those who say in-person vs. remote workers will have an advantage is much slimmer (32% vs. 20%). 

It's perhaps no surprise that tech workers are so bullish on remote work: they're the ones building many of the tools that the entire workforce increasingly relies upon in order to do their jobs. As companies prepare for a future that will necessarily involve more hybrid work options, each industry and in fact each company will have to find the right balance between remote, in-person, and hybrid for their employees. 

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