Workers Care More About Flexible Hours Than Remote Work

Workers, flush with power as employers raise wages and scramble to fill open jobs, say they care even more about flexible schedules than whether or not they go into an office.

Ninety-five percent of people surveyed want flexible hours, compared with 78% of workers who want location flexibility, according to a new report from Future Forum, a consortium focused on reimagining the future of work led by Slack Technologies Inc.

The new data, collected in November 2021 from a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers, offers a snapshot into just how popular hybrid arrangements have become in the second year of the pandemic, how virtually all workers prize schedule flexibility above all and the growing concerns that many bosses have about how to keep promotions and pay fair when some employees are in the office while others stay home.

The survey also found that 72% of workers who weren’t happy with their level of flexibility—whether time or location—are likely to seek out a new opportunity in the next year.

“If they’re not getting what they want, they’re open to looking for a new job,” said Sheela Subramanian, vice president of the Future Forum.

Many employers have reluctantly embraced long-term hybrid and remote work arrangements after repeatedly postponing return-to-office dates or finding that workers pushed back on going to the office. That has some executives thinking differently about in-person arrangements.

Maeve O’Meara,

chief executive officer of San Francisco healthcare-technology company Castlight Health Inc., said her employees should gather only when there is a specific need to do so. “We should really be organizing around bringing people together for an explicit purpose, whether that’s collaboration, innovation, planning or just socializing,” she said.

Agreements between team members about when people in the group will work are growing in popularity across industries, said Ms. Subramanian. Flexible schedules are likely to endure beyond the pandemic, she said.

Focusing on how many hours people are working is outdated, she said: “It really needs to be a shift from presenteeism and activity tracking to actually understanding the results that people are driving and the value that they’re creating.”

As big U.S. banks, corporations and tech startups encourage workers to shut off email and unplug to curb resignations, WSJ looks at how “right to unplug” measures have affected productivity at companies in Europe. Photo: Max Duncan for WSJ

The Future Forum survey, which was conducted between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30, also found that the share of people working in hybrid models, where they split their time between an office and a remote location, increased by 12 percentage points since May, as more workers have returned part-time to their traditional workplaces. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said a hybrid setup was their preferred way of working.

Many workers have found their productivity surged while working from home and they achieved the work-life balance they had been seeking—one reason so many people see hybrid work as the future, said

Brian Kropp,

who leads human-resources research at Gartner, an advisory and research firm.

“Two years into working remote and hybrid, our muscles have been built. We know how to make this work. People love the flexibility. Companies love the cost savings,” he said.

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While many large companies have decided that the majority of their employees will combine remote work with in-office days, hybrid work has its downsides. Executives have growing concerns that hybrid work could increase inequity among rank-and-file employees, especially women, working mothers and people of color, who when surveyed said they were more likely to prefer flexible arrangements.

Among executives surveyed, 71% said they work in the office at least three days a week; 63% of nonexecutive employees said they go in as often. There is a sharper divide between their preferences. Executives working remotely were far more likely than nonexecutives to say they want to work at least three days a week in the office, at 75% versus 37% of employees.

What employees want may not be the most effective way for organizations to operate, said

Nicholas Bloom,

a professor of economics at Stanford University who researches remote work. “There is going to be a battle royale over choice versus coordination,” he said.

In a forthcoming survey that Mr. Bloom conducted, some initial results align with Future Forum’s employee sentiment on the importance of flexibility. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed by Mr. Bloom want to choose the days they work from home, as opposed to their employer telling them which days to go in.

“Firms are going to be reluctant to force employees to coordinate,” Mr. Bloom said. “It’s not going to go well because on any given day 20% are going to be at home.”

Large meetings are harder to conduct if some people are in office and some are remote, he said. People inside companies complain about the lack of energy in the workplace when it is sparsely populated. Forcing a one-size-fits-all solution across a large workforce can seem risky to managers, he said, at a time many workers are a flight risk.

“They’re going to feel like they’re going to have to let them choose,” Mr. Bloom said of companies.

Write to Katie Bindley at Katie.Bindley@wsj.com and Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

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