Remote or RTO?: Employers and Workers Meet in the Middle

The following findings are based on the results of ZipRecruiter’s first Annual Employer Survey, providing an in-depth look into the challenges, motivations, and latest hiring practices of employers across the U.S.

Top takeaway: As employers explore different remote work and return to office policies, one thing remains clear—most U.S. companies are done with the five-day in-office work week.

More than three years into the pandemic-induced great remote work experiment, the five-day in-office work week is mostly over. A mere 16% of companies with office jobs that could feasibly be done remotely require employees to be in the office five days a week, and even among the 43% of companies that have set tighter limits around remote work and mandated some form of return-to-office over the past year, only 14% have required workers to come back five days a week. 

The durability of remote and hybrid work largely reflects its significant recruitment and retention benefits, which were not immediately apparent to employers early in the pandemic but have since become highly salient. Companies that have called workers back to the office acknowledge a heavy cost to their recruitment and retention efforts—namely, the loss of valuable employees and attractive job candidates

While the benefits of remote work have become more evident to employers, the fact that 43% of companies reduced remote work over the past year reflects its enduring challenges, including perceived costs to productivity and company culture. The number one downside of remote work employers cite is difficulty observing and monitoring employees. Other disadvantages are harder to quantify and remain highly controversial. Regarding productivity, for example, views across employers are mixed. While most broadly agree that remote workers perform their duties as well as office employees—and about five in ten see higher productivity as a key benefit of the arrangement—about four in ten see lower productivity as a key downside. 

Employers who post jobs on ZipRecruiter experience a large remote recruitment premium, with remote jobs getting more than three times as many applications as similar in-person jobs, on average. The fact that employers see improved retention and recruitment as the biggest benefits of remote work suggests that some share of remote work may turn out to be pro-cyclical, increasing in economic boom times and decreasing during downturns, when recruitment and retention generally become easier due to slacker labor market conditions, and employers may not value the remote boost as much.

Among companies that have mandated a return to the office, the majority do not currently coordinate office days, even though most do monitor compliance with minimum office day requirements. That finding suggests that companies are devoting more attention to enforcing office requirements than optimizing them—to re-establishing the ability to observe and monitor rather than improving productivity, collaboration, and culture by other means. By adopting emerging hybrid work best practices, employers could retain the recruitment and retention benefits of flexibility while also turning its challenges into opportunities.


The Future of Flexibility: Exploring the Complexities of Remote Work and Return-to-Office

  • The New Normal. About three in four employers with office jobs that could conceivably be done remotely currently allow employees to work remotely at least two days per week. Even among companies that have called employees back to the office and restricted remote work in the past year, only 14% have a five-day office week. 
  • The Great Remote Rethink. Employers saw reduced absenteeism as the top benefit of remote work during the COVID pandemic but now think improved retention (selected by 54% of respondents), higher productivity (52%), and access to a broader talent pool (48%) are its top benefits. 
  • Remote Reversal. 74% of U.S. companies revised their remote work policies over the past year, with more companies (43%) restricting remote work than expanding it (32%), despite an acknowledged cost to recruitment and retention.
  • The Costly Coordination Gap. The remote reversal is largely based on employer beliefs that effective in-person monitoring and mentoring requires employees and managers to be in the office at the same time. However, over 70% of employers say they do not centrally coordinate in-office days. A lack of coordination could diminish the intended benefits of the current remote reversal. 
  • Remote Work’s Productivity Puzzle. Among the subset of companies that reduced remote work, the top reasons given were managers’ perceptions that remote workers are less productive (cited by 61%) and that company culture suffers (53%) when work is distributed. Across the entire sample of companies, however, more than 60% agreed that remote/hybrid employees perform their duties just as well as in-person employees, and 52% listed improved productivity as a key benefit of remote work.   
  • Upsides and Downsides. While the benefits of remote work have become more salient since our 2020 survey, so have its costs, most notably reduced ability to observe and monitor employees (listed by 45% of employers in 2023 vs. 31% in 2020) and reduced peer mentoring (42% vs. 29% in 2020). 
  • Return-to-Office Resistance. Among the subset of companies that reduced remote work, 72% say they lost valuable employees as a result, and 63% say they lost quality candidates who dropped out of the hiring process due to wanting more flexibility.
  • The Remote Recruitment Premium. On average, jobs posted on ZipRecruiter that are remote currently receive more than 3 times as many applications as similar roles that are in-person. Employers who are able to recruit candidates from across the country typically gain access not only to more talent, but also to higher-quality, more diverse, and lower-cost talent—candidates with more skills and experience who have other remote options, women and people of color who tend to value remote opportunities more highly, and candidates from lower-cost parts of the country with lower wage expectations.


Survey Methodology: ZipRecruiter conducted a national online survey between July 7 and August 1, 2023, to explore employer attitudes toward recent hiring trends and their experiences of current U.S. labor market conditions.

The survey was administered to a Qualtrics panel of 2,000+ verified talent acquisition professionals and hiring managers, each of whom has considerable responsibility for hiring processes and decisions. They were drawn from businesses of various sizes across a wide range of industries.

In addition to standard screening and demographic questions, respondents were asked about their recruiting, hiring, employment, and retention practices, as well as their expectations, desires, and requirements for future talent acquisition activities.

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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