As of March 2023, 35% of Americans that are able to fully work remotely, chose to do so. This amounts to a significant chunk of the U.S. workforce that never attends the office.
And yet, the debate around remote work rages on. As companies like Airbnb are enjoying its upsides, companies like Google and Meta are starting to ask employees to return to the office, citing the benefits of in-person work for collaboration, team-building, and productivity.
This is a far cry from when we first surveyed those working remotely on their onboarding experience in 2020 and employee engagement in 2021. At the time, the very same companies were cheering on remote work and developing tools that made remote work possible and effective.
As the world of work is moving on after a long pandemic, where does it leave remote workers? How engaged are they as employees, and how secure do they feel about their jobs with the advent of AI? How do they feel about remote onboarding, and, critically, are they ready to return to the office?
To answer these and many other questions, we surveyed 1,000 remote workers in the United States in partnership with CensusWide. Let’s dive right into the findings.
In our survey, 95% of respondents reported being engaged with their employer. The self-reported engagement is high across all demographics and doesn’t seem to be affected by whether the employees are fully remote or are in the office a few times a week.
Additionally, this level of engagement is significantly (+16%) higher than it was in our 2021 survey of remote workers when it was at 79%. In another testament to high engagement, 83% of respondents approve of their company CEO/leadership, indicating the confidence they have in their employer.
Personal well-being follows a similar pattern. In our last survey, 68% of respondents rated their well-being as “good” or “very good.” This time, the share of remote workers who are positive about their well-being is at 89% – a 21% increase since 2021.
Despite the overall high well-being, some generational differences persist. Compared to Gen Y, where it is at its highest of 91%, only 78% of Gen Z members in our survey rate their well-being as “good” or “very good.”
When it comes to job security, 82% of workers we surveyed are secure about their jobs in the context of potential lay-offs. And that’s significant, given the ripple effects from lay-offs of over 100,000 workers in tech in the first two months of 2023 continue to be felt, with KPMG and Goldman Sachs among those going ahead with staff cuts most recently.
It’s worth noting that those remote workers who are in the office at least some days a week are more likely to be secure about their jobs (86%) compared to 79% of their fully remote counterparts.
Conversely, the sense of security is lowest among Gen Z members who work remotely – just 74% feel their job is safe, the lowest share of all generations. Fewer women (75%) than men (87%) felt secure about their jobs as remote employees.
There’s no denying that remote employees in our survey are highly engaged, secure about their employment, and feel good in general, but that doesn’t mean all their concerns have vanished.
Despite 87% of remote workers saying they do their best work when they work remotely, almost half (46%) felt lonely in the last six months.
This is particularly true for men, among whom the share of those that have experienced loneliness while working remotely is 53%, compared to 39% of women. Gen Y (50%) are also more likely to have felt lonely than both their younger (40% of Gen Z) and older (38% of Gen X) peers.
Another concern playing on the minds of remote employees is how their employers see them compared to their colleagues who work from the office or on-site full-time.
When we ran a similar survey in 2021, 38% expressed feeling at an inherent disadvantage compared to colleagues who are at work in person. In 2023, this concern is shared by 44% of respondents.
This worries men (51%) significantly more than women (36%), while Gen Y seems to be feeling this sentiment the most (48%), compared to Gen Z (42%) or Gen X’ers (34%).
Last, but most certainly not least, is the anxiety regarding the advent of AI. Even though some two-thirds (65%) of workers we surveyed said they increasingly use AI tools like ChatGPT in their work, over half (54%) worry about losing their job to automation.
Looking at different demographics, Gen Z’s attitude toward AI stands out. Even though their adoption rate of AI tools lags behind (50%), they are the most worried about losing their job to automation (56%).
A curious pattern emerges if we compare AI use with the fear of being automated out of a job. Of those remote workers who report using AI tools like ChatGPT more, 65% worry about automation. That’s 2.5 times higher than the level of concern among those who haven’t come around to AI tools yet (25%).
What can employers do to alleviate some of the concerns remote employees have?
Instinctively, the tool on the proverbial belt many managers and employers reach for is “the office.” It might be tempting to think that working together in person would help with loneliness and the perceived unequal standing. In reality, however, most remote workers aren’t ready to return.
Our survey found that 52% would quit their job if they were asked to return to the office full-time.
Sure enough, those working remotely do in fact miss some aspects of office work. Around 48% miss seeing their colleagues, 34% long for a separation of "work" and "home,” and 32% miss having lunch at nearby restaurants
Hard as it may be to believe, 21% miss commuting, but a permanent return to the office is still not something most would even consider.
In our survey, 91% of remote workers think employers should do more to show their appreciation, which is an increase from 80% who believed this in 2021.
How can employers best show that they value their employees who work remotely? One way employers can demonstrate appreciation for remote employees is fairly simple – free stuff.
Almost half (43%) would find gift vouchers for lunches most desirable. A similar share of respondents (42%) would find that a voucher to their employer's swag store could make them feel valued.
It’s not all freebies, however. Online learning & development courses would be appreciated by 37%. Around one-third (34%) would find value in regular communication with their manager. In comparison, 33% think public recognition on company-wide calls would be an effective way to show employees they are appreciated.
That being said, freebies would not quite cut it for work anniversaries. For remote employees we surveyed, the most desired “presents” to celebrate their years with the company are primarily monetary.
A pay raise, for example, would be most appreciated by 55%, and a one-off cash bonus would be welcome by 44% of those we surveyed.
Curiously, 44% would find being congratulated "publicly,” e.g., in the company newsletter or messaging platform, equal to getting a cash bonus. Another noteworthy finding is that receiving a small branded gift (read: swag) would make for a great present for 41%, and that’s ahead of getting time off (a day or half a day off), indicated by 40%.
Onboarding new remote employees is equally, if not more important, than appreciating and retaining the existing ones. How can companies ensure their new hires feel welcome, even though they aren’t in the office, to experience their team, company, and the company culture in person?
Communication, as our survey shows, goes a long way. Be it written communication in the form of a digital employee handbook and company culture information (39%) or verbal via check-ins with the manager/team lead (38%) and one-to-one introductions with each team member (34%).
In terms of communication frequency, 86% of remote workers would like to video-chat with their new manager at least once a week. More specifically, 25% would prefer to be contacted daily in the first few weeks after being hired. A further 61% would like to check in with their manager at least once a week.
Another piece of the remote onboarding puzzle is mentoring. Remote mentors are seen as key to integrating new employees into the company by 86% of the workers we surveyed. Similarly, 39% see one-to-one mentoring with a leadership team member as one of the most effective ways to make remote hires feel welcome.
Free lunches and swag still have their place in onboarding. More than one in four remote employees appreciate team lunches (29%) and company swag (27%). When it comes to choosing the swag for new hires, tech is a top priority. Tech accessories are favored by 41%, while gadgets would be appreciated by 35%.
Unless your new hires are Zoomers, that is. Members of Gen Z are most likely to prefer self-care swag (34% vs. 25% overall) and clothing (33% vs. 31% overall) and aren’t interested in techy branded gifts (29% vs. 41% overall)
Drinkware (29%) and bags (28%) are preferred as gifts upon hire by just under 30% of those who work remotely.
Eco-friendly items, stationery, self-care items, and fitness gear would be welcome for around a quarter of respondents in our survey. Only 4% indicated they wouldn’t like to receive any company-branded items whatsoever.
It’s fair to say that the jury is still out on whether or not remote work is a viable long-term mode of employment for workers in the U.S. and worldwide.
Granted, remote work is not without its challenges, as concerns related to alienation and automation continue to persist as we move forward.
The fact that remote employees feel at an inherent disadvantage compared to their “in-office” colleagues is one thing that’s probably easiest for employers to address by showing some appreciation with company swag, lunch vouchers, and regular proactive communication.