Americans are embracing flexible work—and they want more of it

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When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered workplaces nationwide, society was plunged into an unplanned experiment in work from home. Nearly two-and-a-half years on, organizations worldwide have created new working norms that acknowledge that flexible work is no longer a temporary pandemic response but an enduring feature of the modern working world.

The third edition of McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey provides us with data on how flexible work fits into the lives of a representative cross section of workers in the United States. McKinsey worked alongside the market-research firm Ipsos to query 25,000 Americans in spring 2022 (see sidebar, “About the survey”).

The most striking figure to emerge from this research is 58 percent. That’s the number of Americans who reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week.1 Thirty-five percent of respondents report having the option to work from home five days a week. What makes these numbers particularly notable is that respondents work in all kinds of jobs, in every part of the country and sector of the economy, including traditionally labeled “blue collar” jobs that might be expected to demand on-site labor as well as “white collar” professions.

Another of the survey’s revelations: when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87 percent of them take it. This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a sudden crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions. This represents a tectonic shift in where, when, and how Americans want to work and are working.

The following six charts examine the following:

  • the number of people offered flexible working arrangements either part- or full-time
  • how many days a week employed people are offered and do work from home
  • the gender, age, ethnicity, education level, and income of people working or desiring to work flexibly
  • which occupations have the greatest number of remote workers and how many days a week they work remotely
  • how highly employees rank flexible working arrangements as a reason to seek a new job
  • impediments to working effectively for people who work remotely all the time, part of the time, or not at all

Flexible work’s implications for employees and employers—as well as for real estate, transit, and technology, to name a few sectors—are vast and nuanced and demand contemplation.

1. Thirty-five percent of job holders can work from home full-time, and 23 percent can do so part-time

Of job holders in the United States, 58 percent—the equivalent of 92 million people—say they can work remotely at least part of the time.

2. When offered, almost everyone takes the opportunity to work flexibly

Among employed respondents given the option to work remotely, 87 percent take employers up on that offer.

3. Most employees want flexibility, but the averages hide the critical differences

People in the United States who are younger, more educated, or have higher incomes tend to have more options to work remotely.

4. Most industries support some flexibility, but digital innovators demand it

Flexible work varies by occupation and role—and is a factor to consider in the ‘war for talent.’

5. Job seekers highly value having autonomy over where and when they work

A flexible working arrangement is a top three motivator for finding a new job.

6. Employees working flexibly report obstacles to peak performance

For many working remotely, flexible arrangements still have their challenges.

The results of the American Opportunity Survey reflect sweeping changes in the US workforce, including the equivalent of 92 million workers offered flexible work, 80 million workers engaged in flexible work, and a large number of respondents citing a search for flexible work as a major motivator to find a new job.

Competition for top performers and digital innovators demands that employers understand how much flexibility their talent pool is accustomed to and expects. Employers are wise to invest in technology, adapt policies, and train employees to create workplaces that integrate people working remotely and on-site (without overcompensating by requiring that workers spend too much time in video meetings). The survey results identify obstacles to optimal performance that underscore a need for employers to support workers with issues that interfere with effective work. Companies will want to be thoughtful about which roles can be done partly or fully remotely—and be open to the idea that there could be more of these than is immediately apparent. Employers can define the right metrics and track them to make sure the new flexible model is working.

At a more macro level, a world in which millions of people no longer routinely commute has meaningful implications for the commercial core in big urban centers and for commercial real estate overall. Likewise, such a world implies a different calculus for where Americans will live and what types of homes they will occupy. As technology emerges that eliminates the residual barriers to more distributed and asynchronous work, it could become possible to move more types of jobs overseas, with potentially significant consequences.

In time, the full impact of flexible working will be revealed. Meanwhile, these data give us early insight into how the working world is evolving.

For more on the imperative for flexible work and how organizations can respond, please see Future-of-the-workplace.

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