As business leaders charge ahead with post-COVID-19 work plans, they’re relying on an energized, motivated and skilled workforce to help them achieve their growth agenda. The challenge? Many employees simply aren’t mentally or physically ready to hit the ground running.
Part of this is due to burnout as the lines between work and home have all but dissolved during the pandemic. Others can’t give work their full attention until schools fully reopen or there’s less risk of contracting the virus. But perhaps most significantly, the past year has prompted many employees to reconsider their values or make major changes in their personal lives, which is changing how they work and what they need to be productive. Our Workforce Pulse survey of 1,515 US employees found that:
These shifts are happening against a backdrop of nearly 3 million women dropping out of the workforce during the past year and the number of long-term unemployed people (those who have been unemployed for six months or more) is at its highest level in 60 years.
To return to growth, business leaders will need to understand what employees really want and create policies and plans that allow for more flexibility and personalization. They’ll also need to continue expanding mental health support and develop pathways that make it possible for women to come back into the workforce.
The rise of remote work is spurring a nomadic trend among employees. Twenty-two percent of employees told us they’re considering or planning to move more than 50 miles away from a core office location, either permanently or temporarily. In addition, 12% have already made such a move since the start of the pandemic.
Those who have flexibility and mobility are more likely to have relocation on their minds. Sixteen percent of remote workers, for example, are considering or planning a permanent move 50 miles away from their current office. In comparison, just 8% of essential workers — those who are more likely to be working on-site — say the same. In addition, 40% of employees who have been laid off or furloughed are planning or considering a move, a possible indication that they’re willing to relocate to find work.
What’s driving this trend? One likely factor is economics. Given the high rate of unemployment and the number of women who have had to drop out of the workforce, many families are seeking more affordable living on one income. The spike in suburban and rural home sales may indicate that some people see less-populated areas as safer. And lower state tax rates or states with a lower cost of living may be appealing. Tennessee, Texas and Florida, for example, are all seeing rising numbers of new residents.
These findings point to a wave of self-reflection where sociology meets workforce and lifestyle preferences.
Earlier this year, a majority of US workers (56%) surveyed by the US Gallup Poll said they worked remotely all or part of the time due to COVID-19. Even though some business leaders have said remote work will be a permanent fixture at most workplaces, the outlook is likely more nuanced and complex. Younger workers living in major cities who crave professional experience and networking opportunities are likely to want to return to an office for at least part of the workweek if not full-time. As a result, the work-from-home trend will likely evolve into hybrid work and working remotely may not be as widespread and permanent as some initially expected.
Looking ahead, how companies decide to manage their workforce could hinge on where their offices are located.
Not only are younger workers more likely to be on the move, they’re also more likely than the two generations before them to accept smaller salary increases if given the option to go remote permanently. Nearly half of Gen Z (45%) and millennial (47%) employees surveyed said they are willing to give up 10% or more of their future earnings in exchange for the option to work virtually from almost anywhere. In contrast, 38% of the Gen Xers and only 14% of boomers said they would accept smaller pay increases.
Younger workers are also more likely to consider or plan a permanent or temporary move compared to older workers. This is consistent with findings from our October 2020 Workforce Pulse survey, in which younger employees accounted for 45% of all workers opting to voluntarily relocate.
These findings come as the unemployment rate for individuals 16 to 24 years old hovers at 10.9% in February — higher than the national rate of 6.2% — indicating that younger workers are chasing jobs and are likely more willing to relocate to pursue or accept career opportunities. Some may be relocating because they want to work in certain sectors and need to go where those jobs are, such as hospitality in Las Vegas. Others may be drawn to locations with less expensive housing options or a lower cost of living.
Employers should design a hybrid workplace where employees can work seamlessly in blended teams — whether they’re at the office or remote. This could include investments in different tools to fully support collaboration as well as standardized technology to streamline productivity.
Younger workers would give up more of their future earnings for the option to work remotely
Employees want their companies to support their desire to pursue endeavors they consider personally meaningful. About a third (33%) of them said they would give up a portion of their future earnings in exchange for paid time off to volunteer for a cause of their choice, and 44% of workers said they would surrender at least 10% of a 20% pay raise if their employer provided unlimited vacation time.
Companies should continue to rethink employee benefits and rewards beyond retirement and traditional healthcare. Providing paid time off to volunteer may not be a benefit that’s traditionally given to employees, but it’s worth noting the desire for time off for community service comes at a period when companies and investors are shifting their focus beyond the interests of shareholders following social justice demonstrations. Only a third (31%) of CHROs say they’re giving employees dedicated paid time off for community service and other activities they find meaningful.
To attract and retain top talent, companies should need to rethink the employee experience, and there are certain nuances to consider.
When employees were asked what skills they consider critical to their career over the next three years, respondents were more likely to list softer skills such as problem solving than technical skills like coding. Gen X and boomers were more likely than Gen Z and millennials to consider problem solving and the ability to learn new skills and apply them quickly as critical to their career paths.
The past year has been a period of problem solving and adaptability for most people, so it makes sense that many employees may see a need to sharpen these skills. They may see other skills like digital, data visualization and leadership as table stakes.
PwC conducted an online survey of 1,515 US-based adults from a general population between March 9 and 11, 2021. The PwC Workforce Pulse Survey is conducted periodically to track changing sentiment and priorities among employees.
To view data and insights from previous PwC Workforce Pulse surveys during the pandemic, please see below