Remote or Bust? More Workers Think So
WHEELING – It may have been more than a personal career decision when Don Nickerson – a longtime Wheeling attorney and Ohio County commissioner – stepped back from a gubernatorial appointment as one of three judges to a new state Intermediate Court of Appeals.
A variety of data points suggest such a choice might be a harbinger of professional trends to come. Indeed, recent employment numbers collected by the Pew Research Center and Gallup indicate that – two years into the pandemic – a majority of American workers who are able to work remotely are still doing so.
And, it’s not only because of fear of illness, the data showed. Having seen remote work in action, such respondents said they now prefer to be at home, often citing better work/life balance as the reason.
This is particularly true of workers with more education and higher income – two markers of increased access to remote work – the Pew data showed. The Gallup data further suggested that companies that don’t offer remote options are at risk of losing talent – with about one-third of such workers saying they are “extremely likely” to switch jobs if that is necessary to continue working from home.
In Nickerson’s case, he said in a recent interview that he turned down the position in March when it became clear to him that the only way to fulfill it was to relocate his family – which includes twins scheduled to start at Wheeling Park High School this fall – to Charleston.
Prior to that time, he believed a pandemic-sparked focus on developing the court as a remote system with closed-circuit TV capability around the state would include location flexibility for judges as well at litigants and attorneys.
“When the dust settled, the guidelines that we developed didn’t accommodate me,” Nickerson explained, noting he had been willing from the beginning to be in Charleston for up to six days per month.
“I’m not planning to relocate,” Nickerson said, adding that the only alternative plan would have required him to finance short-term housing at the capital for a staff of three attorneys and a secretary and was too costly. “The kids are part of it, but I also love Ohio County.”
Nickerson said he hopes to continue his work as a private attorney and to run for re-election as a county commissioner when the final two-plus years of his current term end. But, opting out of the state court appointment was one of the more difficult career decisions he has made.
“I’ve wanted to do this job for 35 years,” he said.
ONE OF MANY
Nickerson’s decision was an individual one, but vast amounts of employment data collected since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect the U.S. in early 2020 make it clear he is not alone in his thinking.
Some of the freshest data was collected in late January by the Pew Research Center. That study of just more than 10,000 individuals showed nearly 60% of U.S. workers who were able to work from home were doing so all or most of the time at that point.
Among these employees, Pew data indicated more than 60% are now remote by choice and that their choice is now driven by work/life balance rather than coronavirus.
Interestingly, the study noted, such choices are relatively new to a majority of workers. Nearly 60% of those polled said they rarely or never worked remotely prior to the pandemic. Yet, more than 60% of the never-before group reported better work/life balance and 44% reported better productivity since moving to remote work.
Among those already working from home, nearly 80% said they want to continue to do so in the future.
The Pew study is not alone in such findings of sea-change worker preferences developing in addition to the already well-documented Great Resignation and a resulting uptick in wages for service workers. Separate data from a Gallup poll completed in September 2021 showed similar trends. Nearly all (90%) of remote workers said they want to remain remote at least part of the time.
In a finding that mirrors the future career plans revealed by the Pew study, the Gallup results indicated remote workers are “extremely likely” to leave companies that will not accommodate this preference.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also suggests a mega shift is underway. In a January report, the Bureau released a pandemic-related update to 1997 study of about 9,000 workers born between 1980 and 1984 whose employment it has tracked over time.
Among the update’s findings: Men were more likely to be working full time, but less likely than women to have work from home. Individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree were more likely to have at least some remote work.
The Pew study – which revealed about 60% of American workers are not able to work remotely — showed similar education-related patterns for which workers had access to remote work since the pandemic began. Additionally, the Pew data showed more upper-income workers were working from home.
MOUNTAIN STATE TRENDS
The Nickerson case may also reflect a divergence between employment trends inside West Virginia versus across the U.S., yet more data suggests.
The most recent data that is state-specific – a COVID-driven Pulse Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau between June 23-July 5, 2021, 2021 – shows the Mountain State as 45th in terms of percentage of households with at least one person working remotely.
During that survey week – which fell after vaccines became widely available, but before the deadly delta variant of COVID was in full swing – 15 percent of work being done in West Virginia was remote. This was well below the U.S. average for the same time period of 23.5%.
Other states with low percentages included Arkansas, Kentucky, North Dakota and South Dakota. Mississippi, at 9.3%, had the lowest remote working incidence.
Areas that had the highest percentages of households with at least one remote worker include Washington, D.C. (54%), Massachusetts (37.7%) and Maryland (34.6%).
On a related note, a quick check with a regional recruiting agency suggests what remote jobs that are being tapped by West Virginia workers are not necessarily local. Conishia Kusic, a recruiter for IC Staffing Solutions of Wheeling, Cambridge, Ohio and Washington, Pennsylvania, said Ohio Valley-based remote positions disappeared quickly as pandemic stressors lessened.
“We actually do not have any remote work right now,” Kusic said, noting she’d fielded a call the same day as her interview from a prospective hire looking for such employment.