Remote Work & Return-to-Office (RTO) Policies: The Gap Between Hiring Teams & Job Seekers

Image of a group of workers returning to work.

Updated August 8, 2023

As the world started to normalize in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic, companies large and small began to roll out return-to-office (RTO) policies for its workers. Some companies asked that employees come into the office once or twice a week, and other said they’d have employees go from full remote work to back in the office four or five days a week. Some companies expressed why they were asking employees to return, and others laid it out as policy with no questions asked. And some companies warned of termination if employees couldn’t adhere to the return-to-office pus while other offered flexibility to work with employees to meet their needs on a case-by-case basis.

These RTO policies resulted in office occupancy eclipsing 50 percent in early 2023—the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. However, that also came, in some cases, with rising tensions on both sides of the hiring process. Some job candidates’ expectations for where they could get their work done generally haven’t changed—even though some company’s expectations have.

“Leaders and companies are prioritizing togetherness, culture, and accountability with a shift away from hiring fully remote employees,” Lawrence Dearth, Insight Global President said. “You still have the vast majority of job seekers, however, primarily targeting remote work. The decrease in remote job openings is causing an imbalance of candidates applying for those roles.”

Key takeaways:

  • Remote job positions get 10 times the applications non-remote (in office and hybrid) positions are.
  • Companies are posting half as many remote positions in 2023 as they were in 2022.
  • Return-to-office policies must come with transparency from businesses and flexibility from job seekers.

Candidate’s expectations have not returned to office

Over the last three years, we’ve seen a full paradigm shift in a worker’s expectations from a job and their potential employer. This is in part due to the shifts that COVID-19 and related work requirements demanded. Many of those expectations have stuck meaning that some workers may never want to return to office. Others may prefer to be in the office every day—but all workers want to be appreciated and treated like an asset more than a number.

The result of this shift in expectations has been labeled The Great Resignation, where many workers left jobs where they felt unsafe, underappreciated, undervalued, and undercompensated to find new jobs or careers that valued them more.

Some qualities or preferences that we have seen from job candidates over the last three years as they seek out new roles include:

  • Higher wages
  • Better benefits
  • More career opportunities
  • Finding a company that aligns with their values
  • Flexible working environments, including remote work

That last point is crucial.

Data indicates that nearly 40% of workers changed jobs over the first two years of the pandemic—that’s higher than pre-pandemic averages. While some workers who changed careers during this period were already in white-collar positions that allowed some work-from-home flexibility, many who found new careers during the pandemic came from industries and environments that couldn’t allow that sort of flexibility: education, hospitality, healthcare.

One study found that one-in-five workers who changed jobs or careers chose technology (IT) as their new career. IT has tended to be a field that offers not only better pay but also the flexibility to do the job from home.

And employers, by and large, have gone along with this wave. They haven’t really had a choice if they want to compete for top talent. However, these expectations have carried through to job seekers looking to change their career in 2023. And some companies simply aren’t as willing to meet expectations.

Businesses’ expectations have changed

Many businesses, on the other hand, expect workers to come into the office, and they’re doing so with tighter budgets. That creates the tension.

Productivity and collaboration are primary reasons businesses for bringing workers into the office, with an August 2023 report finding that many workers end up more productive on a hybrid schedule than a fully remote one. (The report also found that feedback and mentorship drop with remote workers, but job satisfaction and attrition higher among remote workers than workers who need to go into an office.)

A 2023 study by ResumeBuilder found that, as of the study period, two-thirds of employers currently require employees to work in the office at least some days during the week. However, the study also found that as many as 90 percent of companies eventually will have RTO policies with employees working in the office.

As the year rolls on, though, more people are working in the office. An October 2023 report found that just 26 percent of American households have someone working remotely, more than 10 percent less than a July 2021 peak.

Data around Remote Work and RTO

We see this gap in expectations playing out in the job market.

In the first quarter of 2022, more than 35 percent (12,285) of all job openings processed by Insight Global were for fully remote positions. That number dropped to around 18 percent (6,673) in the first quarter of 2023—that’s nearly a 50 percent drop in one year. Remote job openings are expected to decrease in the second quarter of 2023, too, highlighting the full implementation of companies’ RTO policies.

A graph showing the total number of remote job openings processed by Insight Global from Q1 in 2021 to Q1 in 2023. Text: Total Remote Job Openings by Quarter. Insight Global has seen a decline in total number of remote job openings since its peak in the first quarter of 2022. 2022 01 TO PRES: -45% Decrease in total remote job openings"

The majority of job applications are still going to remote positions, though. Data from Indeed showed us that in the first week of May, only 12 percent of all jobs posted were for remote positions. However, 55 percent of all job applications went to those remote positions. Just 45 percent of applications went to the remaining 88 percent of jobs.

Remote jobs saw 10 times more applications than “non-remote” listings. (Non-remote listings included hybrid or in-office work.)

Graphic detailing the difference between remote role and non-remote role job postings, and the difference between applications to both of those roles.

So, how do job seekers and businesses find a common ground?

Advice to Job Seekers

Dearth says job seekers may find themselves a little “disappointed” if they exclusively apply to remote roles. To combat that, he suggests that candidates “should include local jobs that you’re willing to go on site for” in their job search.

“You should still apply for fully remote jobs if that’s something that you would like, but you just can’t bank on it. You can’t have that be your only strategy. The numbers show that those jobs are just too competitive.”

If you apply to roles that have a hybrid schedule, “you’re only competing against people in your backyard,” and you’re competing against far fewer candidates.

There are one-tenth the number of the candidates applying to jobs that are not remote than candidates applying to remote roles. That means you may be up against 100 job seekers for a remote-only role versus ten competitors for a hybrid role. You only have to be one of the better people at your job in your location rather than in all of North America.

Dearth also emphasized the value of learning from other people in the workplace—especially for less seasoned or entry-level employees or those who may be new to an industry or management title. You could miss out on natural development and learning when you’re not around teammates, leaders, and mentors.

Check out our webinar:  Optimizing Your Flexible Workforce 

Advice to Hiring Managers

There are some job seekers who just flat out won’t want to come into an office. But there are other job seekers who don’t understand why they need to come into an office. What’s your why?

Whether it’s team culture, productivity, or other reasons, Dearth says to make your RTO policy and the why behind it extremely clear in the interview process. “Why do you believe that people should be on site?” The reason needs to go beyond filling office space.

He also says working with a staffing agency can help fill some of these gaps by identifying the talent that is already willing to work on-site.

“If you’re only relying on people who are applying to a job opening, you’re missing a total undercurrent of passive jobs seekers who are potentially available in your job market,” he said.

You may be getting pressure to flip the job to a remote role if you’re not finding the candidates, but “if you are committed to your culture, and you want candidates to be melded with togetherness, partner with a staffing agency to help you find local talent.”

This won’t be an overnight adjustment for job seekers or hiring managers. The office expectation gap will close “person by person, hire by hire, promotion by promotion.”

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