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Updated Jan 03, 2024

Is the U.S. Home to the World’s Most Remote Workforce?

Elizabeth Barton, Contributing Writer

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Today, more than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to work from home, U.S. offices are still half empty, while in-person workplaces in Europe and Asia have rebounded, The Wall Street Journal reports. As of earlier this year, office capacity in America hovered at 40 to 60 percent, compared to 70 to 90 percent in Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Asia has seen almost full returns. Why is the U.S. so far behind?

At first glance, remote work seems to go hand in hand with large, high-tech companies — those with the resources and the human and digital infrastructure to make virtual work possible. Think Alphabet, Samsung, or Apple. Where multinational corporations go, digital nomads tend to follow. The news, then, that U.S. return-to-office rates lag globally, isn’t so surprising.

Where multinational corporations go, remote work follows

Perhaps not by chance, multinational corporations are major players in the U.S. economy. They employ about a third of all private sector workers, says the Brookings Institute. Globally, the U.S. is home to more conglomerates than anywhere else. One-third of the largest multinational companies are based in the U.S., followed by Japan, China, and the U.K. From a bird’s-eye view, the U.S. is better suited than most to prop up a remote, global workforce.

But the link between multinational corporations and remote work indicates weaknesses — the largest being Asia. Although the continent is home to many international companies, cities in Singapore, Japan, and China are extremely dense and lack the substantial urban-suburban divide seen in the U.S. It’s much harder to set up a home office there than, in say, New York City, where workers funnel in from suburban New Jersey and commuter Connecticut. Thus, people in Asia are more inclined, if not obligated, to go into a company office.

Culture plays a part, too, though perhaps in more nuanced ways. In Japan, the second highest destination for multinational corporations, workers have returned full time. This may be in part because remote work simply lacks the same appeal. As it turns out, not all cultures are taken with the digital nomad lifestyle. A Morning Consult poll recently revealed that 35 percent of Japanese are unwilling to travel post-COVID, the highest number of any country. This makes hopping from outpost to outpost while working remotely a non-starter.

Remote work as the new benefit

The story can always be flipped, though. Does the U.S. lag in return to office rates or does it have the strongest remote workforce? Some companies are embracing the trend, albeit carefully. The problem, of course, is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Throughout the pandemic and beyond, multinational corporations have often tied remote policy to place or office. Deloitte, for example, has one remote policy for the U.K. and one for Australia. KPMG’s approach also varies.

How will these disparities in benefits play with workforces who are increasingly familiar with their overseas counterparts? To their credit, large companies have designed myriad ways of responding. Some are giving “work from anywhere” allotments, where employees are permitted to work outside the office a certain number of weeks per year. Others have sought to make it easier to request fully remote work, hybrid work, and internal transfers.

Borders, time zones and geodiversity are stubborn things, however, and it’s nearly impossible to account for all disparities. That makes remote work all the more challenging; yet much of the U.S. seems set on it anyway. For now.

This article first appeared in the b. Newsletter. Subscribe now!

Elizabeth Barton, Contributing Writer
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