The standoff between professionals who worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and employers who want them back in the office is growing more intense.

For several months, a wave of headlines has been building, with news outlets finding more and more examples of the standoff playing out across the economy. The Wall Street Journal calls it a “rebellion.” The New York Times calls it a “revolt.”

Whatever you choose to call it, employers in some of the nation’s biggest job markets – including New York, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. – are struggling to convince their workers to start commuting to the office again, even for a few days a week.

The challenge is even greater for those professionals who moved away from big coastal cities with high costs and long commutes – and have no desire to return. 

But how big of a deal is the return-to-office debate, really? When you look past the headlines and the cases involving big-name companies like Apple or Goldman Sachs, how many workers actually have a stake in the outcome?

The answer might surprise you.

The team at One America Works analyzed U.S. government data on remote work practices during the pandemic across the entire labor market and in a number of specific sectors.

A survey of more than 80,000 businesses, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from July 2021 to September 2021 and published earlier this year, found that 21.8% of U.S. jobs involved remote work full-time or part-time during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Put another way, more than one in five U.S. employees were still working remotely in some capacity towards the end of 2021.

When you apply the results of the survey to the total working population at the time, an even clearer and more compelling picture emerges: As of late last year, roughly 33 million American workers still had the flexibility to work from home full-time or part-time.

So the return-to-office debate is a lot more than just headlines and high-profile anecdotes. In population terms, it’s bigger than Texas. Tens of millions of American workers and the companies that employ them will be directly impacted by how this debate is resolved from firm to firm, industry to industry, state to state and city to city.

To be sure, the stakes are highest in three industry supersectors: Information, financial activities and professional and business services.

For the information sector, which encompasses much of the tech industry, 68% of employees worked remotely all or some of the time last year, according to the BLS survey data. That implies there are roughly 2 million tech workers directly involved in discussions with their employers about how much flexibility from the last two years they will get to keep.

Not only that: In the BLS survey, the information sector was the only one to report more than half of its workforce – 52.2% – was full-time remote during 2021. This goes a long way to explaining why so much of the media coverage of the return-to-office debate focused, at least initially, on the tech sector.

But the tech sector isn’t alone.

Survey results from the professional and business services sector, which includes lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants and consultants, showed 46.3% of workers performing their duties from home all or part of the time. Because of the size of this sector, the survey results imply that 10.1 million workers who provide professional and business services have a direct stake in the return-to-office debate.

Likewise, the financial activities sector – which includes banks, insurance companies and real estate investment firms – reported 45% of its employees were working remotely full-time or part-time last year. The implied number of impacted workers from this survey result: Roughly 4 million.

To be sure, when you are attempting to measure trends across the entire U.S. workforce – which currently has between 150 million and 160 million active employees – the numbers will always be approximate, not exact. 

But the BLS survey data on remote work is certainly strong enough to show that the return-to-office debate will have major ramifications across the entire sectors and, ultimately, the broader U.S. economy.

The potential for disruption – both good and bad – is huge.

For this reason, it’s encouraging to see advocates from both sides of the return-to-office debate willing to meet in the middle rather than dig in their heels.

In the financial sector, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon – a critic of remote work – has softened his opposition. Dimon recently told investors that 40% of the bank’s workforce would be eligible for a hybrid schedule arrangement and another 10% may be able to work fully from home “in very specific roles.”

“While it’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business, such arrangements also need to work for both the company and its clients,” Dimon said.

Meanwhile, strong proponents of 100% remote work are also conceding that time in the office is needed for some firms and some employees. As work-from-anywhere advocates Ben Marks and Leanna Lee recently cautioned, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in a post-COVID working world.”

“The danger of taking sides in the work-life separation or integration debate is that most people don’t fit comfortably into one box or another,” Marks and Lee wrote for TNW. “If one side were to ‘win’ the debate today, we would both lose out.”

Likewise, Scott Bonneau – VP of Global Talent Attraction and HR Analytics with Indeed.com in Austin, Texas – advises employers “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

“For companies who mandate a return to office, some employees will refuse and seek other opportunities. And lots of employers will be happy to accommodate top talent,” Bonneau said in an interview with Human Resources Director.

“Hybrid seems to be the happy middle ground.”

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax

Research Fellow

About the author: Simon Lomax is a research fellow with One America Works. Based in the Denver Tech Center, he is a former Bloomberg News reporter who has spent more than two decades working in journalism, public policy and cleantech in the U.S. and Australia.