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Return-to-office mandates aren’t working: Most workers are ready to quit for a remote job, even if it means a pay cut

Tom Werner - Getty Images

Just because it seems like everyone is back to the office doesn’t mean they are—and it certainly doesn’t mean that people are any more willing to go than they’ve always been. The allure of working on one’s own terms is still going strong—so strong that they'd choose ample flexibility over money.

Despite an enduring cost-of-living crisis, nearly two-thirds of workers would be willing to take a pay cut to be able to work remotely, according to a new survey of over 8,400 U.S. workers from FlexJobs. Seventeen percent of workers said they’d sacrifice up to 20% of their paycheck, and one in ten said they’d relinquish more than 20%.

Even when home prices are skyrocketing, pay raises are flat in many industries, and most jobs are failing to provide a cost-of-living adjustment, 63% of respondents said remote work was still the most important part of a job to them, ahead of salary, work-life balance, and a good boss.

All this is particularly bad news for said workers, given that finding a remote job has never been more difficult; over half of respondents said that compared to this time last year, fewer remote-first gigs are available on job sites, and the ones that do offer flexible perks are instantly swarmed by applicants. Even so, over half of workers know someone who has quit or is planning to quit because of return-to-office mandates, FlexJobs found.

“Lack of remote work options is a significant reason why people leave their jobs,” Keith Spencer, a career expert at FlexJobs, wrote in the report. “Remote work is incredibly valued by today’s workforce, and with more companies adopting these types of policies, employees are increasingly open to exploring new career opportunities with the flexibility and remote work options they need.”

That may not be surprising; almost all respondents said they believe remote work positively impacts their mental and physical health—which ample data backs up. (They also are probably going to spend less money and spend more time with loved ones or on hobbies when they don’t have to commute.) “Working professionals value the improved quality of life that remote work can provide through benefits like the elimination of a stressful commute or reduced pressure to engage in small talk or office politics,” Spencer tells Fortune.

Mostly remote—with some office mixed in

Despite the hunger for flexibility, not all workers actually want to work remotely full-time. Just 51% of respondents told FlexJobs they don’t want to go into an office at all; 46% said a hybrid arrangement would be their first choice. Only 3% of respondents said they want to be in the office five days a week.

Hardly an afterthought, nearly four in five (77%) of FlexJobs respondents said they feel they’re more productive at home than at work. Many experts agree with them. “The idea that if you bring everyone into this mandatory [office] environment, working shoulder to shoulder, magical outcomes will come—that’s a silly thing,” Annie Dean, who leads flexible work at software firm Atlassian, said on a panel earlier this month. “It feels like magical thinking.”

Now a sizable amount of data has shown the opposite: that most workers, despite what they assess of themselves, actually perform better when they’re in an office, surrounded by their peers and under the tutelage of their mentors. It’s easier, especially for greener workers, to learn new skills and ask questions when they’re able to do so in-person.

But even hybrid work, in Dean’s eyes, is “an illusion of choice” that leaves all sides with less flexibility and autonomy than they’re looking for. It nixes many potential worker benefits—like the option to live farther out from the city, pick kids up from school or take a midday run—and many company benefits. It actually hits companies with “all the costs of the old model [and none of the] efficiencies of the new model.”

That doesn’t mean some form of hybrid isn’t possible—and often practical. As Stanford economist and remote work expert Nick Bloom has explained to Fortune, flexible work is best executed with a smart “organized hybrid” plan. Such plans—which hinge on clear expectations, ample latitude for customization, and most importantly, agreement among team members to all come into work on the same day—bolster productivity and improve recruitment, retention, and morale, he finds.

Organized hybrid can look like anything—even a 90/10 split. Drew Houston, Dropbox’s CEO, recently told Fortune that his company’s rule allowing employees to spend 90% of the year remote has been a godsend for retention and workplace satisfaction. “You need a different social contract, and to let go of control,” he advised bosses. “But if you trust people and treat them like adults, they’ll behave like adults. Trust over surveillance.” And, he’d probably add, remote over office.

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