Will Developers Come Back to the Office?

Will Developers Come Back to the Office?
Post Author: Aaron Decker | Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay
Date published: June 30, 2021

When I first started programming professionally it struck me as a job where you often sit by yourself at a computer for long stretches of time struggling through some problem or another. Maybe 20% of the time you had to talk to other people about what you were doing and ask for help. The further I got in my career the more this percentage of talking about problems and coordinating things increased, but even so as a programmer a lot of the work is spent in deep concentration and it seemed like it was possible to do remotely...

In fact it seemed like it would be better remotely, because you get to avoid the distracting modern office culture and just focus on coding. Last year I even wrote about this in January 2020 and said this year LinkedIn should add a "Remote Only" checkbox on their search.

Well, they did add this feature, but it was because of a pandemic not a natural acceleration of the remote work trend.

Working with a partially remote team

The first time I encountered a co-worker working remote was back in 2015 when I was working at an insurance company as a developer and a team member who had had a long tenure at the company but who's wife had to move away for work was allowed to continue to work remotely (I can't remember the exact story but it was something like that).

This company had a culture of frequent long (and frankly boring) meetings and we used Cisco Web-Ex to dial in this co-worker. I doubt he could follow much of what was going on with everyone but him in a room talking and not being anywhere close to the microphone in the conference room. I had tried dialing into one of these meetings when I was at home once and I couldn't really follow what was going on.

Worse, there would frequently be impromptu in-person meetings that the guy working remote would get left out of.

Needless to say this gave me the impression that it was hard to work remote unless your company had a real remote work culture.

Now every company has a remote work culture

So if the big problem was having a remote work culture, and now after the pandemic and working remotely for more than a year everyone is trained to work remote... Isn't every company prepared to work remote forever?

I think the answer might still be "no not necessarily" because some companies are eagerly trying to pull their employees back into offices, but for many others who have embraced a remote forever policy it seems to be going well.

Datapoints to check

Let's look at some surveys. I'm going to try to lay out the following in the context of software jobs:

  • What percentage of companies will remain fully remote
  • What kinds of companies are staying remote, and which are not?
  • What are employees likely to do if they are forced back to the office?
  • Are there employees that want to return to the office?

Which companies want people back in the office?

This Spring 2021 CBRE survey suggests that large companies are still heavily working remotely. I'll quote a specific remark:

87% of large employers believe a hybrid work policy is the new normal.

So if a "hybrid work policy" is the new normal, my guess would be that means a lot of optional remote work. I'm going to make the case that software engineers prefer remote work as a majority later on in this article so keep this data point in mind. To me this signifies that if remote is optional, the IT workers as a group are going to mostly prefer it.

85% of companies desire an equal mix of time in and out of the office

There is another interesting point this survey reveals. Companies want people back in the office around 50% of the time.

How much do employees like remote work?

This is pretty easy to answer given there are a lot of surveys around this. I will link a few:

Now, how about specifically tech workers:

Summary of the surveys

I'll try to summarize this data after reading through a lot of it:

  • Smaller companies have embraced remote work less and appear to have returned to the office sooner
  • Most large employers are leaning into some kind of "Hybrid work policy"
  • Of all employees: probably a little less than half want to keep working remotely
  • Of software engineers: 60% want to continue working remotely
  • Software engineers like remote work more than the general workforce at large

So given that we found a lot of people like remote work, a lot of large companies are going to allow hybrid models, and that software engineers tend to prefer it, I can definitely see the norm becoming that most tech jobs are primarily remote with onsites being less frequent.

Anecdotal commentary about back to the office

I will anonymously quote some software engineers I've talked to recently:

My company tried to make the developers come back to the office and everyone started complaining and interviewing other places. They sent an email out reversing that decision like 2 days later.

redacted is doing it soon (forcing employees back to the office). My friend was literally the only person to say no, and everyone was f###### shocked.

My friend said his company tried it and a lot of people quit. He quit and had a new job a week later.

In terms of forcing (going back to the office), I've been hearing more companies compromising and only having hot desks. Then asking that you coordinate with your team to come in one day a week. Just talked to redacted yesterday and that's what they're doing in redacted and redacted

I started interviewing at redacted about a month ago for a "remote" position but it turned out you could only work "remote" in cities where they had an office. So that wasn't actually remote I guess lol.

So in summary we are seeing some mix of fully remote remaining, some kind of hybrid policies, and some employers actually forcing employees to return full time to the office.

Personally, I'm hearing of the hybrid policy becoming popular, or at least companies setting the expectation that there will be some requirement that employees be able to come into the office and use a hot desk from time to time.

Summary

Overall, many employees got used to remote work and many employers had their culture transformed to be more compatible with it. A majority of large employers are embracing a hybrid approach where some in office time is expected but there is flexibility.

Software engineers prefer remote work more than the general working population, I would argue that this is because programming jobs are uniquely suited to remote work and probably uniquely incompatible with the noisy and distracting open office environments that dominated the tech sector before the pandemic.

Employers who want their employees back in the office are trying different strategies. Some are risking (and seeing) mass quits with the job market remarkably tight right now. Others are seeing success getting everyone back on site with minimal issues.


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Written By Aaron Decker

I'm a full stack developer specializing in Node.js and React. I have worked as a Tech Lead and hired teams, and as a Senior Software Engineer at multiple fortune 500 companies building large products. I also did a brief stint teaching programming courses as an Adjunct Instructor at a local community college.