Remote, in-person, hybrid? Work-from-home may not be the “new normal”

Feb. 12, 2024

A new study from UArizona researchers reveals the next generation’s desire for more in-person work.

a group of 3 college students and a professor huddled around a laptop

Luis Zozaya


Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are entering the workforce and after years of pinballing office policies spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are left to wonder: what does this generation want? Full-remote, in-person, or hybrid?

Recognizing the ongoing workplace evolution and the need for proactive workforce planning, a new study from the Lundgren Retail Collaborative (LRC) delves into these young workers’ perspectives.

The results reveal that while flexibility still reigns at the top of Nex-Gen workers’ expectations, there’s more interest for in-person arrangements than what you might expect.

Workplace of the Future

“In 2020 we faced a global crisis. Due to the pandemic, huge parts of the retail workforce had to learn how to work from home, almost overnight,” said Jennifer Savary, co-director of the LRC and the Tina and Terry J. Lundgren Endowed Chair for Marketing and Retail in the Eller College of Management. 

Jennifer Savary posing in front of McClleland Hall

Jennifer Savary, Ph.D.

While there has been a lot of conversation around the changing workplace, particularly since the onset of the pandemic, firms have largely been reacting to conditions outside of their control, according to Savary.

As a new generation enters the workforce, the study hopes to help employers prepare more long-term talent management strategies. 

"For this younger generation, school was impacted by COVID-19 and now they are entering a workplace that's been transformed, but they have few references for what work was like prior to the transformation,” said Lance Erickson, LRC co-director and chair of the Retailing and Consumer Science program in the Norton School of Human Ecology.

Lance Erickson posing in front of McClelland Park

Lance Erickson, Ph.D.

“There's a diverse pool of talent coming to the job market," he said.  "Employers should use expectations about work arrangements as a factor when they assess how well a candidate will fit with their organization.”

How should the workplace evolve?

While leaders tend to want to “go back to the way it used to be,” Next-Gen employees – Gen Z, Millennials, Digital Natives – believe flexibility is the new normal, which often leaves managers feeling caught in the middle.

"Senior leaders are coming to terms with the need for more flexible work arrangements, but the good news from our study is that the expectations of recent college graduates may be more in line with the preferences of senior leaders than many have thought," Savary said. 

Surprisingly, many Next-Gen workers report wanting to spend most of their time in the office.

“While they acknowledged the value of flexibility, a sizable portion of them know they do their best work in a fully present office environment," Savary said. 

This finding challenges the assumption that younger workers universally prefer remote work.

No one-size fits all

Erickson underscores the complexity of this demographic’s preferences.

"While Next-Gen largely favors flexible work arrangements, their motivations vary widely—and so then do the forms that flexibility might take," he said.

Beyond the pandemic there are other macro drivers of changes in workforce planning that employers should consider, including increased cost of living in many of the urban centers, concerns about sustainability, and Next-Gen’s commitment to mental health and work-life-balance.

Many of the survey responses in the study reflect a concern for mental well-being and quality of life, Erickson explained. “But there are many other practical considerations, such as wanting to live in the same place as family or a partner, even just wanting to save on gas and commuting.”

For example, recent college graduates often can’t afford to live in major centers of business, like New York and San Francisco, and there is an increasing awareness of the impact of commuting on the environment.

“Companies may be able to use flexible workforce policies to tap into this valuable talent pool without requiring them to move to markets where they are priced out,” Savary said.

Bottom line: companies shouldn’t assume that younger workers are all the same.  

"The key is to find the flexibility model that's best aligns with your needs, and then work to attract the Next-Gen employees who are looking for that arrangement," Erickson said. “It's clear from this work that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to flexibility is impossible.”


About the Lundgren Retail Collaborative:

Fueled by a philanthropic gift from Terry and Tina Lundgren, the Lundgren Retail Collaborative is a joint initiative between the Norton School of Human Ecology and the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. Dedicated to bridging the gap between academia and industry, the collaborative works to provide research insights and actionable solutions for the challenges and opportunities in the retail sector.

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