Editor’s Note: Last week, WRAL TechWire launched a series of special reports about what’s happening in today’s economy, in the new world of work, and the future of the Triangle. We call the series the “Future of Work.” The series is supported by commercial real estate firm JLL and other partners. The first special report is here, and the second story is here. The series continues today, with this report about the future of hybrid work and an exclusive Q&A with three experts. WRAL TechWire reporter Jason Parker will host a LinkedIn Live session at 9 a.m. eastern time this morning.
RALEIGH – Across the Triangle, and the nation, companies and investors are making bets about the future of the economy and the structures that will open pathways to enhanced productivity.
Whether these investments and bets will pay off is still undetermined, however.
What workers want, both now, and what they will want in the future is still somewhat an unanswerable question.
That’s because the fundamental power dynamic within the labor market has shifted dramatically following the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, said John Quinterno, a professor at Duke University.
“The COVID-linked downturn has altered, at least temporarily, the balance between employers and employees, which had shifted massively in the favor of employers since the late 1970s, apart from a brief interlude in the late 1990s,” said Quinterno. “Tight labor markets, such as the one in the Triangle, provide workers with more options, the chance to be more discerning about their career choices, and the ability to obtain better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”
Shifts in labor market
The unemployment rate is low in a number of Triangle area counties, according to the latest report from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Orange County was found to have the lowest unemployment rate of any county in the state, at 2.5 percent. The Wake County unemployment rate measured at 3.0 percent and the Durham County unemployment rate was also measured at 3.0 percent.
Chatham County, where the recently announced VinFast automotive assembly plant will be located, was found to have an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, the third lowest of any county in the state.
What workers want: flexibility
Workers want flexibility, right now. That’s why hybrid work is here to stay, said Courtney Fain, vice president of workplace planning and strategy at JLL.
Yet while better compensation and better conditions may be positive long-term outcomes, the short-term consequences are that challenges have emerged for employers, who are seeking to recruit and retain talent in a competitive market, said Quinterno.
“The tentative shift to tighter labor markets has altered the calculations of workers across the occupational spectrum,” said Quinterno. Take front-line positions, for example, those in hospitality and leisure services, which two years after the onset of the global pandemic, still hasn’t seen a full recovery of the job market.
Workers in these roles are reluctant to return to positions or to take roles at compensation levels frequently observed prior to the pandemic, noted Quinterno. “The fundamental nature of the work has changed, which justifies changes in pay, benefits, and working conditions.”
A change in baseline
Many workers in professional roles or other occupations conducive to remote work have transitioned to remote work during the prior two years. That’s established a new baseline of expectations, noted Quinterno, as these workers have “found that they can still perform their jobs at a high level while avoiding many undesirable traits of pre-pandemic office life, such as commuting.”
Because of this, many workers “will not want to return to a standard in-person work week and will look for more flexibility,” said Quinterno.
JLL’s own research concludes the same. Fain told WRAL TechWire that a recent survey conducted by JLL found that nearly half of respondents expect that employees will spend two or three days in the office.
“Tight labor markets—again varying by field—will provide workers with more options to satisfy their preferences, which is a positive in the long run,” said Quinterno. “Smart employers that adapt likely will be at an advantage in recruiting talent.”
But employers are still working out the details on how, exactly, accommodating this new work culture might play out, said Fain. “Ultimately, employers need to focus on what is within their control.”
This editorial package was produced with funding support from JLL and other partners. WRAL TechWire retains full editorial control of all content.