More than a year since social distancing protocols were put in place, the world all around us looks pretty different. So does the future of work. For organizations in STEM fields navigating the transition, that means grappling with fundamental questions like:
- Is the workforce of the future going to be fully remote or fully onsite — or a mix of both?
- How are emerging economic phenomena like “Zoom towns” changing the way that employers source, hire and compensate top STEM talent?
- What are the implications of new working arrangements for organizational diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives?
What’s abundantly clear is that answering these and other questions will have wide-ranging implications for organizations, and could have a determining influence on near- and long-term talent outcomes as well. Considered in that light, and in connection with 2021 forecasts showing demand for STEM talent growing faster, not slower, as a consequence of the global pandemic, that should be enough to give any leader pause.
That’s why we’ve pulled apart the latest stats, data and personal insights from my perspective as CEO of Randstad Technologies Group to show you the current state of affairs, shed light on challenges and ultimately surface some exciting opportunities. These insights should help you think through and prepare for the realities of hiring tomorrow’s STEM workforce today.
setting the stage: things are very much in flux …
No surprise here: The majority of the U.S. workforce — 56 percent — continues to work remotely, either on a full or part-time basis, according to the most recent Gallup poll. Interestingly, however, the percentage who say they would like to do so indefinitely appears to be declining. In October, that was the case for nearly two-thirds of employees. By February, the figure dipped to 23 percent.
Among organizational leaders, on the other hand, only a handful (13%) seem prepared to say goodbye to traditional in-person workplaces for good, according to one study. As to what a future work week would even look like, the same study elicited widely varying opinions, with the largest share of leaders favoring a hybrid approach: three days in the office, two days remote.
More than anything, this is a highly dynamic situation, with a lot of different variables at play. It’s something we’ll have to continue to monitor closely going forward.
… and yet on some things, consensus is emerging
Far less susceptible to fluctuations like the above, however, are two broader takeaways. These are areas where we’ve been hearing a clear consensus from our customers and talent.
The first? Remote work arrangements are, well, actually working. This finding is more remarkable than it sounds. After all, only 19 percent of companies had remote work strategies in place prior to the pandemic. Despite that fact, the massive workforce experiment inaugurated by COVID-19 is now heralded as a success by a full 83 percent of leaders, according to research from PwC. The second takeaway — and this echoes what we’ve been hearing for a long time from STEM candidates themselves — has to do with flexibility. Namely, employees place tremendous value on having flexible work arrangements, and that includes the option to work remotely at least some of the time. Among our clients, the ability to offer this kind of flexibility has been a godsend for talent attraction, engagement and retention. In fact, some organizations that told me they were skeptical about remote work at the start of the pandemic are now some of its most vocal proponents.
And employers, take note: These kinds of flexible work arrangements have been shown to reduce turnover by as much as 25 percent. There can be productivity advantages for organizations as well. One study found that, on average, remote employees average more hours worked each day than their in-office peers, laddering up to nearly 17 additional workdays on an annual basis. In other words, your remote STEM workforce may rely on Slack for daily communication, but that doesn't mean they're slacking off.
I’ve repeatedly heard that the additional working hours that often accompany remote work have led to what some clients have called “remote burnout.” With little separation between their personal and working lives, and no commutes to act as “buffer time,” employees are burning out faster and more often while working from home. In fact, in a soon-to-be-published Randstad omnibus survey, 26 percent of workers surveyed said they start work earlier, and 24 percent said they work later as a result of the shift to remote work.
three opportunities for STEM employers
From large-scale demographic shifts to changing incentives for candidates, it’s clear that the world of work is undergoing transformation — and changing fast. Here are three ways employers can use that to their advantage.
1.the upside of limitless borders
An academic paper based on survey results from more than 300 public officials across the U.S. sheds light on a nascent economic phenomenon. Forget the “boom towns” of the Gold Rush. These are “Zoom towns,” and right now, they’re all the rage.
Often situated in proximity to natural amenities (think: beaches, national parks), Zoom towns are burgeoning communities based on pandemic-era remote work and named for the communication technology that so often supports it.
Zoom towns can also be seen as one example of startling new mobility trends for Americans, roughly 20 percent of whom are planning to relocate this year, for reasons related to COVID-19, according to one survey. Demographic change of this scale and magnitude should make it clear that the traditional, pre-pandemic world of work is gone. In its place is a new model, one which will give employees the flexibility to work remotely at least some of the time.
As mentioned earlier, such an arrangement would sit well with the majority of workers, and organizations should see this as a good thing, too. It's an opportunity to diversify — both in the sense of D&I in the workforce, and in a broader sense, as well. Here, I have in mind geographic diversity specifically.
In the past, if your workforce was based in New York City or San Francisco, for example, naturally your salaries were pegged to the going rates in those tech hubs. That was just the cost of doing business and staying competitive. But that could change. With widespread remote work and the rise of Zoom towns, the width of the net you can cast when sourcing STEM candidates is going to be truly unprecedented.
In fact, our upcoming omnibus survey found that 24 percent of employees had relocated in the past year as a result of the shift to remote work, and among them, 43 percent said a lower cost of living was a primary reason for moving. Those lower costs of living may mean salaries can come down as a result.
If, for example, the best iOS developer you can hire can lives in Gadsden, Alabama as opposed to near an office in New York or the Bay Area, you may no longer have to pay inflated metro-area salaries.
2. bringing D&I to life
For years, top STEM employers have been making slow but steady progress on diversity and inclusion (D&I) — progress that, however laudable, has been in many instances long overdue. Among leading tech giants, Black employees make up between just two to three percent of the tech workforce. And these aren’t extreme examples. This is sadly common throughout the world of STEM.
But given the fact that many companies like these made public commitments to increasing D&I in their workforces, now is the time to take action and bring these initiatives to life. And in that context, the emerging world of work could be a very positive thing. For one, the connection between geographic location and employment opportunity, once paramount, appears to be decreasing with the rise of remote work. As a result, employers will have the ability to cast a wider net than ever before in sourcing candidates and building their talent pipelines. That alone should be viewed as an enormous opportunity — and equally a mandate for action — when hiring for STEM roles.
That said, there’s obviously no magic bullet when it comes to D&I, and the fact that companies have remote or hybrid workplace models in place isn’t itself going to redress long-standing issues around underrepresentation in STEM fields. It does, however, open the door to new opportunities. But to be successful, employers will likely need to experiment with a variety of strategies, too. They can’t simply rely on the increased reach afforded them by the shift to remote work — they should also leverage strategic talent partners like Randstad to deliver on their D&I goals.
However, I can’t understate the impact that improved D&I performance will have on employer branding. For years, companies in virtually every industry have bemoaned the “pipeline problem” — namely, that diverse candidates simply aren’t in their talent pipelines and aren’t applying for their jobs. That may have been the case when hiring local talent in a small or relatively homogenous area, but for companies that go largely or fully remote, those “pipelines” are now nationwide, or even global. Companies that can leverage this fact to increase workforce diversity will enjoy improved employer brands, while those that don’t will suffer in the eyes of consumers and talent alike.
3. how short-term changes can be leveraged
The extent to which salaries are impacted by all of this remains to be seen. But in the near term, I predict that companies will experiment and find success with new hooks and lures for candidates, which might prove to be equally as effective as salary in influencing hiring outcomes. A few immediately spring to mind:
- home office stipends
- flex time off (along with PTO for voting and other civic duties)
- greater freedom over scheduling
- virtual counseling and expanded mental health benefits
- enhanced childcare benefits
Finally, and more superficially, it stands to reason that, as career decision-making becomes increasingly untethered from geography, we may well see company career sites, job portals and the like undergo restructuring. Might searching for a job by commute time seem to us like an anachronism five years from now? We’ll leave that one for the UX designers of the future. But time will tell.
CEO, Randstad Technologies Group and Managing Director, Global Professionals
Graig is responsible for day-to-day operational leadership and strategic direction for Randstad’s professional staffing and solutions, including the Technologies, Engineering and Life Sciences line of businesses as well as the company’s technology consulting brand, Celerity. Supporting Randstad globally, Graig manages the Randstad Offshore Services teams to bring efficiencies and delivery back to the US market. Starting his career with the U.S. Marine Corps after college, Graig has since spent the last two decades in professional staffing, IT managed services and management consulting.