NACE Journal/Summer 2023
The research suggests that, long term, we will likely work in and out of the office.
Historically, work modality was rarely discussed by employers or considered by their staff. With few exceptions, most everyone worked in an office with other colleagues.
This all changed dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic caused work to abruptly shift from the office to the home for many. While many organizations are still experimenting and determining their long-term strategy, employee attitudes and expectations are pointing toward the need for flexibility in work arrangements.
NACE has been studying work modality, both in preference and practice, and the results have shown that a majority of employers are willing to offer some degree of remote work; at the same time, most employees, including new college graduates, value some degree of in-person interactions but also want flexibility to work remotely. They want what has come to be known as a hybrid work arrangement.
Why does this matter? Overall, it points to how the work world is evolving and what it will look like in the future. New graduates are the future of the workforce: As such, their attitudes and expectations are good indicators of the workplace of tomorrow.
Where We Are Working Now
Nearly 90% of employers taking part in NACE’s Job Outlook 2023 Spring Update survey reported that their organization’s employees are required to work at least some of the time in person (39% fully in person, 48% hybrid).
The remaining 13% are fully remote—down from 20% in 2022. Incidentally, all of that shift was to hybrid, suggesting that although not yet a majority, a plurality of employers view the hybrid work environment as their new normal.
These numbers only change slightly when filtering specifically for entry-level positions—those that new college graduates occupy. More entry-level positions are fully in person (42%), and fully remote dips some (10%), but a hybrid arrangement remains the popular option (48%). Taken together, this means 58% of the entry-level workforce has at least some ability to work remotely.
Internships Tend Toward the Hybrid Modality
Knowing how integral internships are to the workforce, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the modality of internships would be conducted similarly to how employers handle entry-level jobs.
However, that has not been the case. More than two-thirds of internships in the 2021-22 academic year were hybrid (69.3%), 22.4% were fully in-person, and the remaining 8.3% fully virtual, according to the NACE 2023 Internship and Co-op Report.
For the summer 2023 internship cohort, employers planned for their interns’ work modality to be similar, with 64.8% hosting them in the hybrid modality, 25% exclusively in-person, and 4.3% fully remote. (The remainder were undecided at the time of the survey.) So, current and recent practice for internships has been to lean into a hybrid arrangement to a more significant degree than is the case with entry-level employees.
The modality of intern work arrangements is telling. Employers have experimented with virtual internships over the past three summers and have consistently reported that virtual internships work well for them, both from a quality and conversion perspective. However, they also recognize that in-person interactions are beneficial for the students they are hosting.
Most employees, including new college graduates, value some degree of in-person interactions but also want flexibility to work remotely.
There is also evidence to suggest that the hybrid modality is the preference of interns. In its 2022 Student Survey, NACE found that students who took part in fully virtual internships reported less satisfaction with their internship than those with other modality options: Approximately 70% of students who completed fully virtual internships were satisfied compared with 84.4% of students who participated in a hybrid experience and nearly 79% who held exclusively in-person internships.
NACE will continue to track work modality for interns to see if this trend continues and what the drivers are for determining the modality. One possibility is that the work modality of the intern supervisor plays a role in the modality in which the intern will operate.
New College Graduate Preferences
New college graduate attitudes and expectations are also likely to drive decisions about work modality now and in the future.
According to the results of NACE’s 2023 Student Survey, new college graduates would prefer to be in person for at least part of the week. At the same time, however, 54% said that having the flexibility to work remotely is very to extremely important to them, and another 34% said it was somewhat important.
When asked to choose only one modality category for their first job, the biggest group—51%—opted for an in-person arrangement, followed by 42% who prefer a hybrid arrangement. Just 7% of respondents said they preferred to work in a fully virtual environment.
Preferences do shift, however, when demographics are taken into account. Preferences by race, gender, and other characteristics point to interesting differences that could impact the recruitment and retention of recent college graduates. One notable difference: Majority groups are more likely to favor in-person work than their counterparts, who appear to be more ambivalent. This may point to potential underlying issues, such as workplace inclusion/bias, family responsibilities, or unique circumstances, where remote work may help to diminish the challenges. (See Table 1.)
Experienced Employees Prefer Virtual Environment
Work modality—and what works and for whom—continues to spark discussion, especially about friction between employers anxious to have their employees return to the office and employees who want to have greater flexibility in where they perform their work.
Various studies—including NACE’s own research—indicate that more-experienced staff much prefer to work either virtually or in a hybrid arrangement. In our 2023 Mental Health, Well-Being, and Job Satisfaction study, more than half of responding career services professionals cited the opportunity to work remotely as a significant reason behind why they are seeking new work. Unfortunately, increasingly employers are asking their workforce to return to the office more than their employees would like.
However, new college graduates are different. The data indicate that interns and entry-level hires prefer to be in person for at least part of the week while being offered some flexibility to work remotely the remainder of the time. Right now, that appears to be what most employers are offering for both internship and full-time opportunities. Although more-experienced hires may not be getting what they want, new college graduates seem to have landed in the sweet spot.
Tracking Work Modality Over Time
Three years after the start of the pandemic, there has been significant improvement in technology and understanding of remote work. The idea of remote work is not as overwhelming as it once was. However, the acceptance of remote work and who benefits from and expects it vary.
Work modality has been reimagined over the past several years, and we are only now beginning to study the effectiveness of the various arrangements. Unfortunately, many leaders are not willing to evaluate the options for work arrangements and are reluctant to adjust to the expectations of their workforce. As more information becomes available and employee preferences evolve into demands, it would not be surprising to see work modality offerings shift—and likely toward some form of hybrid arrangement when possible. It is also worth noting that this current generation of college graduates will pass from early career to more-experienced employees, and they will become decision makers themselves. As they do, it will be worth monitoring how their preferences and expectations on this topic evolve and impact the future of work.