Article
5 minute read 12 January 2022

How remote work is influencing what we buy

Our latest consumer research explores the global state of working from home and how it’s shaping our purchase intentions

Stephen Rogers

Stephen Rogers

United States

Anthony Waelter

Anthony Waelter

United States

Steve Hatfield

Steve Hatfield

United States

Leon Pieters

Leon Pieters

Netherlands

Most of us can recall a few ways the pandemic changed our buying behavior—particularly in the early days. What remains elusive is the pandemic’s long-term impact on consumer behavior.

At this point, it’s unlikely the pandemic will ever have some definitive end. But with each passing month, it becomes a bit easier to see how this global experience may have changed daily life for good. Remote work is among the strongest examples. Nearly two years into the pandemic, and news headlines are still riddled with delayed return-to-office announcements and new hybrid work commitments.1 Some companies aren’t asking employees to come back at all.2

In a relatively short span of time, the physical location where hundreds of millions of people around the world spend their time changed dramatically. And just as the early days of the pandemic proved our buying behavior is a product of our environment, we are interested in how the shift to remote work might influence what we buy in the long term.

To explore this relationship, we tapped into our Global State of the Consumer Tracker, bringing together data on people’s remote-work behavior and spending intentions across more than a dozen product categories and 23 countries.

The permanence of remote work

Our analysis of the data strongly suggests the shift to remote work will outlive the pandemic (figure 1). Globally, half of all employed adults (53%) say they can do their job remotely. Among them, working from home represents most of the typical work week—an average of 2.7 days.

In Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, people are spending closer to three or four days a week working from home. In France, Denmark, and Norway, this number is closer to two—suggesting the pace of return to office and hybrid work remains uneven globally.

While levels of remote work remain high, there is some evidence that the ongoing return-to-office push is making some progress. In the United States, for example, the percentage of employed adults who say they can work remotely has dropped from 64% to 51% since October (figure 2). This rate of return is similar to recently published3 office occupancy data across the top 10 cities in the United States. And since November, the average number of days per week spent working from home has dipped from 3.5 to 3.1. Globally, however, these behaviors haven’t changed much over the past few months.

If any single metric hints at the longevity of remote work, it’s people’s work preferences. In all 23 countries studied, those who can work from home would prefer to spend 3.5 days on average working remotely or 0.8 days more on average than they currently do (figure 1).

Additional signals also suggest a return to office will continue to clash with evolving work preferences.

  • All age groups prefer more flexibility: The notion that younger people are more eager to get back to the office for networking and professional development is not holding up. Preference for remote working is consistent across age groups.
  • No longer a matter of safety: In a growing list of countries, elevated work-from-home preferences are no longer being driven by more temporary safety concerns over COVID-19. In the United States, for example, remote-work preferences remain high among people who are concerned about the safety of returning to work as well as among those who aren’t.
  • People are prioritizing work/life balance: The pandemic has created a collective moment of introspection. Many are reprioritizing different elements of their life, including work/life balance. Compared to 12 months ago, six in 10 globally feel that they are prioritizing more time to enjoy the present versus working harder to get ahead. That priority shift serves as a foundation for employee empowerment and ongoing work flexibility preferences.

How remote work is influencing our spending

Remote work is likely to stick around. This makes its potential impact on our spending behavior all the more important.

Using multivariate models to control for income, age, household composition, and more, we tested how spending behavior changes as days spent working from home increase. For the analysis, it was useful to focus on a single country. As a large economy near the global remote-work average, we analyze the United States.

The model summary in figure 3 reveals several statistically significant relationships. 

  • Food-buying preferences: As days spent working from home increase, the amount people plan to allocate toward monthly groceries rises—and they plan to spend less on restaurants. This is reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days. The work-from-home model continues to be bullish for grocery retailers and bearish for restaurants.
  • Spending more on the home: People who work from home a lot also plan to spend significantly more on housing every month—this includes rent and mortgage, but also categories such as maintenance, utilities, and renovations.
  • Lower demand for new clothes: While overall US apparel sales are quite strong,4 monthly spending intentions for clothing significantly drops as people spend more time working from home. After all, how many pajama pants can one need?
  • Evolving transportation behavior: People who work from home a lot are less likely to use public transportation, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Yet remote workers also put the same daily miles on their vehicles as everyone else. And that trend contradicts what most might expect. Additionally, remote workers are less likely to be in the market for a vehicle. This could be tied to things such as reliability. People who depend on their vehicles to get to work likely want newer cars they can rely on. 
  • Buying in-store or online is independent of where people work from: The number of days people work from home has no correlation with their intentions to buy online or offline. That’s somewhat surprising. We thought that more days spent at home would accelerate all things digital, including online shopping. But it’s not showing up in the data.
  • Remote workers less likely to plan vacations: The industry narrative is that remote work flexibility will help drive travel demand. But that’s not showing up in our US data. However, some of our recent research suggests that workplace flexibility extends trip lengths by three days.5

The world is eager to understand what pandemic-driven changes, especially behavioral changes, might become permanent. As the months pass, it’s growing more and more likely that a redefinition of the employer-employee relationship will be one of those lasting changes. We continue to watch this trend closely as well as the challenges and opportunities it presents to companies.

Changes of this magnitude, however, can’t happen in a vacuum. Our research suggests this shift toward greater employee independence and agency brings the potential to cause a ripple effect across consumer industry.

Successful businesses will likely be those with the agility to evolve with these shifting work preferences. These shifts in consumer behavior can bring strategic opportunities to adjust product portfolio mixes and routes-to-market, tweak operating models, and take a fresh look at profit contributions. 

  1. Emma Goldberg, “The end of a return-to-office date ,” New York Times , December 11, 2021.View in Article
  2. Dylan Byers, “Twitter employees can work from home forever, CEO says ,” NBC News, May 12, 2020.View in Article
  3. Kastle, “Getting America back to work ,” accessed January 2022.View in Article
  4. FRED, “Retail sales: Clothing stores ,” accessed, December 15, 2021.View in Article
  5. Peter Caputo et al., Keen but cautious: US leisure travel in the second summer of COVID-19 , Deloitte Insights, May 25, 2021.View in Article

The authors would like to thank Marcello Gasdia for his contribution to this article.

Cover image by: Sylvia Yoon Chang

Consumer

Deloitte Consumer leaders work with global brands to create winning strategies for the near future in the Automotive; Consumer Products; Retail; and Transportation, Hospitality & Services sectors. Our mission is to use our proprietary data and judgement to help you get closer to your consumers.

Stephen Rogers

Stephen Rogers

Managing Director

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