Why millions of workers who distanced themselves during the pandemic don’t want to return to the office

Erin Li, a 29-year-old working for an advertising agency in Los Angeles, is looking for a new job that allows full-time remote work.

Li worries that her current employer will force her to work from the office again in the fall. Her company has moved its offices farther from her home and she is expected to spend more than two hours commuting each day.

While senior colleagues have bought homes near the new office, it’s not an affordable neighborhood for young professionals like her. “It’s even hard to find an apartment, and they’re all very expensive,” she says.

Millions of workers like Li who have distanced themselves during the pandemic are not interested in returning to the office. They appreciate the flexibility of working remotely and don’t miss the trips. Many bosses, meanwhile, are pushing for a return to the office, citing better teamwork, productivity and innovation.

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A tight job market has encouraged workers who want to continue working remotely. But employers are beginning to take a tougher stance.

Tech giant Apple recently asked employees to work from the office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and a third day chosen by individual shifts. In response, an employee advocacy group launched a petition calling for more flexible work arrangements.

“This uniform senior management mandate does not take into account the unique requirements of each position or the diversity of individuals,” the group wrote. Nearly 1,000 Apple employees have signed the petition. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the pandemic threat has subsided, travelers are once again hopping on flights and shoppers are returning to malls. But workers aren’t returning to their desks at the same pace.

In the country’s top 10 cities, office building occupancy was just 43% recently, according to security firm Kastle Systems, which tracks card reads as a barometer. Before the pandemic, the rate was 99%.

CEOs expressed their displeasure. “If you can go to a restaurant in New York, you can come to the office,” Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman said last year. People who want to work from home are in “Jobland,” he said, and they need to be back in the office in “Careerland” to be around colleagues and develop skills.

Earlier this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told workers to spend at least 40 hours in the office a week. ‘If you don’t show up, we’ll assume you quit,’ the billionaire wrote in an email to employees, noting that ‘phone calls’ aren’t enough to create and manufacture ‘the most exciting and meaningful products. of any business”. on earth.”

An August survey by the Federal Reserve of New York found that 30% of executives reported a drop in employee productivity after their company expanded remote working; half reported no change. Worker surveys, on the other hand, tend to report higher productivity when working from home.

Li, for her part, says she doesn’t feel any difference. “Even in the office, we sit apart from each other and often use messages and emails to communicate anyway.”

According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, six in 10 employed adults say they are more likely to apply for a job with a remote work option. Some 40% said they would rather quit their job than return to an office full-time, according to another survey by video conferencing start-up mmhmm.

The current strength in the labor market has allowed workers to continue working from home, even when their employer tells them to come. According to a recent survey by WFH Research, 35% of workers said there were no consequences when working in the office. fewer days than expected; only 19% received a verbal reprimand.

That will likely change if the economy slows. Already, the number of job vacancies fell by 10% from March to June. In recent weeks, more and more companies have suspended hiring or announced layoffs.

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, doesn’t think companies will significantly change their work-from-home policies because of the recession, but he expects them to enforce those policies better. . “Those who refuse to come back at all will be pushed further into queuing,” he says.

“Employers have tried to gently bring people back to the office, but they’re worried about attrition, so they don’t want to be too harsh in their rhetoric,” says Scott Homa, senior director of office research at Real Estate Services. . JLL, “If that leverage starts to change and companies aren’t as concerned about labor shortages, they’ll be more aggressive this fall.”

But a recession could also cause companies to reconsider whether the office is really necessary. For many employers, office rent is the single largest expense after labor. In a tough economy, allowing more people to work from home and lower rental costs could be an attractive option.

As their previous leases expired during the pandemic, many companies negotiated short-term extensions of only a year or two due to high levels of business uncertainty, says JLL’s Homa. Before the pandemic, the typical renewal period was between five and ten years.

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This means that a high volume of office space will expire in 2022 and 2023, around 28% above the average of the last three years before the pandemic.

If a recession hits, some of those leases might not be renewed. Twitter, for example, plans to decrease its presence in some cities and even close some offices to cut costs. “We have proven that we can operate our business successfully with a distributed workforce over the years,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to Barrons.

However, the showdown will continue. Musk, who agreed to acquire Twitter before attempting to exit the deal, has made it clear he prefers in-person work at the social media company if he ends up buying it.

Ultimately, the issue is worker productivity. If remote workers can show they work hard and efficiently, while saving the company some operational costs, bosses will reconsider their strategies.

This article was published by Barron’s, another title of the Dow Jones Group

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