The remote-work culture wars are far from over

Many employees like working from home, but bosses want them back in the office.

A vacant office in San Francisco
A vacant office in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For the last two years — since the coronavirus vaccine became widely available and most children returned to in-person schooling — corporate executives and business owners have been trying to coax (and, in some cases, force) employees back to the office, arguing that remote work hinders creativity and, in the long run, makes people less productive.

About 60% of white-collar workers are fully back in the office, according to one recent study, but millions continue to come in only once or twice a week — or not at all. And in many cities, including Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the majority of workers are continuing to work from home most of the time.

According to a 2022 study by McKinsey, most workers appreciate the flexibility afforded by hybrid arrangements that ask them to work in the office two or three days a week. That typically means they have Mondays and Fridays to work from home.

That hasn’t been enough for some executives in finance and technology, who want workers back in the office five days a week — and haven’t been shy about saying so.

Workers have resisted where they could. For their part, they say they can get more work done when they don’t have to deal with long commutes or distracting co-workers. Some have said they would quit if forced to return to the office full-time, though it is not clear how many would actually do so.

Others feel unsafe riding commuter trains or buses, where crime and homelessness have seemingly become more frequent. Those transit systems, in turn, worry that they will face their demise unless ridership returns to pre-pandemic levels. And civic leaders nationwide say that downtowns face a “doom loop” that could devastate municipal services unless workers return.

The summer vacation season is approaching its height. But when it ends, and the ordinary rhythms of life return, the remote-work wars could also flare with a renewed ferocity.

Read more from our partners: Remote work is good for individuals but bad for teams, says CEO with fully in-person office: ‘It’s not just about you’

The lonely employee

An online conference
An online conference for employees. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The U.S. is already facing a crisis in loneliness and social isolation, and remote work probably isn’t helping. The freedom to work from home has kept some people tethered to their computers in bedrooms or at kitchen tables, without the kind of interactions that many say are healthy or even necessary.

One tech worker who recently returned to the office described remote work in unstinting terms: “Staying at home had made me so depressed, lonely even tho I was hanging out every weekend with my friends. Despite me being a quiet and shy person, talking to new people in office or just seeing people everyday has made me a lot happier person,” the worker wrote anonymously.

Read more from our partners: Why being a digital nomad could be a boon — or disastrous — for your mental health

Employers learn the advantages of remote work

A digital artist from Japan takes a coffee break at home
A digital artist in Japan takes a coffee break at home. (Getty Images)

Some exasperated employers who have spent months trying to get employees back into the office have discovered a hidden benefit to the problem: If workers don’t want to work in the office, then employers can make hiring decisions accordingly — and potentially save on payroll.

Some are calling it the “Uberization” of white-collar work, with employees treated more like gig workers than permanent team members who deserve health care and other benefits.

“If somebody’s coming into your site five days a week, week in, week out, it feels like they’re your employee. You want to give them health care, a pension, train them up, have them as a long-term part of the firm,” remote-work expert Nicholas Bloom of Stanford told Business Insider. “But as soon as they’re not on site, managers are thinking it’s not so obvious they want to pay all those additional costs. Employees aren’t mixing, they aren’t talking over lunch about kids. They may be less loyal to the company. I do hear this from companies — the more remote someone is, the more transactional it feels.”

Read more from our partners: Bosses are fed up with remote work for 4 main reasons. Some of them are undeniable.

A civic duty

More vacant office space in San Francisco
More vacant office space in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

Most office workers don’t think of their 9-to-5 as a form of municipal patriotism, but that is precisely what some say it is. Empty offices lead to lower property tax assessments, which result in fewer taxes for cities to collect, meaning they may have to cut essential services.

“What we really need is for office buildings to reoccupy,” San Francisco Comptroller Ben Rosenfield told Yahoo News. The city is facing an $800 million budget gap for the next two years. And as leases come up for renewal, that gap could grow into a chasm.

Read more from our partners: Paul Graham says remote work ‘does work initially,’ which is why it ‘fooled’ leaders who have since ‘changed their minds’

The pushback

Danny Crouch pets his dog as he works from home in Arlington, Va.
A man in Arlington, Va., working from home. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Once given, a benefit is very difficult to take away. And whether executives like it or not, many workers now see remote work as a benefit of post-pandemic life.

“It's time for CEOs to abandon the sinking ship of forced in-office work and embrace the flexible work revolution,” says future-of-work consultant Gleb Tsipursky. “The office has its place for collaboration, mentoring and training — but not for productivity.”

He and others say the future is probably hybrid.

Read more from our partners: Hybrid work ramps up as employers push in-office time over work from home