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Remote work is harder to come by as companies push for return to office

Employers are increasing their requirements for in-person work this fall, nudging employees to return to some of their pre-pandemic office routines.
Employers are increasing their requirements for in-person work this fall, nudging employees to return to some of their pre-pandemic office routines.

Back in 2020, when schools were still virtual and city dwellers were living their lives in masks, Jamie Dimon emerged as one of the earliest critics of remote work.

"There's a huge value to working together in terms of collaboration and creativity and training the younger people," the CEO of JPMorgan Chase told MSNBC in August that year.

Three years later, Dimon's message is unchanged. The difference now is that the sentiment has gone mainstream.

Today, even Zoom's leadership is extolling the benefits of in-person work.

"What we've found is, people have enjoyed coming back to the office," says Zoom's Chief People Officer Matthew Saxon. "There is a buzz. There's something about being able to go have lunch with your teammates."

With the pandemic declared over, much of America seems to have settled on the idea that at least some in-person time is beneficial — even necessary — for workplaces. But what remains under hot debate is how much time is needed and who gets to determine that.

According to Kastle Systems, which tracks security card swipes, building occupancy in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the New York metro area is barely breaking 40%. Houston tops a list of major U.S. cities with occupancy reaching 60%.

It's a sign that many office workers who enjoyed greater autonomy while working from home are not readily giving up that up, even as their employers step up demands for them to come in.

How and when to work has become a negotiation

For most people, it used to be a given that having a job meant going to an office. Now, it's a negotiation.

"These conversations — they're new," says Debbie Lovich, managing director and senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group.

"We never talked about how should we work everyday. But now, we need to because there's so much change out there."

As the months have passed, those conversations have taken on a more urgent tone.

Employers now have research — albeit limited — to back up their demands. Studies have found people get more feedback when they're in the same space as their coworkers, leading to more opportunities for advancement. And while findings on productivity are mixed, there's evidence that fully remote workers encounter more friction when trying to convey information quickly.

After an outcry from Republicans in Congress, the Biden administration has called on federal agencies to "aggressively execute" the shift to more in-office work this fall, a move that's already sparked clashes with federal employee unions.

"I do believe we need to be around each other in person more than we are now, to ensure this department's long term success," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a video to employees.

Requirements are getting stricter

Across the private sector, in-office requirements are also getting stricter.

The investment management firm BlackRock has asked people to come in at least four days per week starting in September, up from three.

Amazon has informed some remote workers they're going to need to move close to a hub if they want to keep their jobs.

Employees at Farmers Insurance, who just last year were told they would stay remote according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, now face a requirement to work in-person three days a week if they live within 50 miles of a Farmers office.

After making remote work possible for millions of people, Zoom is now telling some of its own employees to show up in person, in what the company is calling a structured hybrid approach.

Zoom, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., is rolling out a new in-office work policy. Employees who live within 50 miles of an office are expected to work from that office twice a week.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Zoom, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., is rolling out a new in-office work policy. Employees who live within 50 miles of an office are expected to work from that office twice a week.

A trial earlier this year helped shape that approach. Engineers who were asked to report to the office one day per week were often frustrated to find their colleagues weren't there, forcing them to sit in on the same Zoom meetings — just from the office.

"The office has to earn its commute," says Saxon.

The company decided the sweet spot was two days per week in the office, but that only applies to employees who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office — about a third of Zoom's total headcount. And even this new policy is an experiment of sorts.

"These things don't stay static," says Saxon. "I think we'll continue to evolve."

Having some say leads to satisfaction

In a recent survey of 1,500 office workers, Boston Consulting Group found 85% working in some kind of hybrid mode, and only 8% fully remote.

Those surveyed said they believe they should be in-person at least a third of the time, but preferred to have some say in when they come in.

Compliance and satisfaction were higher when employees' hybrid schedules could vary each week, as opposed to following a set schedule.

"Post-COVID for the first time ever, we are being told when and where to show up, and it just is sparking this reaction from people like, 'Wait a minute, don't you trust me?'" says Lovich.

It's not yet clear what will happen at any of these companies if employees don't comply.

In a statement, the investment bank Citi told NPR, "As necessary, we hold colleagues accountable for adhering to their in-office days," which for most employees is three days per week.

Cooling economy puts pressure on workers

The cooling economy may be adding pressure on employees to be more visible on the job. On Monday, Farmers Insurance announced it was cutting 2,400 jobs, or 11% of its workforce as part of a restructuring.

Already, many workers are confronting the reality that fully and mostly remote positions are becoming harder to find, as we get farther and farther from the pandemic.

Roxana Garcia Espejo was a school teacher in Sugar Land, Texas, before she landed what she describes as her dream job in the spring of 2022. Hired by Microsoft as a senior training associate, she helped clients in schools and companies with Microsoft products such as Excel and other applications.

The job required her to work from Microsoft's Houston office 20% of the time, scheduled as she saw fit. For Garcia Espejo, who'd been caring for her elderly parents through pandemic, the flexibility proved transformative.

"My work-life balance was completely changed," she says.

She began exercising. Her blood pressure dropped. She adapted well to remote work, never feeling out of the loop thanks to a stream of online chats.

"As if it were the all-day chatter of all the teams that I was a part of," she says.

But her dream job was short-lived. A year after being hired, Microsoft announced mass layoffs, and Garcia Espejo's entire unit was cut.

For the last several months, she's been searching for another remote position, with no luck. A year ago, it might have been a different story.

With her unemployment soon running out, she's starting to consider in-person jobs, even teaching — but only as a substitute, where she'd retain some control over her schedule.

"I guess I don't look at it anymore as I'm holding out," says Garcia Espejo. "I look at it as — I'm in control of where I want my ship to sail."

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.