Battle over return to offices heats up as bosses lose patience

How

When the emails first started piling into Latitia Jackson’s inbox about heading back to the office after Labor Day, she and her colleagues figured it wouldn’t really happen.

The Jacksonville, Fla., bank where Jackson, 47, works had pushed back its return-to-office plans many times over the past two years. But now the day is fast approaching, and Jackson is reluctant to trade her jeans and T-shirt for office attire. Nor is she looking forward to being surrounded by people, having grown used to the quiet of her apartment. Coming back on a hybrid schedule helps a little, but it still feels like a downgrade when she’s been happy and more productive working from home.

“I feel like I’m being punished,” Jackson said. “It’s been working so well and now you’re making me go back when I’m doing the exact same job there that I’m doing from home.”

This time last year, companies big and small were gearing up for a push to bring workers back to offices after Labor Day. The same thing is happening now. But this time, the bosses really mean it — probably — which could set companies up for clashes with their workers, experts say.

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“For employers, they need to understand the tide has turned,” said Scott Dobroski, vice president of corporate communications at Indeed. Employees still have the upper hand in a white-hot labor market. “This demand for flexibility among employees, no longer just a request, will likely have a direct impact on their hiring and retention efforts, which also directly impact a company’s bottom line.”

Employees are more committed to working from home than they were last fall, according to a June survey of more than 8,000 workers by Gallup, with the desire to work exclusively from home more than doubling since October 2021. Among fully remote workers, 60 percent said they would be “extremely likely” to look for other opportunities if their employer decided not to offer remote work at least some of the time.

After Apple told employees it would increase in-person work requirements from two days a week to three, more than a thousand employees signed a petition demanding “location flexible work,” arguing that the company’s mandate “does not consider the unique demands of each job role nor the diversity of individuals.” The company declined to discuss its return-to-office plans with The Washington Post.

For Joe, who works as the engineering manager for a metal fabricator in California that builds rides and special effects for theme parks, the gradual return to office is starting to feel “hurtful.” (Joe is identified only by his first name to speak candidly about his employer.)

The company started the year fully remote. But in early spring, Joe and the company’s few dozen other employees were asked to come in for half-days on Fridays. In April, they were asked to come in two days a week. And last week, in a hasty hallway meeting, employees were told to start coming in four days a week after Labor Day.

His bosses offered no justification beyond saying that having employees back in person was “better for the company,” Joe said. He’s worked there for 10 years but said he’s thinking seriously about leaving.

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“It’s a line I’m starting to draw,” he said. “They’re trying to turn back to where we were before.”

The return to offices has been inching forward since the start of the year. In the first four months of 2022, office occupancy rose 20 percent according to Kastle Systems, which has been tracking the return to work through key fob and swipe data. But since April, it’s hovered around 44 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels, despite efforts to coax workers back with free food, bonding activities and other perks.

As of Aug. 22, occupancy in 10 of the country’s top business centers, including DC, New York City and Los Angeles, was 43.5 percent of what it was before the pandemic.

“We think that it’s going to continue to rise, but it probably is not going to go back to pre-pandemic levels in the near future, if ever,” said Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems.

Although the pandemic restrictions have been lifted, the coronavirus is continuing to hamper return-to-office plans as fears of getting sick fuel worker reluctance.

Google, which has required employees to be in offices three days a week since April, is dealing with an outbreak impacting hundreds of employees in its California offices, according to CNBC.

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The outbreaks have frustrated workers on Google’s campuses. A meme shared on the company’s internal image-sharing site showed a photo of an email inbox with the subject line of one email from a manager reading “We’re so excited to see you back in the office!” and a subsequent subject line of “Notification of Confirmed COVID-19 Case,” CNBC reported.

Mandatory on-site policies can make workers feel “as if the hard work they contributed remotely during the pandemic wasn’t appreciated,” according to Scott Dussault, chief financial officer at Workhuman, a human capital software company.

“When organizations make decisions without the input of their team, that leads to the pushback we’re witnessing a lot of today,” Dussault said. “Employers should understand that there’s going to need to be compromised, and avoid making any decisions that are a direct result of wanting to have control over their workforce.”

But with so many delays, bumps are losing patience, according to Kathy Kacher of Career/Life Alliance Services, who has been advising companies on their return-to-office plans.

With kids heading back to school and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ending social distancing, isolation and masking policies, even clients who were initially cautious about pressing employees back to the office are saying, “Okay, that’s it. Just come back,” Kacher said.

“Organizations are saying, ‘It’s time for us to start pulling people back regardless of what the people want,’ ” Kacher said.

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In the initial quest to entice workers back to offices, many companies invested heavily in changes to office spaces, wellness programs, special bonding activities and other perks. But now “companies are trying to cut costs,” said Stephan Scholl, chief executive of Alight Solutions, a human capital company.

Executives have “woken up,” looked at the engagement rate on their investments and realized, “We’re spending a lot of money and not getting any happy employees,” Scholl said.

Some high-performing workers have managed to avoid calls to return to offices. In a mid-August exchange on Blind, an anonymous corporate messaging board, a few workers argued that the company couldn’t afford to enforce office attendance for all employees.

“I asked for perm remote and it was granted,” one Apple employee wrote, adding that they were “posting from my remote mountain valley in Montana.”

“What? You are joking right?” another user asked.

“Not kidding. They do remote all the time for people they can’t lose,” the Apple employee responded. “Now I go outside and feed chickens and horses between meetings.”

Even employers committed to office mandates have had to embrace some degree of flexibility.

Joseph Woodbury, chief executive and co-founder of Neighbor, a Utah-based peer-to-peer storage marketplace, requires employees to be in the office four days a week.

But the company added “No-Meeting Mondays,” an optional work-from-home day to prepare for the week. And employees are free to work from home if something personal comes up, like a sick kid or a household repair.

Now 90 percent or more of the company is in office Tuesday to Friday.

“Our approach creates an expectation of being in the office,” Woodbury said.

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