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This summer will decide remote work’s fate. A White House–predicted COVID wave this fall could render it moot

June 7, 2022, 1:26 PM UTC

With Delta infections subsiding and a new year on the horizon, executives late last year were formulating “return to office” plans.

Then came Omicron, and those RTO plans went out the door—maybe temporarily, perhaps for good.

With U.S. COVID cases potentially plateauing—and with more employees saying in a recent Pew survey that they’re working from home because they want to, rather than having coronavirus concerns—some employers are demanding they return.

For some companies, it hasn’t gone so well. For others, the fallout—or lack thereof—remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told employees “remote work is no longer acceptable,” according to a leaked memo. “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” he wrote.

In March, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon reportedly insisted that employees return to the office full-time—but only half showed up.

And Google, a longtime opponent of remote work, required employees to return to the office this spring on a part-time schedule. The move signaled that “hybrid work is here to stay,” writes Libby Sander, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Bond University in Australia.

“Employers will either embrace the change or find themselves being left behind,” she said in a March 6 piece on The Conversation. “What is certain is we don’t need to be together five days a week to make these things happen. With a shrinking workforce and an increasing war for talent, employers who don’t provide flexibility will be the losers.”

Things have changed since “return to office” plans were scuttled by Omicron. The Fed hiked interest rates, the market crashed, GDP shrank by 1.5% in Q1, and CEOs have begun to warn of swirling pre-recession storm clouds. With the U.S. still experiencing a labor shortage, employers are questioning whether to rock the boat.

Fearing mutiny in response to stringent RTO policies, some companies are attempting to lure workers back to the office, refashioning seas of cubicles into hybrid spaces with areas to meet, exercise, and meditate.

Honey may work better than vinegar—but some companies are abandoning RTO plans altogether.

“We are seeing policies slip in real time,” Melissa Swift, the U.S. transformation leader at workforce consultant Mercer, told Bloomberg in May. “There was previously all this talk about how, for white-collar jobs, collaborating in the office was important. That’s slipping. Now, only the people who need to turn a screwdriver need to be in the office.”

Remote work appears to be the way of the future for many, if not most, companies for which it’s possible. But such employers will have to contend with the reality that a perk for some causes resentment for others.

“The problem we’re going to have here is we’re going to create two classes of workers—the haves and the have-nots,” change management expert Linda Duxbury, a professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Canada, recently told Yahoo Finance.

Something has to give, and maybe it will this summer. Then again, a White House–predicted fall and winter wave of COVID could render the whole discussion moot.

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