Everyone is wrong about the future of remote work

Woman sitting on a desk using a laptop computer while working from home.
The workforce “fundamentally changed" during the pandemic.
COROIMAGE via Getty Images

Bosses and employees are in a tug-of-war over where work will be done. CEOs eager for a return to the office suggest full-blown remote work is coming to an end. Employees insist it’s here to stay despite pandemic fears fading.

Data released this month suggests the long-predicted return to office (RTO) is indeed starting to happen, after several false starts. But just how far it goes remains to be seen, and few expect a return to pre-pandemic normalcy anytime soon.

“September feels more like the real return to the office that has been touted for two and a half years now,” Peter Greenspan, WeWork’s global head of real estate, told Bloomberg this week.  “You’ve heard, ‘Return to the office, return to the office, now it’s after this holiday, now it’s after this summer.’” But new data from his firm, he said, suggests a “stronger return to the office than the previous ones.”

In the week after Labor Day, bookings at WeWork’s 700 office locations worldwide rose 20% compared to the weekly average, while keycard swipes internationally rose 70% compared to the same year-ago period.

Offices in New York City, meanwhile, were nearly half full this week, compared to 38% the week before and 34.5% two weeks earlier. That’s according to Kastle Systems, a security firm that tracks keycard swipes in offices across the U.S. It also reports that office occupancy nationwide has remained steady at around 40% of pre-pandemic levels since the spring. That’s hardly back to normal, but the firm is confident those levels will “rise in the months to come,” according to its website. 

Return-to-office demands 

CEOs, meanwhile, increasingly diss remote work, suggest its days are numbered, and insist workers get back to the office. 

Earlier this month, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said his firm would “be taking a harder line as to how we bring our employees back.” Workers were told they needed to come into the office three days a week, with exceptions being rare and needing “formal approval.” Remote work, Fink argued, was one reason for falling labor productivity in the U.S.—and RTO would help bring down the nation’s record inflation. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk now receives detailed weekly reports on absenteeism, according to CNBC, after saying in May that “remote work is no longer acceptable.” Workers unhappy with the change, he added at the time, should “pretend to work somewhere else.” 

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, meanwhile, continued his long-running criticism of remote work last month, saying it creates an environment that’s less honest and more prone to procrastination. In April his firm said that about half of employees must return to the office full time, and the remaining 40% can split their time, with three days of in-person work per week the general expectation.

Remote-work believers

Companies are trying to entice workers back to the office with various perks, but there’s little indication that workers will fill offices the way they did before the pandemic—or want to. 

This summer the Future Forum Pulse—a survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K.—found that just 20% of them wanted to be in the office full-time, the lowest point in two years of surveying.

“Today’s workplace environment is centered around flexibility,” said Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum. “Employees without it remain at a strong risk of attrition.” 

And despite Musk’s “pretend to work” dig, many employees insist they are more (or just as) productive working at home, away from distracting offices. According to a survey released this week by Partnership for New York City, that was the top reason employers gave for why their employees were negative on returning to the office.

A workforce “culture change”

Looming over the RTO battle of wills is the economy. A recession could change the power equation and force more workers back to the office. “Employees will recognize as we go into a recession, or as things get a little tighter, that you have to do what it takes to keep your job and to earn a living,” real estate developer Stephen Ross predicted  in June.

Whether that prediction holds true and where the economy goes remain to be seen. But the pandemic might have changed things so profoundly that even a recession might not restore the previous order.

“You have a global event that has fundamentally changed the workforce,” author and futurist Brian David Johnson told Fortune this month. “What we’re grappling with is a culture change.” 

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