At first, when Kayak launched its new hybrid work policy in July, Vanessa Kafka was surprised how happy she was to be in the office.
After more than a year working in her bedroom, she looked forward to listening to podcasts on her drive from Melrose to Cambridge and experiencing the “magic” of collaborating in person. “The first week I showed up in July was awesome,” she said.
But the novelty soon wore off. She got stuck in traffic with aggressive drivers and missed being home when her kids got out of school. And going to the office three days a week, as the initiative called for, felt unnecessary. Some days, she was one of the only people on her floor and ended up Zooming with colleagues at home.
“It just started to feel like, I’m going in because I have to, not because it makes sense,” said Kafka, senior vice president of product at the travel search engine company, who had always had mixed feelings about the mandate. “Like I was meeting my quota.”
Other employees also questioned why they were being required to go back in when they’d been so productive at home. Some of her co-workers quit.
As COVID cases surged over the summer, in-office days quickly became voluntary — and stayed that way. And in October, Kayak and sister company Open Table announced a revamped “work from almost anywhere” policy (anywhere except countries where the organization doesn’t have an office, for tax and legal reasons).
As employers start calling people back to the office, some are finding it difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Having tasted the freedom of working remotely during the pandemic, and proving they could be effective, employees are resisting directives to return to their desks.
Earlier this month, more than 300 employees at Hearst Magazines signed a petition objecting to the publisher’s plan to bring workers back to the office — in Manhattan, for many — gradually building up to three times a week. Their union even filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
At Apple, where employees are expected to return to the office three days a week in January at the earliest, workers wrote a “plea” to leaders in June saying their wishes to keep working remotely have at times felt “actively ignored.” A second letter, in July, cited an internal survey in which 68 percent of respondents said Apple’s “lack of location flexibility” could drive them to quit.
“The backlash is real,” said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied remote work for decades. “Employees are not only requesting that there is an adjustment to the return-to-the-office policy, but they’re also resigning.”
Remote work is still the exception to the rule: Only 11 percent of employed people nationally teleworked at some point during October because of COVID (not counting those who worked remotely before), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But polls consistently show that 80 to 90 percent of workers who are able to work remotely want to continue to do so in some fashion. Employees have proven it works, Neeley said, and during the “fiercest labor market of our lifetimes,” with people quitting their jobs at a record pace and positions going unfilled, employers would be wise to listen.
“The nature of work has changed. Workers have changed,” she said. “This is the greatest work revolution that we will see in our generation.”
With workers holding so many of the cards, some employers are backpedaling on their in-office mandates.
In late June, ride-hailing giant Uber dialed back its plan for corporate employees to return to the office three days a week, instead announcing that people needed to come to the office 50 percent of the time starting in January, in whatever configuration they prefer, such as five days one week and none the next. Amazon reversed course in October, telling office workers that instead of coming back three days a week in January, they could continue working from home indefinitely. The job networking site LinkedIn recalibrated its return-to-the-office plan over the summer and is allowing workers to remain fully remote.
At Kayak and Open Table, which have 2,000 employees and 22 offices around the world, historically high churn rates began to drop after the in-office requirement was rolled back.
“We’re trying to figure out what the new normal looks like,” said chief executive Steve Hafner, who runs both companies. “I’ve been wrong in many things over the course of my career.”
Being open to trial and error is key in this new era of work, said Neeley, the Harvard Business School professor, as is surveying employees to understand what they want. One company she’s talked to was planning to bring everyone back full time until it found that 97 percent of its workers wanted a hybrid model, and then decided to allow remote work.
Employers should have good reasons for when and how often they require people to come in, Neeley said. And the same policies should apply across the board; if a manager who hates remote work requires her department to come in all the time, and a manager who loves it doesn’t, inequities will ensue.
Two days a week is working for the accounting firm Baker Newman Noyes. But that’s two fewer days than it was planning on. The company, which has five offices around New England, decided to “dip our toe in the water” in June and work up to an average of four days a week in the office by Labor Day, said managing principal Dayton Benway. But the Delta variant intervened, as did a growing realization that a significant number of employees had caregiving responsibilities that had been made more manageable by working from home.
The firm is about to survey employees again, but Benway doubts the firm will ever consistently require four days a week. Ideally, he said, the schedule would be a “roller coaster,” which could mean several days in the office some weeks, and fewer on others. Whatever the plan, the leadership team will figure out how to maximize employees’ time together.
“Those companies who don’t listen to their employees, they’re going to find themselves in a challenging position,” he said.
LogMeIn, the Boston tech company behind GoToMeeting video conferencing software, was one of the first local companies to announce, in July of 2020, that employees could be remote forever if they wanted. Back then, based on employee surveys, the company estimated that 20 percent of its workforce would come back to the office full time. But only a few months later, based on another survey, that was scaled back to 5 percent.
“The longer people are home and enjoying the flexibility, the less likely they are to want to give it up,” said Chris Perrotti, LogMeIn’s vice president of digital workplace, who moved to Vermont during the pandemic.
Jen Mathews, the company’s director of public relations, had originally planned to go in twice a week. But now she’s only in the office a few times a month, reassured by the new remote-centric culture that she’s not missing anything if she stays home.
“I’m doing laundry right now,” she said. “I’ve got a crockpot going. My dog is sitting right next to me.”
Perrotti said he knows people who are considering quitting their jobs if they’re required to go back to the office: “It’s almost like a fear.”
“I joke about how offices may end up being like museums of how people used to work in the past,” he said. “They all went in and they sat at these little desks all next to each other to hammer away at keyboards.”
“It seems a little wacky.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.