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Return-to-office plans unravel as workers rebel in tight job market

An empty workstation inside a office building in San Francisco. Many businesses are finding that employees are insisting on working from home while struggling with child care, the grind of commuting, and worries about rising COVID-19 cases.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Even the most inflexible bosses are softening their return-to-office expectations.

JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon has been one of the most vocal critics of remote work, arguing that it’s no substitute for the spontaneous idea generation that results from bumping into colleagues at the coffee machine. But in his annual letter to shareholders last month, the head of America’s biggest bank allowed that working from home “will become more permanent in American business,” and estimated that about 40 percent of his 270,000-person workforce would work under a hybrid model, which includes days in the office and at home.

Soon after Dimon’s missive, one of the bank’s senior technology executives told some teams that they could cut back from three days in the office per week to two, citing internal feedback.

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Many white-collar workplaces are making similar retreats as their employees stubbornly stick to working from home while struggling with child care, the grind of commuting, and worries about rising COVID-19 cases. Bosses are wary of taking punitive action against those who aren’t following their ambitious so-called RTO plans, fearing it will backfire in today’s tight labor market. That leaves them to reevaluate their carefully crafted strategies and reconsider what is a realistic long-term approach to in-person work.

“We are seeing policies slip in real time,” said Melissa Swift, the US transformation leader at workforce consultant Mercer. “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.”

Not all workers are rebelling against directives to return the office, with variation across companies, sectors, and job categories. Still, employers are seeing fresh reason to doubt the viability of their RTO guidelines. People are coming back to just about everything else — travel, restaurants, concerts, stores — amid a general loosening in state and federal COVID-related restrictions. So executives can no longer reassure themselves that workers would dutifully come back once those rules relaxed.

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At the same time, organizations that returned to the office in the first few months of the year now have loads of feedback from employees, many of whom are frustrated by commuting in just to spend half their day on Zoom calls. That adds to two full years of data on how workforces remained just as productive — and often were more satisfied — while working from home, and emerging research from academics. The result is a groundswell of hard evidence that can convince even the staunchest remote-work skeptics.

Examples of RTO resistance abound. At Apple a small group of employees has pushed back against the iPhone maker’s plan that will soon require most corporate workers to be in the office three days a week. A worker group called Apple Together penned an open letter to company leadership last month, in which signatories asked “to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of work arrangement works best for each one of us.” The staffers also dismissed the oft-cited desire for in-person collaboration, saying “this is not something we need every week, often not even every month, definitely not every day.” Apple declined to comment.

For some companies, there’s no longer any debate. Airbnb had previously pegged September 2022 as its return to the office, but chief executive Brian Chesky dumped that plan last month, instead telling his 6,000 employees that they could work remotely indefinitely. “Each of us works best in our own ways, and we’re giving you the flexibility to make the right choice based on where you’re most productive,” Chesky wrote in an e-mail to staff.

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A smattering of law firms have relaxed once-stringent attendance policies. Cooley LLP, a 3,000-person firm, said last month that it would let its lawyers decide whether and when to go into its offices, provided their duties allow for remote work.

When old-school bankers and lawyers grudgingly accept the value of working from home, it’s a sign of how much things have changed. A new survey of real-estate executives by CBRE Group Inc. found that the share of them who expect their workplaces to be “office-based” for most employees going forward declined to 19 percent from 30 percent last year.

At the recent Milken Institute Global Conference, a popular icebreaker was asking fellow attendees about their organization’s work-from-home approach. “It’s as common a conversation opener as asking about someone’s kids,” said Bob Kricheff, a portfolio manager at Shenkman Capital Management.