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‘It’s really a mess’: The growing split between workers and bosses on returning to the office

Two-plus years into the pandemic, many companies are getting anxious to get back to in-person work, but find their workers like hybrid life just fine.

Local human resources directors report job candidates are abruptly ending interviews when they find out remote work isn’t an option.Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

There’s a new turf war shaping up at work: managers who want everyone back in the “real” office vs. employees who prefer the one at home. And that standoff is leading to some irreconcilable conflicts.

Naomi Baruch and her coworkers were required to return to their downtown Boston office two days a week starting Jan. 1, despite the crippling Omicron surge at the time. There was no explanation given, she said, no attempt to make their presence more purposeful.

“It really felt pointless/punitive/‘We just like things the way they were,’ ‘‘ she said.

So when Baruch launched a job search recently, being fully remote was a high priority. And she got her wish.

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For some office workers who’ve grown accustomed to the flexibility and commute-free lifestyle of remote work — and the feeling, as Baruch put it, of not being just “a cog in a machine” — the surge of back-to-office mandates is driving a wedge between them and their bosses.

At least one notable employer has resorted to threats. Elon Musk said he would fire Tesla employees who weren’t back in the office at least 40 hours a week, saying success doesn’t come by “phoning it in.” A number of major companies, including Goldman Sachs, are tracking workers electronically to make sure they are coming into the office as required. Starbucks chief executive Howard Shultz said he’d been “unsuccessful” at getting the company’s office workers to return: “I’ve pleaded with them. I said I’ll get on my knees. I’ll do push-ups.”

Local human resources directors report job candidates are abruptly ending interviews when they find out remote work isn’t an option. One said that a new biotech hire — who agreed to work three days a week in the office but was allowed to work from home for six weeks before moving to the Boston area — abruptly quit following his first 90-minute commute.

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Nationwide, two-thirds of senior managers want their teams on site every work day, according to a Robert Half survey, while half of employees say they would look for a new job if forced to return full time. The return-to-office/work-from-home tug of war has even spawned an acronym war: RTO vs. WFH.

Pro-office executives cite the value of in-person collaboration and the need to maintain a vibrant company culture. Breaking with tradition is difficult, workplace analysts say, especially for bosses with an underlying belief, warranted or not, that people get more done in the office.

Ego could play a role, too. “There are people that feel a sense of importance and authority when they’ve got people working outside of their door,” said David Schonthal, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Handing down mandates, instead of being open to experimentation, will only increase people’s natural impulse to resist change, he said. And forget about using new perks. “For people who value autonomy, giving them soft-serve in the break room is not going to help,” Schonthal said.

With plenty of jobs to be found — for now, anyway — and a life-changing pandemic on their minds, office workers, similar to Starbucks and Trader Joe’s workers unionizing around the country, are making their voices heard. In a recent Boston.com poll that found the majority of respondents had no interest in going back to the office full time, one person wrote that the workforce has “woken up to the fact that we have a lot more power than we originally thought.”

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“We have a generation or two of CEOs and their HR advisers who have not had to deal with a restless group of employees,” said MIT management professor Thomas Kochan. Managers can’t be “held hostage to past strategies,” he said. “You can no longer do this from the top down.”

And with every pushed-back return date, workers have become less inclined to believe they’re ever going to be required to go back, said Elizabeth Mygatt, a partner in the Boston office of consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Some long-empty offices are starting to come back to life, but the workers inside, including some managers, aren’t necessarily excited to be there. One vice president at a small Boston-area pharmaceutical company would prefer to work at home most days instead of making the hour-plus drive to the office, and is working her way up to coming in three days a week. But she’s struggling to enforce the policy on someone she supervises who’s getting his job done just fine at home. “It’s a tough thing to manage,” said the VP, who asked not to be identified so she could speak freely. “Until someone pushes me, I’m not going to push him.”

The Watertown design firm Sasaki is relocating to downtown Boston in late July, and employees are expected to be in the office, with clients, at a project, or on a plane at least 24 hours a week — although principal Elizabeth Von Goeler noted “we’re not going to be chasing people down and counting every hour.” Sasaki employees who live near the old Watertown office, such as landscape architect Ian Scherling, will be facing a more arduous commute.

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Office workers on the streets of Providence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Scherling left Sasaki last year for a job that was closer, but has since returned. He admits he and his wife, who also works at Sasaki, haven’t figured out how it’s going to work, especially with two young children. Getting downtown is a “big disruption for our lifestyle,” Scherling said, especially since he’s gotten used to starting dinner while listening to Zoom calls and pulling weeds in the garden to de-stress.

Surveys have found that only a handful of Sasaki employees want to continue working remote full time, Von Goeler said, but she worries: “I’m hoping that we’ll get to the point where it actually won’t be seen as punishment to have to go into the office.”

Digital marketing firm Champ recently gave up its empty Newton offices, but chief executive Seth Worby is torn about being fully virtual. At the start of the pandemic, Worby, who has never been a fan of remote work, had visions of employees slacking off and playing video games in their sweatpants. “I was freaking out,” he said. When one employee told him she didn’t know if she could ever come back to the office because she got a dog, he was not impressed.

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Worby worked in the office throughout the pandemic, along with a handful of people he calls “my superstars.” One day, after collaborating on a project, he gave one of them a raise on the spot. “I probably wouldn’t have done that if all the work had been done on a video chat,” he said, underscoring the “proximity bias” many fear will take hold in hybrid workplaces.

And yet, with most of his 50 employees working remotely for more than two years, productivity remains high, as does employee and client retention. He’s looking for a new office, but doesn’t plan to force people to come in. Still, his preference for in-person work is hard to shake.

“You’re not going to earn brownie points just by showing up,” Worby said, “but once you’re there, there might be more opportunities to earn those brownie points because you’re there.”

Even at companies that grant employees complete flexibility, there are divisions among executives. The HR director of a small biotech in Kendall Square responds to grumbling about people not being in the office by citing an in-house survey showing employees’ top priority is — and remains — flexibility.

“People are very happy about it; please do not screw this up,” she tells leaders who complain.

“The challenging part of flexibility is that it’s always changing, and there are people who aren’t comfortable with it,” said the HR director, who asked not to be identified. “It’s really a mess.”

The in-office vs. at-home debate is even causing tension between CEOs. Art Papas, chief executive of Boston software company Bullhorn, where employees can work wherever for the foreseeable future, said he got into an argument with another local tech leader who was calling workers back to the office.

“He told me my culture was going to go into the toilet,” Papas said. “And I was just like, ‘Well, let’s look at my Glassdoor scores over the last two years. When is that going to happen?’ "

But Papas isn’t ready to proclaim victory.

“It’s still early,” he said. “We’re really two years into a really big workforce dynamics experiment.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.