working from home
Even with millions of workers across the country being asked to return to their cubicles, office occupancy has been relatively static for the past year. Image Credit: Pexels

After more than two years of trying to coax workers back into offices, bosses are losing their patience.

The days of enticing employees with free food, laundry services and yoga classes are largely over. Now, executives are resorting to threats - and it's forcing some workers to decide whether they're willing to give up the flexibility they've gotten used to.

Even tech companies that were once champions of remote work are changing their tune. Zoom, whose video conferencing tool helped enable the quick transition to remote work during the pandemic, recently asked employees who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office to start coming in at least twice a week. Facebook parent company Meta recently revised its return-to-office policy, telling employees they could face termination if they do not come in at least three days a week starting Sept. 5.

At Amazon, remote workers must decide whether to move or give up their jobs, with some facing a significantly higher cost of living. At a recent meeting, chief executive Andy Jassy was blunt: If you can't commit to returning to the office three days a week, Jassy said, "it's probably not going to work out for you at Amazon."

The new pushes for in-person work mark a major shift as executives directly acknowledge the challenges with the model - in some cases saying productivity has declined, and citing fewer opportunities for spontaneous collaboration, mentorship and connection-building. Meanwhile, employers have new leverage as the labor market has cooled, leaving workers less room to be choosy.

"The pendulum has shifted from employees having all the power," said Matt Cohen, founder and managing partner of Ripple Ventures, a venture fund in Toronto that works with early stage companies across North America. The bulk of start-up founders he works with are requiring employees to be in offices a few days a week, although there's pushback.

"During the pandemic, a lot of salespeople were taking calls from the top of mountains on hiking trips," Cohen said. "That's not working anymore."

Zoom spokesperson Danielle Stickler said a structured hybrid approach is most effective for the company, adding that it leaves Zoom "in a better position to use our own technologies." Meta's return to office policy asks teams to prioritize time together to foster strong collaboration and a vibrant culture, spokesperson Dave Arnold said.

Amazon is supplying "relocation support" for employees being asked to move, who represent "a relatively small percentage" of its workforce, though it didn't specify what that support entailed.

"There's more energy, collaboration, and connections happening since we've been working together at least three days per week," Amazon spokesman Rob Munoz said. "We've heard this from lots of employees and the businesses that surround our offices."

Even with millions of workers across the country being asked to return to their cubicles, office occupancy has been relatively static for the past year. The country's top 10 metropolitan areas averaged 47.2 percent of pre-pandemic levels last week, according to data from Kastle Systems. This time last year, the average was around 44 percent.

The lagging return is vexing leaders from city halls to the Oval Office as downtowns struggle to rebound from the pandemic. President Biden recently called on Cabinet officials to urge their employees to return to offices this fall, as downtown D.C. struggles to regain its pre-pandemic crush of commuters. (A July report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office showed that 17 of 24 federal agencies had average building utilization of 25 percent or less.)

About 52 percent of remote-capable U.S. workers are operating under hybrid arrangements, according to data from Gallup, while 29 percent are exclusively remote. And though executives like Meta's Mark Zuckerberg have argued that the rise of flexible work has had a deleterious effect on productivity, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that labor productivity rose 3.7 percent in the second quarter of 2023 and is up 1.3 percent compared to this time last year.

While employers cite the collaborative benefits of spending time together in person, the majority of hybrid arrangements aren't fostering the connections bosses want to see, according to Rob Cross, associate professor of management at Babson College who studies collaboration across various companies through surveys, email and meeting data. He's found that mandates for a certain number of days in office are missing the mark, "because you're not getting the right people who need to collaborate."

"What we're seeing that's more successful is when companies are using some form of analytics" to determine which workers need to come in on the same days, Cross said. He estimates that only about 5 percent of organizations are taking this approach. "Leaders are just saying, 'We need water-cooler moments,' " Cross said. "They're not looking and saying, 'These are the interactions we need to stimulate.' "

Cisco is trying the team-based approach. The tech company is "giving every team autonomy" in deciding how to work and when, according to Jeetu Patel, Cisco's executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration. The goal, Patel said, is to "get people excited" to come into the office to connect with their colleagues without overburdening them or limiting their ability to do focused work - something that's been a struggle in the age of ballooning Zoom meetings.

"Video has evolved to being a very transactional means of communication," Patel said, adding that the glut of meetings creates an "absence of wander time" that can be draining for employees.

Software company Workday has also grappled with an "activity avalanche" amid the return to the office, according to Ashley Goldsmith, the company's chief people officer. The bulk of the company's employees spend half their time per quarter in a Workday office or on-site with a customer, prospect or other external partner. Workday also recently launched a program allowing employees to work remotely, from anywhere, up to 30 days a year.

"We found that various teams were battling work overload due in part to the shift to hybrid work and changing priorities, which created a meeting-heavy schedule," Goldsmith said. "Collaborative overload has been especially prominent among our highest performers."

When it comes to office time, workers are looking for "elevated experiences they can't get at home," according to Chase Garbarino, chief executive of workplace software company HqO. Free food, great tools and attractive workspaces are a big draw, but HqO's data shows that "the number one thing people want out of a workplace is concentration space," Garbarino said.

"You're not going to get them into a place just built for social interaction," Garbarino said. "You've got to be able to concentrate."

For workers who value flexibility, the shift toward in-office work is unwelcome. Loreen Targos, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, had triplets last summer. The ability to do her job remotely offered the 37-year-0ld some grace as she transitioned back to work. During meetings, she often went off-camera to pump milk or nurse without having to miss discussions. She squeezed in head-down work in between naptimes and feeding schedules.

A year later, Targos said she's found it tough caring for three toddlers even with the help of her husband and a nanny, but she relishes that she's always nearby when her babies need her. With President Biden calling for federal workers to return to offices this fall, she may soon have to brave a two-hour commute through Chicago rush hour and rework her child-care plan - or consider a more drastic change.

"It might just be worth it to give up my job and try and find work where I can have more flexibility to be around them," Targos said.

Still, remote work is becoming harder to find. Roughly 8 percent of all job postings now advertise remote or hybrid work, according to Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research at Indeed Hiring Lab. That's down from 9.7 percent last year, he said, but still up significantly over pre-pandemic levels.

Dominique Joseph, a spokesperson for the EPA, said the agency will "continue to follow OMB guidance, listen to employee feedback, and monitor performance metrics as the Agency continues to prioritize its mission to safeguard human health and the environment" amid the return to office.

For Greg Galant, CEO of Muck Rack, a public relations software company, it's been "frustrating" to see some executives dismiss remote work. Muck Rack ditched its offices during the pandemic, and Galant said the shift has benefited employees' well-being and productivity.

The company now funnels energy and resources that used to go to stocking offices with coffee and snacks and determining operating hours toward creating intentional (and less frequent) opportunities for employees to connect in-person. For International Coworking Day on Aug. 9, the company rented co-working space and arranged happy hours in nearly a dozen cities across the country. About 75 employees - roughly a quarter of the company's workforce - showed up.

"People are excited to go in and be together when they're not being forced to," Galant said. He feels many companies have written off remote work without sincerely giving it a go. "I hope more people see the potential here and don't just go along with the return-to-office narrative.