Return-to-office policies are getting stricter as work from home fades Three and a half years after the start of the pandemic, employers are getting serious about increasing the amount of time workers spend in the office and trying new strategies to overcome resistance.

Remote work is harder to come by as companies push for return to office

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1196731284/1197167898" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

OK, this time for real - that's what some employers are saying about the return-to-office plans for this fall. Now, after multiple delays and lots of defiance, more and more office workers are grudgingly trudging back to their cubicles. Here's NPR's Andrea Hsu.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's been 3 1/2 years since the start of the pandemic, and office occupancy in major U.S. cities is still well under 50%. But change is in the air. Even Zoom's leadership is now extolling the virtues of being together. Matthew Saxon is Zoom's chief people officer.

MATTHEW SAXON: There is a buzz, and there is something about, like, being able to go to have lunch with your teammates.

HSU: This fall, employers all across the country are upping their requirements for in-person work. BlackRock has asked people to come in four days a week, up from three. Amazon says some remote workers will need to move close to a hub to keep their jobs. And the nation's largest employer, the federal government, is taking a harder line even as federal employee unions push back. Here's Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: I do believe we need to be around each other in person more than we are now to ensure this department's long-term success.

HSU: Studies have shown people get more feedback when they're in the same space as their co-workers. There's more mentoring. Fully remote workers have reported feeling isolated, even lonely. But if there's wide agreement that some in-person time is beneficial, the question is how much and when?

SAXON: What we sort of talk about is, like, the office has to earn its commute.

HSU: There has to be a reason to come into work. Zoom's Matthew Saxon says they tried having engineers come in once a week, but people were frustrated to find their colleagues weren't there. They still had to sit on Zoom meetings, just from the office. Now Zoom's asking people to come in two days a week on days set by their teams. But the policy only applies to those who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office.

SAXON: About 35%.

HSU: A majority, including Saxon, are still remote, but that's less common these days. A recent Boston Consulting Group survey of 1,500 office workers found 85% working in some kind of hybrid mode. Only 8% were fully remote. Those surveyed said having some say in when to come in makes a big difference. Here's Boston Consulting's Debbie Lovich.

DEBBIE LOVICH: Post-COVID, for the first time ever, we are being told when and where to show up, and it just is sparking this reaction from people like, wait a minute, don't you trust me?

HSU: Still, as the labor market has cooled, workers are starting to realize the remote job may not be forever. Consider what happened to Roxana Garcia Espejo. In the spring of 2022, the former classroom teacher was hired as a Microsoft trainer, helping customers with Excel and other applications.

ROXANA GARCIA ESPEJO: It had been a lifelong dream for me. Like, I'm working for Microsoft. I mean, like, how cool is this, right?

HSU: Even cooler, she only had to be in the office 20% of the time. For Garcia Espejo, who became a caregiver for her aging parents in the pandemic, the flexibility proved transformative.

GARCIA ESPEJO: My work-life balance was completely changed.

HSU: She began exercising. Her blood pressure dropped. She adapted well to being remote, loving the lively discussions of the online chat.

GARCIA ESPEJO: As if it were the all-day chatter of all the teams that I was a part of.

HSU: But her dream job was short-lived. This spring, Garcia Espejo's entire team was cut as part of mass layoffs. She's been searching for another remote position with no luck. A year ago, it might have been a different story. With her unemployment soon running out, she's starting to consider in-person jobs.

GARCIA ESPEJO: I guess I don't look at it anymore as I'm holding out. I look at it as I'm in control of where I want my ship to sail.

HSU: She's even considering returning to teaching, but as a substitute to hold on to some flexibility.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.