It’s Messy—and It’s Not Going Away)


A lot of headlines have been screaming lately that America’s honeymoon with remote work is over. “Bosses mean it this time: Return to the office or get a new job!” says The Washington Post. “Even Zoom Is Making People Return to the Office,” says The New York Times.

These articles cite some heavy-hitting organizations that are evidently ordering employees back to work, including Google, Meta, Amazon, the federal government and, yes, even video-conferencing giant Zoom. “The pandemic is over. Excuses for allowing offices to sit empty should end, too,” wrote Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor and co-founder of the news publisher Bloomberg, in The Washington Post.

These pronouncements miss the mark. The evidence suggests that the full-time office workweek is unlikely to return to most organizations any time in the foreseeable future. What may have started as a pandemic-era dalliance has become, in only a few short years, deeply embedded in America’s workstyle.

But there’s a catch. Most companies, and even most employees, aren’t crazy about working full-time from a home office. Instead, companies in the U.S. and elsewhere seem to be settling on a hybrid arrangement, in which employees split their work hours between remote and office-based work. Employees have made up their minds that they want the option of working remotely for part of the week, and companies are adapting to making the hybrid workplace a permanent feature.

Photo-illustration of Hybrid Working from home and the office.

The evidence shows that companies are starting to embrace a hybrid workplace. According to Best Practice Institute, Newsweek‘s partner in its Most Loved Workplaces® rankings, 56 percent of companies across a wide range of industries have adopted a hybrid work environment, while only 28 percent rely mostly on in-person contact—primarily those companies in healthcare, hospitality and other industries where customers themselves are usually physically present. “Trends vary across industries and regions,” says Best Practice CEO Louis Carter, “but the data show that hybrid work is the prevailing trend.”

The transition from five days a week in the office to flexible, hybrid arrangements has not been problem-free. Organizations are having to work out the new policies and management techniques that can make hybrid work work. That includes a new emphasis on flexibility in striking a balance between the needs of each employee, each team and the company at a large. Companies are starting to see the office not so much as a place for individuals to get work done as a hub of interaction.

“How people are managed matters much more than where and when people are working,” says Jim Harter, a psychologist and chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing for analytics and consulting firm Gallup

The results of the shift to hybrid work are changing the nature of work and management in surprising ways, big and small, and are rippling through the economy and much of society.

FE Future of Work 02
Seth, right, and Nicole Kroll work on their computers while their son Louis, 5, entertains himself at their home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, MA on April 14, 2020. Seth Kroll is one of many parents who has wrestled with the idea of a little extra screen time during the coronavirus stay-at-home advisory.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty

What Return to Office?

In spite of all the talk about returning to the office, it’s not happening much in real life, according to data gathered by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who has been tracking work-from-home trends for several years. In January, a little less than a third of U.S. employees were working remotely more or less full-time, and half were working a hybrid scheduling, combining remote work with time at a physical workplace. Today it’s the same. “The levels have been flat as a pancake,” says Bloom. The numbers of people working from home rose dramatically from a mere 5 percent when the pandemic hit and haven’t changed much in two years.

The trend toward more working from home has been building for decades, says Bloom, doubling every 15 years. The pandemic increased levels by a factor of six, rocketing the trend 40 years into the future. Now only a fifth of U.S. employees work in an office full-time.

FE Future of Work 03
A single rider waits on a train platform at the Archives station as weekday rail ridership across the Metro system is down nearly 90-percent due to the coronavirus pandemic March 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is closing more than a dozen stations for an indefinite period beginning March 26 in an effort to limit the mass transit system’s staffing and cleaning requirements amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Despite the headlines, few companies are trying to buck that trend. Google, Meta and Zoom aren’t actually forcing employees to go back to the full-time in-the-office policy that was the norm pre-pandemic. In fact, they and other big companies pushing for the end of fully remote work are asking for employees to work part-time in the office, in most cases three days a week, and even then not necessarily for full 9-to-5 days.

The federal government is being flexible, too, despite several pronouncements from President Joe Biden about the need to get federal employees back into offices. Across Washington government offices occupancy rates were averaging about 20 percent toward the end of the pandemic, and there’s little evidence much has changed. The Federal Aviation Administration has reportedly asked employees to work in the office three days a week, and there’s no sign that other agencies are asking more than that. “These sorts of policies seem very reasonable,” says Bloom.

Why are employers insisting on even a part-time return to the office? One reason has to do with concerns over productivity. Over the past two years the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics registered the steepest two-year decline in white-collar productivity in the 75 years for which it has data. A Microsoft survey of business leaders found that 85 percent of them have less confidence in the productivity of their employees when they do some of their work remotely.

Perhaps they have some reason to be worried. Attendance at golf courses is up 52 percent—with almost all the gain coming on weekdays, according to Stanford data. “The manager’s lament is, ‘How do I know my people are really working when they’re not in the office?'” says Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies remote work.

But if productivity is declining, then why have companies been making oodles of money in recent years? Corporate profits hit record levels in 2022. The mismatch suggests that the productivity data may be off. Companies haven’t yet fully learned how to measure productivity in the era of hybrid work. “It’s hard to quantify white-collar work,” notes Mokhtarian. “How do you even know if someone who’s in the office is working productively? Managers should be judging by the quality of the work, not whether someone seems to be busy.” All that golf isn’t necessarily coming at the expense of work.

FE Future of Work 04
Employees are welcomed back to work with breakfast in the cafeteria at the Chicago Google offices on April 05, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Google employees began returning to work in the office this week for three days a week following a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott Olson/Getty

A more substantial criticism of remote work is that it may reduce the sorts of valuable personal interactions that take place in offices. These are hard to duplicate in Zoom meetings or on Slack threads. Remote work weakens connections that are important to career advancements, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. Researchers from Harvard and other institutions also found evidence that employees who are lower down on the corporate ladder tend to get less feedback from managers. That’s a real risk with remote work, agrees Ian Cook, vice president of people analytics at human-resource analytics company Visier. “There is a serendipity to in-person interaction that you can’t recreate digitally,” he says. “Systems that support remote collaboration haven’t caught up yet.”

Another risk is that remote employees can start to feel disconnected from the company and its mission, says Harter. “People can drift away from the purpose of the organization,” he says. “Over time it can create a mental distance that makes the job feel more like a gig job, and employees aren’t as likely to put in the effort to help out colleagues and customers.”

Also contributing to the push to get people to the office are the enormous vacancy rates among office buildings, especially those in cities. According to the National Association of Realtors, the office vacancy rate hit a record 13.5 percent by the end of July, with Commercial Edge reporting vacancy rates topping 20 percent in major markets like Houston, Seattle and San Francisco. Most office leases signed before the pandemic haven’t expired yet, according real-estate experts, leaving companies stuck with expensive offices they’re paying for but aren’t using.

FE Future of Work 05
Tanner Guastella poses for a portrait on an upper balcony at his apartment building at 100 Van Ness, which used to be an office building, on March 24, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Guastella has lived here for two years and says that the building was offering discounted rates when he moved in because of COVID-19.
Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post/Getty

Accepting the Hybrid Reality

Whatever the concerns about remote work, employees have made it clear that they want the option. A Gallup poll of workers whose jobs can be performed remotely was crystal clear: More than 90 percent expect their employers to be flexible about remote work. That’s why companies that have issued return-to-the-office demands have seen real pushback. Amazon saw a temporary employee walkoff, and Apple employees have circulated petitions decrying the company’s new back-to-office policy.

Survey data reveals that many employees now see the right to work remotely at least part time as essential. The rate of quitting among workers in engineering, finance and marketing jobs was 35 percent higher in positions that were fully office-based, according to a Stanford study. Sixty percent of full-time remote employees say they’re likely to look for a new job if they were to lose the option of working remotely. Employees said they would pass up as much as an 8 percent pay raise in order to keep hybrid working options, according to one survey.

One big reason is that remote work has been an enormous boon to family life, notes Bloom. “It’s good for parents and all of society,” he says. “The ability to spend some of the working week at home with kids might help offset some of the huge educational losses from the pandemic.” In addition, a day spent working at home is a day that cuts out hated commute time. The shift to remote and hybrid work, he says, has shaved off about 50 billion commuting miles a year. For people with disabilities or health challenges, or who have childcare or caregiver responsibilities, a chance to do the job at home can make all the difference.

Sure, some companies can get away with cracking down on remote work. “Big tech companies that invest heavily in R&D can work better as in-person companies,” says Janel Everly, senior director analyst for the consulting company Gartner. “And they can demand that employees come back to the office because plenty of employees want to work for them.”

But most companies will need to adapt to employees’ preference for hybrid options. “During the pandemic, when everyone was working remotely, employees discovered the value of having that autonomy,” says Gallup’s Harter. “Freedom is hard to take away from people once they’ve had a taste of it. Now requiring people to work in the office can lead to lower levels of engagement, higher burnout and a lot of resentment.”

FE Future of Work 06
A general view of the first Daybase hybrid work location in Westchester on July 25, 2022 in Harrison, New York.
Eugene Gologursky/Getty

Besides, most employees seem to be doing their jobs perfectly well in a remote or hybrid environment. A Microsoft study found that remote employees have not only retained the traditional daily bumps in productivity at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., but now are experiencing a new one at 10:00 p.m., apparently getting in a final shot at catching up on work before heading to bed. Remote workers meet with colleagues more often, and for longer periods, than their counterparts in the office, according to a University of Texas study.

The move to hybrid work seems to be working out. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey revealed that 83 percent of employers feel their transition to remote options has been a success, while a study by Envoy found that 80 percent of managers who issued return-to-office policies regret it.

But the devil is in the details, say experts. The success of a hybrid environment depends on the policies an organization adopts and the way managers implement those policies. One policy that won’t work, says Visier’s Cook, is simply letting all employees work remotely as much as or whenever they want.

“That can be a recipe for disaster,” he says. “Most employees are looking to be part of a team in which they can accomplish work and get a sense of personal reward.” That requires a certain amount of structure in how, when and where people work, he explains.

The key to a successful company policy is to guide employees toward productive and collaborative behaviors, without forcing them to adhere to a single set of rigid rules, says Gartner’s Everly. “Organizations that apply a firm but nurturing and trusting approach are in a good position to really accelerate their performance right now,” she says. “Organizations that try to push a compliance-driven, do-as-I-say culture on employees are really going to struggle.”

FE Future of Work 07
Meta employee Dennis Hampton prepares to demonstrate a video game that is played using the Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset at the new Meta Store on May 04, 2022 in Burlingame, California. Meta is set to open its first physical retail store on May 9.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

A policy that has worked well so far for many companies, say experts, is one that encourages employees to come into the office two or three days a week to focus on meetings and mentoring, and that assures employees they will be judged by the results they produce rather than which days they’re in the office or which hours they work at home. A key ingredient is communicating to employees the reasons why a policy is being put into place, contends Hatner. “It’s important to explain to workers why the policy will benefit both them and the company,” he says.

Working It Out Team by Team

Because work situations vary so much from employee to employee, a company policy can’t possibly spell out an at-home and in-the-office routine that will make sense for every individual. Instead, those specifics need to be worked out with team managers. Even then, not every employee will thrive in a hybrid environment, says Mokhtarian. “Trying to optimize each individual’s performance in that environment is a messy challenge,” she explains. “There will always be a bit of disequilibrium going on.”

Accepting some of that messiness is essential to management success in implementing a hybrid policy, argues Cook. “Allowing employees a certain level of self-management, instead of trying to control for every employee in every circumstance, works much better,” he says. “What managers can do is have conversations with their team members about what work needs to be done, what each person’s contribution to that work should be and what the best way is to give everyone the in-office social interaction they need for their work as well as the remote time they need to focus on their piece of it.”

Because most employees will be spending less time in the office, managers need to go out of their way to make sure each one is still getting the feedback they need to succeed and to feel valued. “Managers should have at least one meaningful conversation with every person on their team every single week,” says Hartner. “If they don’t, there’s a risk that the employee will start to feel distanced from the team and the organization.” Other useful strategies include helping team members coordinate their office days to ensure maximum overlap for in-person interactions, setting up gatherings and events on occasional mandatory-attendance days and ensuring that newer employees get the extra in-person attention and feedback they need to learn the job and advance.

As the hybrid environment matures, offices are likely to become centers of collaboration rather than a collection of cubicles and offices for individual work. They are already starting to physically evolve, incorporating more open space and meeting points, with fewer isolated desks. The office kitchen is getting renewed attention, too, as a natural and more home-like place to congregate.

FE Future of Work 08
A woman works on her laptop at an outdoor table in Flatiron with a view of the Empire State Building in the background as the city enters Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on July 23, 2020 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

Even cities and towns are starting to change to reflect the hybrid work environment. “Hybrid work has implications for residential locations,” says Mokhtarian. “People can’t move far away from the office if they have to show up there two times a week. But they can be further away than they were before.” That could cause a population shift from suburbs to exurbs.

The move away from full-time office work is also going to impact city centers. When leases expire, many companies will opt for smaller spaces, or even leave the city. That could take a toll on some cities, notes Bloom, as they lose tax revenues, and small businesses that depend on office-worker customers feel the pinch.

Public transportation could see some withering as well, as workers opt to drive in two days a week rather than buying a monthly train pass. “They’re going to see big drops in ridership that will force them to reduce services,” says Bloom. Cities could convert commercial space to residential in the hopes of remaking themselves as urban villages, but whether that would work remains to be seen.

It’s also unclear whether a drop in commuting will cut carbon emissions. There will be fewer trips, but they will be longer on average, and fewer will be via public transportation. Worse, says Mokhtarian, that minority who become full-time remote workers may move far from their companies, necessitating that they fly to offices for occasional visits. “Flying to headquarters twice a year might produce more carbon emissions than if they commuted every day in fuel-efficient vehicles,” says Mokhtarian.

Large-scale changes are hard to predict, but it’s clear the shift to remote work, even if it’s only a few days a week for most, is likely to have impact far beyond the water cooler on the nation’s economy and culture. Now that America’s honeymoon with the 40-hour office week is over, the hearts and minds of corporate executives, and the headlines they inspire, are bound to follow.

Most Loved Workplace Cover 2023
America’s Most Loved Workplaces
Illustration by Newsweek


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here