Aug 23, 2022 - Economy

There's no going back for office workers

Illustration of a water cooler, with the word "nope" bubbling up from the bottom.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Efforts by CEOs to push workers back to the office are failing, as it's becoming increasingly clear that the world of strictly in-office work is gone.

Why it matters: While the country is back to normal from the height of the pandemic in so many ways — we go to restaurants, movies, get on planes — office life appears to be permanently changed.

  • What was once unthinkable — white-collar work done almost entirely from your house — has now become pretty typical.

Driving the news: Some employees at Apple are pushing back against an order from CEO Tim Cook to return to the office three days a week starting next month, the FT reports. Cook wants to hang on to the "in-person collaboration essential to our culture," according to the report.

  • A group of Apple workers are circulating a petition protesting the "uniform mandate" and demanding more flexibility.
  • "Those asking for more flexible arrangements have many compelling reasons and circumstances: from disabilities (visible or not); family care; safety, health, and environmental concerns; financial considerations; to just plain being happier and more productive," the petition states.
  • "People left. They left the Bay Area, they left Austin to go live in places where they can actually afford to buy a house [and] raise a family," Janneke Parrish, a former Apple employee who led an employee group inside the company that addressed remote work and other issues, told Axios.
  • "People don't want to come up to three hours each way to get to the office when they do the same work just as well from wherever they are," she said.
  • Apple declined to comment.

Survey data from the NY Fed shows that 20% of the work getting done at service firms in the tri-state area (basically most companies that aren't in manufacturing) is now being done remotely. Employers don't expect that number to budge much.

  • The percentage was above 50%, on average, in professional, business and financial services.

What they're saying: "I do think it's dead," Erin Grau, cofounder of Charter, a media and services company focused on the future of work, said of the five-day in-office schedule.

  • "Things are not likely to go back to 'normal,' the way it was before the pandemic — in most industries," said Jason Bram, a NY Fed economist, who recently wrote a post entitled, "Remote work is sticking."

Employees often don't understand why they need to come into work — especially when they arrive and wind up doing a lot of Zoom meetings, said Grau, who works with employers on best practices around remote work.

  • And, often times, CEOs just don't have good reasons, she said — adding that they cite vague notions like "culture" or "mentorship," but when pressed they don't have clear plans for fostering either. "Bringing employees together for "culture" without doing any of the work is lazy."
  • "If you're relying on the water cooler for the best ideas in your company to be surfaced ... you are doing something very, very wrong," Grau said.
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