Jan 16, 2024 - Business

The return-to-office wars are over

Illustration of a trophy labeled "WFH" with a figurine on top posed in a seated position and typing on a laptop.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Just 6 out of 158 U.S. CEOs said they'll prioritize bringing workers back to the office full-time in 2024, according to a new survey released by the Conference Board.

Why it matters: Executives are increasingly resigned to a world where employees don't come in every day, as hybrid work arrangements — mixing work from home and in-office — become the norm for knowledge workers.

Zoom in: "Maintain hybrid work," was cited as a priority by 27% of the U.S. CEOs who responded to the survey, conducted in October and November.

  • A separate survey of chief financial officers by Deloitte, conducted in November, found that 65% of CFOs expect their company to offer a hybrid arrangement this year.

State of play: "Remote work appears likely to be the most persistent economic legacy of the pandemic," write Goldman Sachs economists in a recent note.

  • About 20%-25% of workers in the U.S. work from home at least part of the week, according to data Goldman cites.
  • That's below a peak of 47% during the pandemic but well above its prior average of around 3%.

What they're saying: "The battle is over," said Diana Scott, human capital center leader at The Conference Board. "There are so many other issues CEOs are facing."

  • Headlines about CEOs determined to get butts in seats get attention, but they are the exception, says Brian Elliott, the cofounder of Future Forum, a future of work think tank. "There are a lot more CEOs that are actually quietly becoming more flexible."

The big picture: Employees don't like being forced into the office five days a week especially if the strategy behind the policy isn't totally clear.

  • For example, one bank worker recently said they were told to go to the office, only to wind up on multiple Zoom meetings, with little in person interaction. The experience was frustrating, they told Axios.
  • Though the labor market has softened, employers still do care about keeping employees satisfied — and they don't want to fight with them. "It's not worth the fight," says Elliott.

Of note: Even the CEOs who were loudest about the importance of in-office work are running companies with hybrid options.

  • JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has been a vocal proponent of return to office since 2020 — and while the bank's senior executives are required to come in five days a week, other JPM office workers can be home for two days.

Flashback: Before the pandemic, the tech was essentially in place to enable remote work, but executives were nervous about it.

  • At the time, Elliott was an executive at Slack and said they had a discussion about moving to remote work.
  • But "we never did it because we didn't have any experience doing it and we were afraid it wouldn't work."
  • The pandemic changed the company's strategy, he said.

The bottom line: 2020 gave nervous companies everywhere experience with remote and flexible work arrangements.

  • For many employers, that mass experiment proved what was possible and likely changed the way we work for the long-term.

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