The State of Remote Work Three Years After COVID Emptied Offices

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The unimaginable happened in March 2020. Many employers shuttered their offices and told their employees to work from home. Today, although office workers are still not coming in every day, offices across 10 major U.S. cities are over 50% filled for the first time since the pandemic started. 

Disney announced it’s cutting 7,000 jobs a month after CEO Bob Iger sent a memo mandating the company’s workers return to work four days a week starting in March. The Wall Street Journal reports companies including investment giant Vanguard Group, workplace tech company Paycom Software and others have sent directives to their workers, urging them to follow existing hybrid work rules or come into the office on additional days. In some cases, bosses tell those that don’t comply they could face termination.

The Great Resignation forced a major shift in the work landscape, leading employers to allow hybrid or fully remote work even after COVID-19 restrictions fell away. In 2021 workers began making their need for work-life balance known by exiting jobs that didn’t prioritize that balance. Now, many bosses want employees back at their desks and because of widespread layoffs and the possibility of a recession, workers are feeling the pressure. 

So could driving into the office five days a week be far off? Professor of the Practice in Systems Thinking and Design Gerald Suarez at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business says, “in some companies, they (workers) have to. They’re not being given a choice.” At the same time, layoffs are occurring and many employers say company culture, training new hires and problem-solving are suffering because of remote work, unemployment is at a 50-year low. It’s still a tight job market and workers still have options – they can quit and find other comparable employment.

“This space that we had during COVID heightened not only our sense of awareness but revealed the need for a deeper sense of fulfilment,” Suarez says. “People began to realize burnout, stress, imbalance and long hours were no longer the badge of honor that would take your career to the next level. They began to realize this (life) is not the preseason, this is the ballgame.”

In Britain, companies are offering a raise to employees that come back to the office five days a week. Suarez says, ” If you’re unhappy at your job, “I see that more as a short-term, not a long-term solution. There’s no amount of money that will make you say ‘you know, I’m going to take that extra cash, work another day and just grind it out.’” In time, “you’re going to feel the exhaustion, the fatigue, the dissatisfaction and eventually you may leave.”

The Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill that would give tax credits to employers who choose to experiment with a four-day workweek. It follows the success of a four-day week global pilot program. Employees reported low levels of stress, fatigue, insomnia and burnout and employers said they saw a boost in productivity and revenue. Suarez thinks “Maryland could be showcasing some important lessons that could evolve, be adapted and then expanded in other states. I’m cautiously optimistic that the experiment will be allowed to grow, and people will look at it objectively.”

In the end, he says, “what people are looking for is a balance between adding value to the company and adding value to the mission, but also ‘what about adding value to my life, taking care of the things that matter most to me.’” Suarez feels employers need to harness, in the workplace, the things that make people volunteer to work for causes they care about. “Why don’t we create those conditions in the workplace where you wake up and say ‘I have a mission to perform, I have something that matters to me, this is of consequence, and by the way, I get paid.’”