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The future of remote work: More companies call for a return to the office

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In the spring of 2022, Roxana Garcia Espejo 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?

DETROW: For Garcia Espejo, who became a caregiver for her aging parents in the pandemic, the job's flexibility was another huge positive. As she told NPR's Andrea Hsu...

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

DETROW: She only had to be in the office 20% of the time. 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.

DETROW: But all of that was short-lived. This spring, Garcia Espejo's entire team was cut as part of the mass layoffs that hit Microsoft and the rest of the tech industry. She's been searching for another remote position with no luck. There aren't as many as there were a year ago. And 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.

DETROW: This is all part of a larger trend we've been seeing. This fall, employers all across the country are rolling out stricter requirements for in-person work. The financial firm 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. Even Zoom employees are now required to go back to the office. And it's not just the private sector. The federal government also wants their workers back on-site. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill called the SHOW UP Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BYRON DONALDS: It is clear - extended telework is not working for the American people.

PAT FALLON: Our constituents have been calling our office and wondering why the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the VA aren't answering their phones.

VIRGINIA FOXX: It's abundantly clear that something must change.

DETROW: The Biden administration weighed in too, telling agency leaders to ramp in-person work up again. And like so many bosses across the country, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged his staff to come back on-site.

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.

DETROW: Back in the spring of 2020, as stay-at-home became the global mantra, a lot of companies encouraged employees who were able to work at home to do just that. As the pandemic went on, many people got used to the setup. Their routines had changed. So even as the virus faded and much of the rest of life went back to what it had been before, many white-collar workers kept working from home. There was a lot of talk about whether this would become the new permanent norm. We started to hear a lot of bold predictions about the future of work - how the pandemic had blown up the concept of the office forever.

ANNE PETERSEN: Anyone who thought that, like, the future was wholly remote and that there would no longer be office - that, like, the shift would be, you know, so full-scale - that was really, I think, ignoring a lot of the realities about how managers work and how leaders in the office - like, the scenarios that they like.

DETROW: Anne Petersen is the host of the podcast "Work Appropriate" and co-wrote the book "Out Of Office" about the promise and the problems of remote work. I asked her, big picture, how she would describe the current state of things.

PETERSEN: I think we're in a moment of flex. And I say that that's a great word to describe both the fact that, like, things are continuing to change. But then also that what most employees and employers want is flexibility, both in the times that they're in the office and how often they are in the office. They want much more control over the when and how they work. That doesn't necessarily mean that they never want to go into an office. And I think that's where some of the conversation really falls apart - is when people are like, oh, can you believe that these employers want people back in the office? What they are doing is calling people back into the office for flexible amounts of time - usually two days a week, three days a week. And I think that the place where you see people quitting or threatening to quit or offices threatening to fire their employees are people who have moved away and don't have that capacity at all, right?

DETROW: What do you think, in this moment of flex, as you put it, what do you think the biggest positives of this moment are and negatives of this moment are for the broader workplace culture?

PETERSEN: Well, flexibility is fantastic. Like, there is no reason why, especially for people who do jobs that are mostly in their brains, right? Our brains can't work from 8 to 5, 8 to 6. Like, they need breaks from that sort of work. And so being able to say, oh, I go pick up my kid from school at 2, and then I come home, and then I go back to work for a couple of hours - like, that's fantastic. It also makes it much easier to keep people who are caregivers in the workplace because that flexibility is absolutely necessary given the state of child care in our country right now.

The negative - and this has been the negative since the beginning of the pandemic - is that, when you can do work anywhere and at any time, you can do work anywhere and at any time. And I think a lot of people have struggled and continue to struggle with trying to figure out guardrails against the influx of work into all parts of their lives.

DETROW: I want to talk about research for a moment because there is research that shows that people are more productive in the office. And there's also research that shows that people are more productive at home. Is that the best lens to think about this?

PETERSEN: (Laughter).

DETROW: What is a better way to think about this and try and assess what's going on?

PETERSEN: I think that people have to figure out for themselves the place where they do the best work. And so working with managers to try to create consistency - to create scenarios where people can do that work - that also matches with what does the work require? Does the work say, we need to be in the office for, like, this brainstorming session, but you don't need to be in the office when you're answering emails? Just being smarter about, like, listening to your employees and also not being scared all the time that they're, like, screwing around. People want to get their work done. And if you try to create policies that are always assuming that everyone is trying to, like, work three jobs and not work your job, it's just going to feel like surveillance-heavy and like you don't trust your employees...

DETROW: Yeah.

PETERSEN: ...And that's a really toxic corporate culture.

DETROW: There is a theme to almost all of your answers in this conversation, and it comes down to everybody is different. Different setups work for different people. This is not a binary, oversimplified issue. Given that, how do you start having a conversation about this that's productive?

PETERSEN: Yeah, I would say the first thing to understand is that there - a lot of the reason why executives, leaders, managers want people back in the office is because the way that they know how to do their jobs is through in-person contact - right? - through walking around. And it's a lot harder to learn the skill of managing in remote or flexible culture, and it takes time. I think what a smart company would do would be to understand that and to understand why the other employees are so against the need to come in as much as maybe the managers and executives want them to and then to zoom out and look at the work itself and think, OK, what does demand presence and what doesn't? And how can we have a collaborative conversation with all the employees?

DETROW: That's Anne Petersen, the co-author of "Out Of Office" and writer of the Culture Study newsletter and also host of the podcast "Work Appropriate." Anne, thanks so much for joining us.

PETERSEN: Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOODS' "MUSIC SAVED MY LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.