Employers’ push to end remote work and return to office is stalling

Split screen showing someone working in office on the left and someone working from home on the right.
(Alexandra Bowman / For The Times)
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Coming out of the pandemic, Bart Valdez has had the mind-set of many traditional bosses. He viewed remote work as an aberration and wanted everybody back at their desks ASAP.

“I grew up in an environment where we wore a suit and tie and showed up at the office at 8 a.m. — no excuses,” said the 60-year-old chief executive officer at Ingenovis Health, a Colorado-based staffing firm with 1,600 corporate employees.

In recent months — after hearing from his employees — he’s had a change of heart.

Younger generations have different lifestyles and pressures, he said. For many of his workers in varying parts of the country, flexibility to work from home better meets their needs.


And so far, remote work has not hurt Ingenovis’ productivity. It’s even helped with recruiting because the company is getting more job applicants as a result of its new approach.

Today a third of Ingenovis’ employees are back in the office, one-third work entirely from home, and one-third do a hybrid mix of remote and in-person work.

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The evolution of thinking at companies like Ingenovis helps explain what’s happened with the back-to-the-office push by many employers as the COVID-19 pandemic has waned.

After watching and waiting, some chaotic back-and-forth and a few false starts, the white-collar American workforce appears to be settling — for now — in a hybrid mode.

Even as more corporations are moving to call workers back to the office, arguing it’s better for preserving company culture and decision-making, few employers have required employees to work on-site five days a week. Most are like Meta and Los Angeles-based Farmers Group, which recently announced that most employees who had been working remotely will have to come in three days a week starting in September.


Some firms have backtracked in favor of a more flexible system, or put return-to-office plans on ice, because of worker resistance and other changes wrought by the pandemic.

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Weston Perkins, head of finance at a Los Angeles-area health and beauty firm, said top executives thought about calling all 52 remote employees back on-site earlier this year. But during a company retreat in Marina del Rey, he said, almost every employee voiced opposition to the idea of returning to the office.

Perkins, 39, said the business had once operated out of El Segundo, but was spun off by its conglomerate owner earlier in the pandemic for financial reasons, which means the firm would have to incur hefty expenses to lease and set up new offices. What’s more, several employees, presuming they could work from home permanently, had moved out of California, one all the way to Florida.

“How do you financially make it work while having enough staff?” Perkins said, adding that he gives it a 50-50 chance of returning to on-site work next year.

Partly because of such complications, many other companies have stayed silent on the issue of remote work, maintaining vague or largely unenforced policies as they wait to see where the struggle ends. More unions, including the guild at the Los Angeles Times, are wrestling with management over remote work, which has become a top labor issue.


For all these reasons, the overall amount of work done from home has held remarkably steady this year at about 28%, according to monthly surveys of thousands of workers by WFH Research, a group including Stanford and the University of Chicago.

That’s way up from roughly 5% of work done at home before COVID-19.

And there are some signs that employers are giving workers greater flexibility in their work schedules and when they can work from home.

In a nationwide survey conducted last month for The Times by polling firm Leger, 27% of full-time workers said their employers had become more lenient over the last year about working remotely. Only 15% said their employers got stricter. Most of the rest said there was no change.

Leger’s survey showed that 11% of full-time employees work 100% from home, and 31% work a hybrid schedule, with most saying they choose which days to come into the office. The remainder said that they work fully on company premises or that their jobs aren’t compatible with at-home work. These results line up almost exactly with WFH data.

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Not surprisingly, employees generally want to work from home more than what their employers are currently allowing. And that’s made return-to-office policies a point of contention at companies, especially in tech, including Amazon, Apple and Twitter. Some employees have quit and moved to more remote-work-friendly firms.


Many companies with explicit back-to-the-office policies aren’t taking a hard line in enforcing them. Only 20% of workers say their employers have implemented specific measures or penalties to enforce in-office attendance, according to the Leger poll.

“I’m seeing many employers still struggling with how to encourage employees to come back to the office,” said Fiona Ong, an employment attorney at Shawe Rosenthal in Baltimore who serves as the general counsel to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s still a lot of resistance from employees because there’s a certain lifestyle people have adopted and they’re just not willing to give that up,” she said.

Rob Sadow, chief executive at Scoop Technologies, a firm specializing in flexible-work software and research, says the percentages of employers that are fully remote and fully in-office have both declined since the start of the year. What’s grown in their place is a “structured” hybrid model in which employees and employers have essentially split the difference.

“This two to three days a week is starting to feel like a pretty decent, happy medium,” Sadow said. “Executives and employees are finding somewhat of a truce in terms of how much time is spent in the office and at home.”


How long that will last, however, is anybody’s guess.

A weakening economy and rising unemployment will give employers greater leverage to press for more days in the office. But aside from a downturn in tech, demand for white-collar workers whose jobs can be done remotely has held up well. And labor shortages may persist over the long term given the headwinds to population and workforce growth.

“People have largely accepted that hybrid and remote work are part of the post-pandemic normal,” said Jose Maria Barrero, an economist who is part of WFH Research. Even if there’s a recession, he added, it could actually push some companies toward more remote work if that allows them to save on costly office space.

Most workers, too, think the current setup will stick. Eight of 10 employees say they expect the present rules regarding remote and hybrid work at their place of employment will still be in place in 2025, according to Leger’s poll for The Times.

“They’ve left it to people to decide what’s best for them. At least for a year or two, I don’t see any changes,” said Devesh Shukla, 49, a software product manager at the job sites company Indeed.


With fewer people working on-site regularly, Indeed has given up a few floors of office space in a Seattle high-rise where Shukla and his colleagues had worked five days a week before the pandemic. Nowadays, Shukla goes into the office only a couple of times a month. The arrangement saves him a two-hour commute to and from his home in Bellevue, Wash., giving him extra time to do things like driving his 11-year-old daughter to a summer theater camp.

Other employers with hybrid work policies allow front-line managers, many of whom themselves enjoy working from home, to determine how many days their staff will come into the office. The share of remote work has also gotten a boost from the rise of telehealth, online education and other services that grew during the pandemic.

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Still, it appears a lot of employers haven’t fully committed one way or another. Of all full-time employees surveyed by Leger, only about half said their companies had a clear and articulated policy on working from home, suggesting that many employers are still trying to figure out the right balance between what workers want and what they see as best for company performance.

The few large-scale studies comparing productivity of remote and in-office work have shown inconclusive results and are generally limited to establishments like call centers. Multiple surveys have found that remote employees see themselves as being as productive if not more so than working in the office, a view not widely shared by top managers.

In May, when Raul Vargas, the new head of Farmers, said most employees of the insurance company would work at least three days at the office, it was a reversal of what management told workers last year. The change sparked a chorus of anger and disappointment from employees, some of whom had made major lifestyle changes in expectation they would continue to work from home.


“Our intent is to foster greater collaboration, creativity and innovation while also providing better opportunities for learning, training, mentoring, career development and organic interaction,” Farmers spokeswoman Carly Kraft said. She said the company hasn’t seen a significant effect on employee retention.

David Burkus, an author and consultant who’s been advising companies on remote work policies, says that “everybody is just kind of stuck” today in a hybrid world. But he expects that over time worries about productivity loss and old habits will bring people back to the office more and more.

“I think it’s going to be a slow creep back up,” Burkus said. “There are so many senior leaders speaking about hybrid and showing up five days a week,” creating a disconnect, he said.

Valdez, Ingenovis’ top boss, isn’t one of them. He splits his work time in thirds: in the office, at home and on the road traveling — similar to the overall hybrid setup for many of his employees.

His $2-billion staffing company has seven brands, or units, with offices spread out across the company. Valdez knew that going completely remote wouldn’t work for everyone or every department. He didn’t want to lose the company’s culture, which he said was in some ways like old trading floors where people would shout out when they closed a sale, firing up people and rallying around a common purpose. “It was really dynamic, so energetic.”


But Valdez found out early in the pandemic, when practically everything went remote, that managers could make intense use of technology to keep up the energy. In some cases, he said, employees working from home would be on Zoom constantly, doing 15-minute check-ins every two hours.

“There’s a significant amount of forced communication because we don’t want to lose that culture,” he said.

In some ways, Valdez has been a little more strict recently, asking his managers to focus more on hiring locally so workers could come into the office without having to get on a plane. But Valdez and his managers also take into account generational and regional differences. In Ingenovis’ Orlando, Fla., office, for example, the average employee age is 27. Many are single and without families, and some 250 employees come into the office five days a week, in good part for social connections.

“It’s a place to learn, to meet friends, to develop your career,” said Valdez, whose managers encourage in-office attendance with incentives like Taco Tuesdays.

But in the company’s Cincinnati and Denver offices, employees on average are in their late 30s and have more responsibilities at home, such as child care and parental care. Many of them value working from home, and managers have made adjustments knowing it’s harder to get them to come into the office.


Then there’s the bottom line: Based on jobs filled and billable hours, Valdez said, productivity is as strong as it was before the pandemic when everyone was in the office.

When all is said and done, he says, “I think there’s still going to be a three-leaf clover” approach, referring to the mix of in-office, fully remote and hybrid. “I’ve learned to adapt.”