Will COVID-era work-from-home flexibility disappear? 

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The question of how many Americans are going to continue working remotely, post-COVID, is back in the news again (if, indeed, it ever left). Whether major US employers will continue to allow their white-collar employees to work from home has become a sort of short-hand way of judging the state of the US labor market in general.

We know that the post-COVID economy has baffled many analysts by maintaining low unemployment and avoiding recession even as the high inflation rates of 2022 have continued to decline – annualized rates have dropped, for example, from 8.3 percent in August 2022 to 3.7 percent in August 2023. Even with those relatively good inflation numbers, employment levels in 2023 have put some upward pressure on wages and been good for workers. They’ve got more economic leverage than before, especially in certain high demand sectors.

In addition to being able to demand higher wages, worker bargaining power also extends to non-wage benefits like schedule flexibility and remote work. CEOs and senior managers have been telling pollsters for quite a while now they are going to pull the vast majority of their employees back to the 9-to-5 office work week (90 percent of companies say they’ll return to the office by the end of 2024), but we haven’t seen it actually happen yet, in part because the tight labor market means a significant portion of employees can make credible threats about leaving for other firms if their work-from-home options are abolished. So, much of the laptop class is still working from the couch or the backyard for the foreseeable future. 

This week the Washington Post reported on yet another round of back-the-the-office manager demands, with staff writer Taylor Telford opening with this summary:

After more than two years of trying to coax workers back into offices, bosses are losing their patience. The days of enticing employees with free food, laundry services and yoga classes are largely over. Now, executives are resorting to threats — and it’s forcing some workers to decide whether they’re willing to give up the flexibility they’ve gotten used to.

Telford points out the irony that even Zoom – the company that made remote work possible for millions, has recently instructed its own employees who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office to start coming in at least twice a week. Mark Zuckerberg has informed Meta employees that they could face termination if they do not come in at least three days a week starting this month. The sources quoted in the Post story seem to all be pointing toward the long schlep back to the office as being inevitable. Venture capitalist Matt Cohen said “During the pandemic, a lot of salespeople were taking calls from the top of mountains on hiking trips. That’s not working anymore.”

Of course, all of this exists only within the world of the office worker. The remote work debate is largely a moot point for anyone who works in a warehouse, a restaurant, or on a road crew. It’s rather difficult, after all, to give a client a work-from-home pedicure. In so far as we’re supposed to be most worried about the outcomes of those least well off, there are probably plenty of employment issues that should be far higher up on our priority list.

The Post’s Telford, for example, describes the work situation of a senior Environmental Protection Agency scientist who has three young children at home. Her remote work arrangement has been a big help caring for her kids – it would be much less convenient for her and her family if she had to go into the office every day. But the story also mentions that she has a nanny at home. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with hiring a nanny if you can afford one, but that’s hardly an option that most working parents have. While return-to-the office management policies will no doubt be inconvenient for many people, they’re clearly an example of first-world problems.

While everyone has a right to stick up for their own interests and bargain for whatever fringe benefits they want the most, we should be careful not to turn the work-from-home debate into some kind of new civil rights entitlement. If we focus too much on topics like white-collar professionals having to spend 2-3 days a week working in their own offices, we run the risk of ensconcing ourselves in an upper-middle class professional bubble. That would mean ignoring the American workers with the least leverage and lowest wages, who have the furthest to climb.

We also covered this topic in Episode 37 of the Free the Economy podcast, starting at 5:04