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This Labor Day, employers and workers should work together to build a better future for the office

Luddites breaking down the door of a textile factory in England defended by its owners and troops Between 1811-1816 Engraving with modern watercolor.
Luddites breaking down the door of a textile factory in England defended by its owners and troops. Between 1811-1816.

Almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, a new word entered the lexicon of office workers across the nation: the “Zoom.” As remote work took hold, in-person meetings turned into Zooms, while long commutes disappeared and workers gained more flexibility and freedom in how they did their work. But all the while, many employers became desperate to drag their employees back into the office. It seems fitting, then, that this month the Zoom company itself announced a policy mandating some of its employees return to in-person work.

A tremendous number of pixels have been spilled online debating the merits of offices versus remote work. But if workers and employers were free to really exchange ideas about working conditions, we might be able to get beyond the simple question of, “Are offices good or bad?” To mark the Labor Day holiday, we, the authors of this piece—a supervisor and direct report—want to highlight what we’ve learned not just from doing research on this topic, but also from talking to each other.

The debate over remote work is a debate over working conditions

More control over working conditions has been a primary demand of labor for as long as there has been a labor movement. The Luddites of the 1810s were not actually opposed to mechanization, but to their employers eliminating workers’ control over labor practices. And late 19th century American workers resisted becoming wage laborers, believing that becoming employees rather than independent craftsmen made them fundamentally unfree because it deprived them of a say in the organization of production.

The sudden switch to remote work in spring 2020 was as disruptive for many workers as it was for employers, but it also gave workers a vast amount of new flexibility in work hours and location, which workers love. Much of the discourse around this has explained workers’ attachment to remote work as being about how it improves their quality of life. Most workers don’t have a stay-at-home partner who can wait for the plumber or take care of sick kids. Now, those problems are solved.

But workers are also arguing that remote work is better for work. Even as a select few employers have agreed and embraced a fully remote model, most knowledge sector employers have been pitching—or simply mandating—at least a partial return to the office (RTO). In outlining a RTO plan earlier this year, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told workers that “inventing is easier and more effective when we’re in person.” This assertion was met with a hailstorm of skepticism and resistance. Approximately 30,000 Amazon employees signed a petition describing Jassy’s RTO mandate as “arbitrarily forcing return-to-office without providing data to support it,” and employees took to the streets in protest.

The merits of remote work depend on what we measure

The Amazon employees’ response to their boss brings up a vital question: When debating the merits of remote work, what data are relevant? Much of the discussion so far has been about measures of productivity. Some are based on discrete outputs such as lines of code and written comments, data entry speed and accuracy, or hours spent in meetings. Others are based on more long-term outcomes, such as our own research at Brookings, where we found that increasing job proximity is associated with a huge boost in gross regional product per worker. Other researchers have looked at measures of innovation such as patents.

No one measure is perfect, so it’s possible to build a case for or against remote work by cherry-picking studies and arranging them in a certain order. There’s also selection bias: Some workers are better at working from home than others, or have home environments more or less supportive of work. It’s easy to see how studies that look at quantity of output and studies that look at quality of output might have different findings and contribute to a collective sense that workers and employers are talking past each other. Workers point to quantity-based studies: They are literally working more than ever! Employers point to quality-based studies: They are not getting the outcomes they want! 

So, we’re going to have to compromise. Both a majority of remote-capable workers and their employers prefer hybrid work as a way to capture the best of both worlds. But that still leaves the one-third of workers who want to be fully remote—far more than what most employers are offering. The same survey documents a gap between worker and employer hopes about what the balance between remote and in-person work will be. Closing these gaps requires recognizing that the debate is so intractable in part because it is about workers’ control over their working conditions.

The traditional office and where it’s located need to be rethought

The benefits of in-person work—for both employees and employers—can best be achieved if employers work to optimize in-person work and offices themselves. The one-size-fits-all boxes of yesterday are very clearly not designed to deliver the benefits of in-person work today, especially for a diverse workforce.

We need to redesign offices and how time is managed to promote face-to-face socializing in the workplace, which can build community and foster a sense of connection between co-workers. Doing so boosts productivity and benefits workers by building the networks they use to get promoted or find new jobs, and potentially avoids the damaging effects of feeling isolated or excluded at work. Work shouldn’t be anyone’s whole social life, but a 40-hour work week is roughly a third of most adults’ waking hours, and social interactions with co-workers can be enriching, especially for new arrivals or those who spend much of their non-work time on care duties.

Employers must also admit that for a while now, most jobs have been located in the wrong places. The majority of jobs in American metro areas are in sterile suburban office parks or low-density strips along suburban “stroads,” rather than in or near downtowns and other activity centers. These kinds of job locations are bad for employees and bad for RTO, as they lengthen workers’ commutes by 14%.

And finally, even for the best offices in central locations, we all need to admit to ourselves that American downtowns have major problems that make them unattractive to both employers and workers: a bad mix of land uses, unmanaged homelessness, public safety concerns, and low-quality transit. This is all fixable—and it must be fixed.

Employers need to give their workers a reason to return to the office

Planning and making these changes will be more complicated—and more complex—than simply issuing a policy banning remote work. But they have the potential to be significant and worthwhile investments in creating working conditions that will, in the end, benefit both workers and employers.

A workplace where both management and labor have a role in determining working conditions is (drumroll please) a more productive workplace.