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Back-to-work plans crumble as workers rebel amid tight labor market

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Even the most inflexible bosses are easing their return-to-work expectations.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. chief Jamie Dimon has been one of the most vocal critics of remote work, saying it does not replace the spontaneous idea generation that results from meeting colleagues at the machine coffee. But in his annual letter to shareholders last month, the head of the biggest US bank admitted that working from home “will become more permanent in American companies”, and estimated that around 40% of its 270,000 employees would work under a hybrid model, which includes days in the office and at home.

Shortly after Dimon’s missive, one of the bank’s top technology executives told some teams they could cut three days in the office a week to two, citing internal comments.

Many white-collar workplaces are making similar retreats as their employees stubbornly stick to working from home while struggling with childcare, commuting and worries about rising Covid-19 cases . Bosses are reluctant to take punitive action against those who don’t follow their ambitious so-called RTO plans, fearing it will backfire in today’s tight labor market. It leaves them to re-evaluate their carefully crafted strategies and reconsider what is a realistic long-term approach to in-person work.

“We’re seeing policy slippage in real time,” said Melissa Swift, US transformation manager at workforce consultant Mercer. “There used to be all this talk about how important office collaboration is for white-collar jobs. It’s slipping. Now only people who need to turn a screwdriver have to be in the office.

Not all workers are rebelling against back-to-office guidelines, with variations across companies, sectors and job categories. Yet employers are seeing new reasons to doubt the viability of their RTO guidelines. People are returning to just about everything else — travel, restaurants, concerts, shopping — amid a general easing of state and federal Covid-related restrictions. Managers can therefore no longer be reassured that workers will dutifully return once these rules are relaxed.

At the same time, organizations that returned to the office in the first few months of the year are now getting a lot of feedback from employees, many of whom are frustrated with commuting just to spend half their day on Zoom calls. . This is in addition to two full years of data on how workforces have remained just as productive – and often more satisfied – while working from home, and emerging research from academics. The result is a wave of hard evidence that can convince even the staunchest remote work skeptics.

Examples of RTO resistance abound. At Apple Inc., a small group of employees have pushed back against the iPhone maker’s plan that will soon require most company employees to be in the office three days a week. A group of workers called Apple Together wrote an open letter to company management last month, in which the signatories asked “to decide for ourselves, with our teams and our direct manager, what kind of organization of the work best suits each of us”. Staff members also dismissed the oft-cited desire for in-person collaboration, saying “it’s not something we need every week, often not even every month, certainly not every day.” Apple declined to comment.

For some companies, there is no longer any debate. Airbnb Inc. had previously set September 2022 as its return to the office, but CEO Brian Chesky scrapped that plan last month, instead telling its 6,000 employees they could work remotely indefinitely. “Each of us works best in our own way, and we give you the flexibility to make the right choice based on where you’re most productive,” Chesky wrote in an email to staff.

A handful of law firms have relaxed once-strict attendance policies. Cooley LLP, a 3,000-person firm, said last month it would let its lawyers decide if and when to come to its offices, provided their duties allow remote working.