After two years of overly optimistic forecasts, blown deadlines, backtracking and pushback, it’s fair to say the return to the office isn’t going as planned.
In downtown Seattle, offices are just 42% as full as they were before COVID-19, according to the latest data from the Downtown Seattle Association. That’s an improvement over the previous four months, when it averaged 35%, and it’s in line with a 10-city average tracked by Kastle Systems.
But it’s still well short of return-to-office goals of many employers, a majority of which hoped to bring workers back at least 2½ days a week or more by now, according to a DSA survey in December.
Our slow walk back to the office is raising a lot of questions. About office space demand by big employers like Amazon and Microsoft. About the direction of a regional transit strategy created before COVID upended commutes. About the future of downtown retailers and other businesses in an economy already burdened by a pandemic, inflation and, now, fears of a recession.
But it’s also revealing sharp divisions among office-based workers themselves over how, and where, they want to work.
While many remote employees have been ready, and sometimes desperate, to return to the office, others are kicking and screaming the whole way. They’ve resisted return-to-office mandates, bargained for exemptions or even threatened to quit, as happened recently with Boeing and the city of Seattle.
We asked Seattle-area workers how their journeys back are — or aren’t — going. Most didn’t want their names or the names of their employers used, for fear of angering higher-ups or colleagues. Their stories help explain why returning has so thoroughly divided the business community, and why it’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
“You’re feeding off your co-workers when you’re all in the office”
For workers who wanted to return to the office full or part time, the appeal of going back ranged from the profound to the mundane. Several offered the now-familiar rationales of escaping the distractions or isolation of the home office. For other return-to-office advocates, the motivations were more pragmatic: The office makes it easier to do their jobs.
Colton Teglovic, an associate director at the Seattle office of commercial real estate brokerage Savills, said the office is where he can more easily gather the tips and other business intel crucial to landing complicated leasing deals.
As important, being surrounded by other brokers generates a competitive energy that’s essential in commissioned-based sales, and which doesn’t come across over Zoom. “You’re feeding off your co-workers when you’re all in the office,” Teglovic says. “And trying to do that [when] you’re by yourself in your apartment — it’s harder.”
For Mohammed, who works with the city of Seattle and asked that his last name not be used, getting back in office is key to improving his team’s collaboration, which suffered during the pandemic as colleagues tried to “do everything through a screen,” he said. “How can you build that type of culture of work when people don’t get to see each other?”
Others said being back helped their careers. For Kevin, an Amazon engineer who’d returned to his Seattle office in 2021, being in person made it easier for him to interview for a new position and also was key in a colleague’s promotion. “You need to be in the office so your boss knows who you are,” Kevin said. “Otherwise, you can just kind of disappear.”
The motivation was even more basic for Zach, a Seattle-based Google employee who recently went from mostly remote to a required three days a week. “Google gives us free food,” he said.
For some, the journey back has been a lonely one. Even on a busy day, Mohammed, the local government employee, says he still sees only a few dozen workers on his floor “where there used to be 400 people, easily.”
“I didn’t want this so much”
To return-to-office skeptics, of course, the office looks much less inviting.
Some voiced specific material or physical concerns, such as fear of catching the coronavirus in the office or on public transit.
“People on my team are not OK with going in, given that COVID is still going around,” said an engineer at Amazon Web Services. They said their team was expected to return to the office two to three days a week starting this fall.
Others didn’t want to resume their long commutes. Working from home “added so much time back to my life,” said Emily, who works at a Seattle technology hardware firm. Others said working from home had been the equivalent of a pay raise due to avoided commuting costs — a raise they would now be giving up by returning to the office.
Other skeptics found that the office now felt too distracting for intense, concentrated work.
Rebecca, who works for a Seattle-area health care organization, was initially excited to see colleagues in person again — but soon found herself resenting the constant interruptions by “people standing by your cube and talking or just coming by to chat while you’re working on something,” she said. “It was like, maybe I didn’t want this so much.”
For other office doubters, the objection was less about coming back to the office than it was about how their employers had managed, or mismanaged, the return.
Some complained that employers’ policies were unfair or inconsistently applied. Several described tensions between those who had been required to return and colleagues who were allowed to stay remote. One example of the latter: employees hired remotely during the pandemic who had negotiated permission to remain in their current out-of-area location.
Other mandated returnees felt their employers’ stated rationale for working in person, such as better collaboration, hadn’t materialized because managers couldn’t ensure a critical mass of “hybrid” workers in the office on any given day.
“If one person on your team doesn’t go in, then the next person’s like, ‘Oh, well, if he’s not here, or she’s not going again, then I have no reason to go in,’ ” said the AWS engineer, who estimates his own offices are around 25% full.
Under those circumstances, mandates for workers are just “making them uncomfortable,” said the AWS engineer. “They’re probably going to try to switch teams or they are just going to leave the company.”
“We’ve had our taste of freedom now”
For advocates and skeptics alike, there were a few key factors that had an outsize effect on how effectively return-to-office strategies played with employees.
One was transparency. Some skeptics said their objections were compounded by explanations that felt contrived or unrelated to their jobs.
When Boeing announced that remote 737 engineers had to work in-office four or more days a week, several engineers said they were told it was partly because airline executives who’d visited the company’s offices, as one engineer put it, “weren’t happy … seeing empty engineering sections.”
Also galling were employer claims that working in person was necessary to improve productivity — especially when so many employers had spent much of the pandemic lauding remote employees’ heroic productivity.
One of the biggest factors for return-to-office failure or success, workers felt, was flexibility.
High marks went to employers that allowed returning workers to choose their office days or were willing to adapt policies to reflect changing conditions.
Sam, who works for a Seattle-area consulting firm, said his company reopened its offices on a voluntary basis but postponed its final return policy until next year so managers could “see how the pandemic actually plays out.”
Management’s objective, Sam said, is that “we’re going to see what people naturally choose to do, and then we’re going to develop a policy out of that.”
More broadly, employees said they appreciated hearing employers acknowledge that COVID had fundamentally changed assumptions about how and where work can happen.
The fact that so many workers were able to do their jobs remotely for two years has weakened the argument that being in-office all week “is the best way for everyone to get work done,” says Emily, the Seattle hardware firm employee.
They also appreciated employers that recognized just how fundamentally the pandemic changed how many employees now see the office.
Even the most loyal and dedicated workers are unlikely to forget the convenience, time savings and other benefits of not having to go into an office five days a week. “It would take a lot to get me back” full time, Emily says. “We’ve had our taste of freedom now.”