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You’re going back to the office. Your boss isn’t.

Bosses are ordering people back to the office from the comfort of their own homes.

Illustration of an office worker wearing a collared shirt and tie while sitting at a desk.
The same people sending workers back to the office get to keep working from home.
CSA Images/Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

The relationship between rank-and-file office workers and their bosses has never been equal. But remote work is creating a new kind of imbalance between certain people in leadership and their employees, and it’s stirring up resentment at work. Many managers — from middle management to the C-suite, depending on the workplace — are continuing to work remotely, but at the same time are calling their employees back to the office. Employees are getting angry and fighting back in the few ways they can: not showing up to the office or looking for work someplace else.

Some 80 percent of executive jobs are currently available remotely, according to executive search firm Cowen Partners, which helps companies fill management positions from director through the C-suite — ones that are often not visible through regular job postings. That’s up from about 25 percent pre-pandemic (the share of Americans overall who worked remotely at least some of the time was in the single digits then and is at about 45 percent now, according to Work From Home Research). Many of these executives cite being fully capable of working from home on technology like Zoom, Slack, and Teams, and say doing so enables them to work odd hours and communicate with colleagues in different time zones while maintaining work-life balance.

Meanwhile, more than half of managers and executives want their employees back in the office five days a week, according to new survey data by freelance platform Fiverr, saying the office makes it easier to access company computers, software, and IT and is a better place to collaborate than at home. A third of those leaders said employees are more motivated when they know they’re being monitored in person by upper management; a quarter said workers would take shorter breaks if they were in the office. Another 25 percent said that since they’d already paid for office space they might as well use it.

Office workers say they want to continue working remotely for the same reasons many executives want to: It allows them to be more productive and have better work-life balance. They also cite reasons that their bosses — who might be able to afford nannies or homes close to a city center office — sometimes don’t, like how showing up in the office forces them to commute for hours or to depend on expensive and unreliable child care.

Who ultimately gets what they want could instruct what American workers, who’ve used the tight hiring market to demand more from their jobs, ask from their jobs going forward. Currently, national office occupancy rates seem to have plateaued at under 50 percent of pre-pandemic norms, according to data from office key card company Kastle. The complicated state of the economy has created a sort of impasse: Employers who want workers back in the office think a rocky economy could mean workers are less inclined to quit their jobs over having to return to the office. Meanwhile, near-record low unemployment rates and the fact that there are 1.7 open jobs per person to fill them could mean workers still have some leverage to push back or find new, remote-friendly jobs.

“Driving into Boston is ridiculous,” a software designer at a bank there told Recode. Taking public transportation there is tough, too: “Come five o’clock, the T is an absolute nightmare. You have a bulky bag and you’re fighting with everybody else who just wants to get home.” The software designer, who asked that we not use his name so as not to jeopardize his employment, has been going in one day a week even though it’s obvious — though not explicit yet — that his company expects him to come in more. He says his job can be done just as well from home — unlike, say, an executive who has to constantly meet with others.

To encourage employees to come back in, the bank has been hosting weekly events after hours, at which, he says, co-workers drink too much and aren’t that functional the next day. This employee, meanwhile, has been trying to cut back on drinking and likes to go to yoga in the evenings — something that’s harder to do when he goes into the office.

When his manager inevitably calls him back to the office more often, he’s got a plan: “Throw a hissy fit for a few days, then suck it up and eat it while I search for a new job.”

The fight for remote work is also not squarely one between lower- and upper-level employees. Even executives — those who manage big teams — are coming into conflict with their higher-up bosses over remote work.

A vice president at a media firm in Manhattan is pushing to keep working from home two days a week now that her company is demanding three so that she can balance work with being a single parent. Commuting to and from the office can take her more than three hours a day.

The C-suite at her firm, which is the management level above vice presidents, works fully remotely, she said, but isn’t extending those perks to anyone else. She asked not to use her name because she’s worried that speaking out publicly could get her fired.

“It’s unfair, but then management was always privileged,” she said, referring to the people above her. “This is just a new way of showing that privilege.”

She said there have been a number of testy conversations with her bosses and HR and that she and others — especially women — are considering leaving after bonuses next year.

Women, working parents, and employees of color are most likely to want to work remotely, saying it vastly improves their experience at work, according to Slack’s Future Forum survey.

Numerous separate studies have found that people are just as productive working from home, so the push to send workers back to the office can feel as though it’s more about control than substance. Fears that managers will revoke remote work are already causing workers to performatively show that they’re working — a behavior that is decidedly not the same as actually working and which can also mean employees are wasting time. Arguments that being in the office is better for creativity, collaboration, and community-building potentially have more purchase, but not if management is treated differently from rank-and-file employees.

While there are certainly valid reasons why an executive or manager should have more flexibility — longer tenure, more responsibility, greater demands on their time — the optics are not great. The tensions that arise create the possibility that those employees will quit to go to places that will let them work as they wish. About one in six job postings on LinkedIn these days include remote work, but they receive more than half of all job applications, the company told Recode.

Fiverr found that about 42 percent of employees said they’d quit if they were forced back full time, though saying you’ll leave is different from actually leaving. Most notably, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that quit rates remain at an elevated 2.7 percent, meaning workers are still willing to leave one job for another, while layoffs are still very low (1 percent), suggesting that many workers are still in high demand and have options.

The greater disparity between workers and management in terms of remote work, the higher possibility of causing turmoil within that organization, according to Tae-Youn Park, associate professor of human resource studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“If they really want people to come back full time, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

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