The pandemic-driven rise of remote work has changed many companies’ views of the necessity of physical office spaces. Companies, especially within the tech sector, that once prided themselves on sprawling campuses found in 2020 that their workforces were just as productive Zooming in from home. The resulting shift to remote work seemed to herald a new era of work-life balance and operational flexibility.

As the world has emerged from the pandemic, however, some companies that had embraced “remote-first” policies are bringing workers back into the office. The return-to-office (RTO) trend, observed in corporate announcements and leadership rhetoric, seems at odds with developments in the real estate market, where office vacancy rates continue to climb, reaching all-time highs in some areas.

The gap between stated corporate objectives and actual choices has several possible explanations, with implications for the future of cities and office space. On the one hand, high vacancy rates demonstrate that office-space demand has not rebounded and may indicate that a significant share of the workforce is committed to sustained remote work. On the other hand, reporting and new policies make clear that at least some companies do not view fully remote work as sustainable; indeed, some corporate leaders insist that in-person work is essential for collaboration, culture-building, and perhaps signaling of stability. As labor-market power shifts from workers to CEOs after the zero-interest-rate policy years, will employers who prefer in-person norms gain the upper hand in the office wars, as suggested by recent tech layoffs at firms like Getaround and DocuSign?

Two recent studies on remote work offer possible answers. A study by University of Pittsburgh researchers finds that while firms often explore RTO when corporate performance lags, they do not see improved performance upon returning to in-person work; some CEOs may be using remote work as a scapegoat for poor corporate performance. Another survey, involving remote-work guru Nick Bloom, investigated over 2,000 U.K. firms’ forecasts and found that managers generally expect the proportion of remote workers to be about the same in five years as it is today.

Beyond those studies, two other factors imply the possible endurance of remote work. First, new firms are increasingly electing to operate remotely. Second, workers overall, including contractors and freelancers, often prefer fully remote work. While managers in Bloom’s survey expected a high degree of hybrid work (workers coming into the office a few days each week), the latest Current Population Survey data found that about half of people who report working from home are doing so fully remotely.

The tension between high office-vacancy rates and employers’ anecdotal pullback from a fully remote workforce reflects firms and employees’ reevaluation of modern work—not just about where it is done, but how it is done most effectively. Firms have generally become more flexible since the pandemic; while some enacted RTO policies, others have embraced hybrid approaches, and still others have retained or even expanded remote-friendly options. Some workers also are quitting their current jobs for positions that offers fully remote options. In the long-term, firms offering such flexibility will likely expand employment and entrepreneurial prospects.

Despite the mixed signals and the evolving narratives, therefore, evidence points to the reality that remote work, in some form, is here to stay. The high office-vacancy rates are a concrete reminder of the pandemic’s lasting impact on work habits and preferences. At the same time, the move toward “remote-friendly” policies reflects many firms and employees’ understanding that the future of work is not binary but hybrid, blending the benefits of remote work with the undeniable value of in-person interactions. As companies and employees navigate this landscape, the challenge will be to find the right balance that maximizes productivity, innovation, and well-being—both for firms and the cities that previously relied on their presence.

Photo: Morsa Images/DigitalVision via Getty Images


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