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The office monsters are trying to claw their way back to 2019

‘A fake story we’ve been telling ourselves’

Beyond the bottom line, the back-to-office debate is about what kind of culture will prevail as the business world emerges from the pandemic. And for all of the power wielded by Musk, Dimon and Adams, they may be fighting a shift that is larger than any single company or city.

If the pandemic’s two-plus years of remote work experimentation have taught us anything, it is that many people can be productive outside the office, and quite a few are happier doing so. That is especially true for people with young children or long commutes, minority workers who have a tougher time fitting in with the standard office culture, and those with other personal circumstances that made working in offices less attractive.

If the pandemic’s two-plus years of remote work experimentation have taught us anything, it is that many people can be productive outside the office, and quite a few are happier doing so.

“We still are struggling to let go of the ideal worker stereotype — even though that person, for a lot of people and occupations and demographic groups […], never really existed,” said Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School. “I think with remote work and hybrid, we have the potential to truly move away from that and really rethink about what it means to be on a leadership track, what it means to be a high performer, and get away from that being associated with being in the office at all hours.”

Even as the pandemic has changed course, there are signs that the work-from-home trend is actually accelerating. One recent survey published in the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that employers are now saying they will allow employees to work from home an average of 2.3 days per week, up from 1.5 days in the summer of 2020.

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It is not just the office; it is also the commute. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that almost all of the major cities with the biggest drops in office occupancy during the pandemic had an average one-way commute of more than 30 minutes; most cities with the smallest drops had shorter commutes.

And people are increasingly booking stays for longer than 30 days on sites such as Airbnb and Booking.com, according to Vered Raviv Schwarz, president and chief operating officer of Guesty, a software management tool for short-term rentals. At first, industry experts thought the extended stays might be a pandemic blip. But it has gone on for long enough that it may signal that workers with jobs that can be done remotely are doubling down on working outside the normal commute-to-work patterns.

At its heart, the battle over remote work is a test of the corporate world’s definition of an ideal worker. For decades or even longer, that has been a person who prioritises their job above all else and has no outside commitments.

It’s “an incredibly powerful story,” said Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab program at the think tank New America. “It’s part of our culture. It’s part of our DNA.”

It is probably not shocking that people who are lower on the org chart tend to be less enthusiastic about returning to the office than the senior leaders and executives who thrived in the in-person times before the pandemic.

“For many CEOs and managers, that’s how they worked. That’s how they succeeded, and that’s the only way they know,” Schulte said. “All of this was completely false; it was totally a fake story we’ve been telling ourselves.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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