By Alex Bell

Zoom calls employees back to the office: Is remote work officially over?

Zoom’s return-to-office mandate recently made headlines. Does it signal the end of the remote work era? Here’s what it could mean for the future of work.

In early August, headlines read like something out of The Onion or another satirical paper: video conferencing platform Zoom was calling employees back to the office In a statement, the company shared that employees who lived within 50 miles of one of its nine office locations would have to return to work in-person at least two days per week.

Zoom certainly isn’t the first big tech company to drag people back to their desks. The company joins Amazon, Disney, Google, JPMorgan, Salesforce, Meta, and plenty of other major players that have issued similar mandates. 

But many people were quick to point out that this move in particular was positively dripping with irony and hypocrisy.

Zoom made a name for itself as a brand that not only facilitated but championed and embraced remote work. Its unexpected mandate seemed like a sudden about-face—and, for some, an irrefutable admission that maybe remote work isn’t actually all it’s cracked up to be. 

Collaboration, connection, and camaraderie: The office as an outlet for bonds, not business

Sure, the headlines themselves are grabby and eyebrow-raising—but it’s worth a little digging to figure out why a company like Zoom (with a brand name so synonymous with working from home that it quite literally transformed into a verb seemingly overnight) would want employees to ditch the couch in favor of the cubicle.

As an article for Quartz points out, Zoom’s statement itself doesn’t offer too many clues. The language is vague, simply stating that the company believes “a structured hybrid approach—meaning employees that live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams—is most effective for Zoom.”

Connection is likely at the core of the supposed “effectiveness” of this approach. Despite the rise of collaborative technologies (of which Zoom was arguably at the center), leaders have long-lamented the fact that there’s simply no replicating the sense of closeness and the type of spirited collaboration that happens when everybody’s gathered in the same space.

And for as badly as workers want to grab their pitchforks and point their fingers at employers for those seemingly unfounded claims, the truth is that they agree—at least to some degree:

  • While remote workers say that working remotely has improved their focus, productivity, and work-life balance, it comes at the cost of connection with 60% of workers saying they feel less connected to their co-workers now.

  • Loneliness was the second most-cited challenge of remote work in Buffer’s State of Remote Work report for 2023. It ranked only behind staying home too often. 

While the debate over remote work easily transforms into an “us versus them” battle between employers and workers, the data actually shows that they’re in agreement on this fact: the office really does serve as an outlet for deeper bonds and stronger relationships.

Productivity paranoia: Employees are skeptical about the intention behind return-to-office mandates

But that doesn’t mean that workers are eager to pack their bags and commute back to the office the same way they did pre-pandemic. For many, what they lose in closeness and companionship, they more than gain in things flexibility and balance—making it feel like a worthy tradeoff.

And beyond that, employees are understandably skeptical about employers’ intentions for bringing them back in the first place. Do they really care about office friendships—or is the move more about power and paranoia?

While studies show that remote employees actually work longer and harder than their in-office counterparts, company leaders remain suspicious about whether or not workers are able to achieve their full potential at home. 

85% of bosses say hybrid work makes it difficult to be assured that employees are being productive, especially when there are gadgets like mouse jigglers that imitate work when employees are actually signed off. 

That’s led some companies to implement monitoring software to confirm employees are actually getting their work done, but doing so often fuels mistrust and even greater contention between workers and their employers. 

Bringing employees back to the office (even for a few days) feels like the easiest solution. It gives leaders the visibility into people’s daily work that they lose in a remote environment, so it’s a safe assumption that it inevitably plays a role in the return-to-office mandates. But saying it’s about kinship and social bonds certainly has a more positive PR spin, doesn’t it?

Hybrid headaches: Where do we go from here?

Workers haven’t been shy about the fact that they want to work from home. According to a recent Future Forum survey, an impressive 80% of employees say they want flexibility in where they work. 

But of course, leaders haven’t been quiet about the fact that they want people back in the office—at least part of the time.

While it feels like a good ol’ fashioned standoff, employers and their workers would be better served by stepping back and realizing that they agree on the biggest thing: the pandemic irretrievably changed the working world. It forever transformed work from a place you go to a thing you do. We all might be putting real pants back on, but that doesn’t mean we’re sliding right back into the way things were pre-pandemic. 

What we’re left with is a clean slate and an opportunity to chart a “new normal” for the world of work. As far as what that “new normal” should look like? Well, it doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game.