Remote work revolution: Where in the world are people back in the office?

The New York Times looks at where hybrid work is hanging on - and where it's not - in the wake of the pandemic.

Remote work revolution: Where in the world are people back in the office?

Last year in London, Jacob Rees Mogg, a former government minister, sent a not-so subtle note to remote workers to encourage them to spend more hours at the office.

Minister, remembered writing messages on the desks left by Cabinet Office employees who worked from home.

Jem Kim in Seoul, South Korea started a new position at a private-equity firm. She hoped to get permission to work from home some days, but soon learned that she was required to be there full-time.

In San Mateo, California executives at Sequoia - a company that provides human resources software - said that, while they did not require that most employees return to work, they made the office so tight-knit, that they couldn't avoid feeling'major FoMO' (fear to miss out) when people joined videoconference meetings.

Many industries moved to hybrid or remote work when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. The experiment was a huge one that had different outcomes in different cities. In some, there were long-term standoffs with executives and employees.

Researchers at Stanford, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, and the Ifo Institute surveyed over 42,000 workers from 34 countries to determine how remote workers differed across regions.

Photo / Getty Images Photo / Getty images

It now depends where in the globe these cubicles and couches can be found. In many Asian countries, remote work is less common than in Europe or North America. The highest percentages are in Britain, Canada, and the United States.

According to the study, in the US and Britain workers from all industries worked five to six days per month at home during the spring of the northern hemisphere. Germans worked four days per week across all industries in other European countries. Asia had the lowest levels of work-from home, with South Koreans and Japanese working less than two days a month, while Taiwanese worked under three.

Researchers believe housing has a significant impact on return-to-office trends. Workers in suburban areas of the United States have been slow to return to work. In densely populated areas, especially in Asia, the return to office rate is higher. This is often because it's difficult to be productive when living in small apartments with multiple family members.

Commute v productivity

Jose Maria Barrero is an economist with the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico (ITAM), who led the global study. Tokyo, for instance, has apartments that are modest.

Executives who manage workforces spread across continents are aware of the differences in regional dynamics. Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and General Manager at Cisco, a technology company with nearly 85,000 employees travelled to Asia and discovered that the offices of his company, as well those of their customers, were busier than other offices. Cisco lets its teams determine how they want to work hybrid.

Patel, a resident of Los Altos in California, prefers to work at home when there are no in-office meetings. This allows him to save an hour in travel time to San Jose.

He said, 'I could take those 30 minutes to commute back and forth and get more done.' I like to have dinner with my child.

Daan van Rossum is the CEO of FlexOS in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), a company that develops digital solutions for managers who work remotely. He considered his employees' homes when deciding on FlexOS' hybrid approach.

He said that a lot of people in the city don't own their own homes. Working from the kitchen with three generations around you is not conducive to productivity.

Researchers say that the amount of time spent in Covid locksdowns affected remote work levels. Photo /AP

Van Rossum's employees were asked to work in the office two days per week. Van Rossum tried to make it fun by carving out some time for levity. Every meeting begins with an icebreaker that is not related to work, such as a game like telephone.

Researchers said that remote work levels were affected by how much time a particular region spent under Covid lockdowns. Workers and employers settled into remote work routines in areas that were repeatedly locked down, such as some US cities. The people invested in ergonomic chairs and large monitors for their home offices. Management systems were implemented by companies to ensure that bosses measured performance based on employee output and not the time spent in the office.

The remote never held a grip

The long-term investment made in hybrid work was very useful in 2021 and in 2022 when many companies had to delay their return-to office plans due to the coronavirus.

People realised that they could be as productive and as effective working remotely as if they were in the same place as their co-workers. Dawn Klinghoffer is the head of people analytics for Microsoft. Microsoft has mandated employees return to the workplace 50% of the time. However, it allows more flexibility to those who require it.

In some parts of Asia remote work practices were not as common. Barrero, of ITAM, said that many Asian countries controlled the early waves of Covid without requiring extended lockdowns. They didn't go through the experience of having to work from home for months and adapt to it.

In South Korea for instance, many workers rarely left their office. SK Hynix spokesperson Joori Roh said, 'We have never implemented work at home'. The company didn't like the idea that some employees would be given a privilege not shared by all.

Workers in Japan still use fax machines and a stamp called a hanko. This requires that someone be present at the office. Tokyo corporate managers said that being in the same place helped them to keep track of the people they report to.

Ryuichi takezawa, a manager of 30 Astellas employees in Tokyo, said: 'Sometimes I worry if they're actually working.' He said he could ask his staff in the office: "How are you?" What is causing you stress? What can I do to help you?

Do employees have a voice?

Researchers in the study on remote work believe that cultural norms also play a role in return to work levels. Many US workers felt comfortable telling their managers that they were quitting without more flexibility or asking for it.

Laura Zimm was a Duluth public defender who returned to work last year. She immediately fell ill with Covid. She continued to work from home after and during her illness, and ultimately decided with her supervisor that she would remain permanently remote. Zimm liked this and it gave her manager greater flexibility in terms of office space.

Microsoft's return-to office process often includes 'team agreements' in which managers and employees meet to discuss hybrid working preferences.

In some parts of Europe, workers' unions and other associations have played a role in shaping return-to-office policy. Employee-elected councils, for instance, have negotiated details of hybrid work with managers in many German companies.

The head of Datev's human resources, Julia Bangerth said, "We had to find a way to make it work for everyone, whether they were in finance, software development or the shop floor." Datev is a Nuremberg-based software company that allows each team to determine its own expectations regarding return to office.

The choices made by employers are not unique. Mark Ein, the chair of workplace security firm Kastle which tracks US office occupancy with its "Back to Work Barometer", said that employers with strict policies on returning to the office are worried about retaining talent in areas where remote or hybrid working has become the norm.

Ein stated that 'business leaders wanted people to return in a much deeper way'. It's the competitive pressures of the labour market and certain cultural norms which have kept people away.

The desire for business managers to bring people back is almost universal. The ability to do so varies from country to country.

This article was originally published in

The New York Times


Written by: Emma Goldberg. John Yoon. Jenny Gross. Hikari Hida. Melissa Eddy