Terrible commutes. Expensive child care. Employees
explain why they will keep working from home.
By Ray A. Smith and Julia Carpenter
What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?
At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings
remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and,
bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.
Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms
are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along
with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a
dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a
five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career
Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share
of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping,
according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted
by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.
A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with
bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to
monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained
by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.
One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost
remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases
thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.
One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a
two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily
spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.
Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C.,
estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to
three days a week in the office.
Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office
life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.
“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding
that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.
Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near
Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a
high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100
a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car
insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.
Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and
beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.
“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,”
If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the
workforce, workers say.
When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18- month-old son, was
looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were
she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.
The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the
office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her
son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I
wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”
For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.
Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company
insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2
Black man, said managing how he was perceived— not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing
threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other
professionals of color have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.
“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current
job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.
The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.
Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as
required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt
pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.
Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good.
When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid
off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a
new hybrid role where he
goes in one or two days.