How the Rest of the World Is Doing RTO

Countries differ in their norms, but office workers everywhere want the same thing: flexibility.

An illustration of a filing cabinet in a reclining chair
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

Across much of the industrialized world, with notable exceptions, everyday life has returned to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. Travel restrictions have largely been lifted. In the West at least, masks have mostly disappeared from shops and public transport. Restaurants, theaters, museums, sports stadiums, and concert halls are once again brimming with locals and tourists alike.

But one place hasn’t reverted to its pre-pandemic status. Starting in March 2020, COVID-19 forced hundreds of millions of office workers around the world out of their workplaces and into their living rooms, kitchens, and, for the luckier among them, home offices. So began the great remote-work experiment that nobody asked for—one that is still going on for many white-collar workers. Only now, it’s by choice and habit. Despite the fact that many workplaces have reopened their doors, a significant proportion of workers—not to mention some of their employers—have been reluctant to return to the office (or RTO, as it has come to be known) five days a week. Some have sworn off ever going into an office again.

In the United States, about a third of office workers had returned to fully in-person work by the end of the first quarter of this year, according to unpublished data shared with me by Future Forum, a research group at Slack that surveyed more than 10,000 knowledge workers across six countries. And the rest of the world isn’t rushing back to the office either: Only 26 percent in Britain, 28 percent in Australia, 32 percent in Germany, and 35 percent in France have done so. Japan is a bit of an outlier—there, more than half of white-collar workers are back in the building—but elsewhere, most employees either continued working fully remotely or split their time in a hybrid model; more than three-quarters of those canvassed in a separate, published survey from Future Forum said they liked this flexibility. Although exclusively remote working is still common enough in the U.S., Australia, and Britain (where about a quarter to a fifth of workers don’t go into an office at all), the practice has dwindled in Germany, Japan, and France (averaging about one in 10).

The type of industries a country has, and the makeup of its workforce, account for some of the differences. Wealthier countries tend to have more of the kinds of employment that lend themselves to remote work. When I asked experts about the main reasons driving preferences for hybrid and remote work, the most common answer had to do with commuting. Although those who live within walking distance of their workplace may find it convenient to return to the office, many others who have to brave traffic congestion in cars or journeys on crowded public transportation may be less inclined, especially five days a week. This is particularly true in countries such as Britain, where before the pandemic, workers would on average spend more than an hour commuting each day—time that has since been repurposed for catching up on sleep, doing household chores, or caring for family members and pets. In London, despite an extensive mass-transit system, nearly three-quarters of workers say they’ll never go back to their pre-pandemic ways.

The question of returning to fully in-person work also comes down to very practical considerations such as the size of peoples’ homes, their living situations, and the reliability of their internet connections. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist and a co-founder of the WFH Research project, told me that rates of remote working are relatively low in Southern European cities, for example, because apartments tend to be smaller there than they are elsewhere on the continent. The same may be true of countries such as Japan, where notoriously cramped living quarters have also made remote work less desirable. Age and family circumstances also play a role: Young people are generally more eager to return to the office, but workers with children tend to place a premium on working from home at least part of the time.

Differences aside, one trend is clear: Around the world, office workers prefer a hybrid model that allows them to split their time between home and the office by having an option to work remotely at least two days a week, according to a WFH Research survey of nearly 33,000 workers across 25 countries. So valuable did those surveyed consider this flexibility that, on average, they’d trade a 5 percent pay raise to have it.

“Flexibility is now basically table stakes for the vast majority of the knowledge-worker population,” Brian Elliott, the executive leader of Future Forum, told me. This shift is forcing employers to rethink not only where work happens, but also when. Although an emphatic 79 percent of people want flexibility about location, Elliott added, an even more significant 94 percent want flexibility about their schedule.

“Most people do value the interaction they get, and the networking and the socializing and the learning that they get, in the office; they just don’t want to do it five days a week,” Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago and a co-founder of WFH Research, told me. The presenteeist bureaucratic model that has defined office work over the past several decades “has certainly broken,” Davis added, “and I don’t expect it to return.”

That isn’t a belief that all companies, let alone world leaders, seem to share. Many top executives have stressed office-working as important for cultivating collaboration and innovation (despite the fact that nonexecutive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week, according to the Future Forum survey). Another striking discrepancy emerges in employer and employee attitudes about how efficient remote work is: More than half of the business leaders surveyed for Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index expressed fears that productivity had taken a hit as a result of the shift away from in-person work, but 80 percent of employees surveyed said they were just as, if not more, productive.

This new age of work may favor workers more than their bosses. If a business such as Tesla mandates that its employees return to full-time office work, those employees do not lack other options. (In Elon Musk’s case, this uncompromising message may have had less to do with an antipathy toward remote working than as a way of shrinking the payroll without having to make formal job cuts.) Not only have numerous companies already announced longer-term flexible-working arrangements, but some are also using them as a recruitment tool to draw talent from their competitors.

In May, Airbnb said that its careers page received 800,000 visits following the company’s announcement that the majority of its roughly 14,000 U.S. domestic and international employees would have the flexibility to continue working from home, or anywhere else, on a permanent basis. Future Forum’s survey found that those who don’t get the flexibility they’re looking for are more than twice as likely to say that they will “definitely” look for a new job in the next year. Jane Parry, an associate professor in the business school at Britain’s University of Southampton, told me that work arrangements are becoming a top issue for job candidates in interviews.

As employers reckon with what a shift to more flexible working arrangements will mean for the future of the office, they must also consider the impact that resisting this move could have on business. This is particularly true of companies in countries such as Japan and Germany, which are already experiencing shrinking workforces as a result of aging populations. According to Steffen Kampeter, the head of the BDA, Germany’s employers’ association, accommodating arrangements and “respectful attitudes toward the wishes of employees … to keep them in the organization” will now be “the new normal.”

Whether the change proves permanent is another question. As my Atlantic colleague Derek Thompson writes, if a looming recession materializes, that could put power back in the hands of employers, giving them the leverage to halt or reverse a global shift to hybrid work. But the way many of the experts I spoke with see it, the trend already has an unstoppable momentum.

Recession or no recession, “top talent is always in demand,” Future Forum’s Elliott said. “If you lose the wrong people in a downturn, things get worse, not better.”