White-collar workers are back in the office. Just don’t expect them to stay for eight hours. As more companies tell American workers to return to their cubicles for two, three or even four days a week, part of a new wave of even tougher return-to-office mandates kicking in this fall, one thing is clear: The era of sitting at your desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is over.
Instead, in a transformative shift to the workday, employees are cashing in on an unspoken new flexibility. They are returning to the office on their own terms, coming in late after a workout, or leaving early to grab groceries or pick up their children before logging back on.
And while many employers are now asking people to come in a certain number of days a week, hardly any are tracking exactly how long they stay. In most of the country, only about half of office visits now last for at least six hours at a time, according to WiFi data from Basking, a workplace occupancy analytics firm. That is in stark contrast to before the pandemic, when a majority of visits, 84 percent, lasted six hours or more.
"There is a gigantic dance going on. Companies want people back in the office, and employees are saying, ‘Okay, let me find the right balance,’" said Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor who studies remote work at Georgia Institute of Technology. "Partial-day teleworking is fiendishly hard to measure but probably way bigger than we realize."
That reconfiguration is stretching out peak commute times and leaving a mark on local economies, where happy hours are starting earlier, grocery shopping is moving online, and golf courses are seeing a fourfold uptick in Wednesday afternoon activity. "Before the pandemic, the assumption was that people would come in every weekday and stay all day," said Anjali Grover, the head of data analytics at Basking. "But that is no longer the case."
Still, many employers have been doubling down on their efforts to get workers back into their cubicles after Labor Day. Meta is requiring three days a week in the office starting in September, while Zoom, which is the poster child of remote work pandemic culture, is asking workers to come in twice a week. And President Biden is urging federal workers to return to the office this fall.
Meanwhile, Google, which mandates three days a week in the office, recently announced it will begin considering attendance in performance reviews. Overall office occupancy rates in the largest cities across the country have stalled at about 50 percent of levels before the pandemic, according to Kastle Systems.
Companies are pressing people to come back into the office, but it is not all-or-nothing, said Mokhtarian, the professor. "They’re not saying, ‘You need to be here five days a week,’ or even, ‘You need to be here eight hours a day.’ That 9-to-5 straitjacket is gone."
Hend Alhakam, who dispatches vehicles for a company near Detroit, goes to the office every weekday. But she leaves at 3 p.m. to pick up her 10-year-old son from school. She finishes the day remotely, sometimes pulling over on the highway to answer an email or take a call.
That is an arrangement she says would have been far less likely before the coronavirus upended long-held norms. "As a single parent, it can be difficult to manage my time, to fit in everything I need to do in one day," Alhakam said. "But the pandemic opened this door that we, as employees, did not even know was available."
More fluid work schedules are also reshaping transportation patterns by pushing the morning rush later. Fewer people are commuting between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. than they were in 2019, while the proportion of people hitting the road after 9 a.m. has picked up, according to an analysis of INRIX transportation data by Nicholas Bloom and Alex Finan at Stanford University.
"It’s not just that people are traveling less, it’s that they’re spreading out their travel," said Bloom, an economics professor. "If you want to take a morning call from home and go in a bit later, pre-pandemic, people would make jokes, asking whether you’d been out late drinking, but now it’s completely fine. As a result, we’ve reduced peak loading on freeways and public transit. We’re reducing congestion, which is a very good thing."
But just because people are swiping in later or heading home earlier does not mean they are working less. Instead, white-collar employees with hybrid schedules are increasingly working around-the-clock and on weekends, according to a 2022 study. On average, professional and business services employees worked 36.5 hours a week in July, up from 36.1 hours four years ago, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Economists caution that it is especially difficult to capture the effect of hybrid work on productivity, especially with so many white-collar employees working from multiple locations in a single day. Even so,overall labor productivity rose at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in the second quarter, the fastest pace of growth since 2020, the data show.
Annie Tsai, chief operating officer of Interact, a software company in San Francisco, said its 11 employees work at all hours of the day or night, depending on what works best for them. Tsai, who has two children, sometimes spends the afternoon painting murals at her son’s school and catches up on work after bedtime. "I truly do not mind logging into work after my kids go to sleep," Tsai, 44, said. "What I do mind, though, is someone judging me for having to take my kid to a doctor’s appointment at 2 o’clock."
The number of people who work from home tripled between 2019 and 2021 to an all-time high of nearly 28 million workers, according to census data. In all, about 1 in 3private-sector workers telework at least sometimes, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, but they also tend to be the highest-paid office workers.
Now, as white-collar employees reacclimate to the office, it has become clear they want the option to work around their personal lives. In a survey of desk workers worldwide, 93 percent said they wanted to set their own hours, compared with 81 percent who wanted location flexibility, according to a February report by the Future Forum, a consortium led by workplace communication platform Slack.
Working parents are generally leading the charge, according to Benjamin Granger, chief workplace psychologist at data analytics firm Qualtrics. After working from home during the pandemic, often with little child care, many parents have begun prioritizing school drop-offs and pickups, as well as other obligations, such as summer camp performances and midday recitals.
Most employers, Granger said, have so far been happy to accommodate them. "The pandemic changed a lot of peoples’ expectations about what flexibility actually means," he said. "And now companies are having to shift their approach to keep up." But some employers are starting to push back against the notion that workers can flow in and out as they please.
Last month, after several failed attempts to get people back into the office, Redfin chief executive Glenn Kelman implemented new rules: Corporate employees must show up for a "full day" on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It was an uncomfortable decree, he said, but a necessary one if the company were to preserve its tradition of collaboration and free-flowing gatherings.
"What we were trying to avoid is a drop in, where someone comes in for a few hours, has lunch and goes back home," he said. "I’m not one to take attendance or mark people for tardies, but we really want people to settle in and do their work here."
Kelman insisted he is not keeping tabs on employees but also said he believes the plan has generally worked. People come in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and crucially, stick around even after chowing down on free lunches of tacos, sushi or fried chicken.
"We didn’t do this because we thought everyone was secretly going to Disney World during the workweek," Kelman said. "We just felt our culture wasn’t working as well as it could have. But of course, if you have a dentist appointment at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, or a parent-teacher conference, by all means, go."
These new patterns in work hours are changing the equation for downtown businesses that rely on the rhythm of office workers. As workers settle into new commutes, their spending habits changing accordingly: They are grabbing their morning coffee later, or their post-work beers earlier.
At Flannery’s Pub in Cleveland, office happy hours are starting hours earlier, around 3 or 4 p.m., instead of the usual 5 p.m., said general manager Sean O’Donnell. There has also been an uptick in lunch business, from people ordering takeout to pick up on their way to or from work, or having a bite to eat before commuting home early in the afternoon. "I’ve personally noticed a few more business lunches with beers," he said. "People come in and out all day, as they go in and out of the office."
The shift in hours worked in the officeportends a broader change in the way people think about work, particularly in the tech industry, where free meals, lavish game rooms and an arsenal of around-the-clock snacks and drinks were meant to keep workers in the office at all hours. Now those perks have lost their luster, with many employees realizing they would much rather eat and play video games and yes, work, at home.
"All of those cheap Band-Aids, the pool tables, arcade games and beer fridges, that were supposed to chain us to this building, they don’t matter anymore," said Sarah G., 36, a copywriter for a big tech firm in Los Angeles who spoke on condition of being identified by her first name and last initial because she fears losing her job. "This place feels very much like a ghost town."
When she does head in, it is either for free food, when the company offers bagels on Wednesdays and catered lunches on Thursdays, or air conditioning, which her studio apartment lacks. But even then, she never sticks around for a full day. "Do I stay until 5? Absolutely not, no way," she said. "I go in for a few hours, stay for lunch, then come home and check on my dog. We’re both happier this way."