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Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
At the height of the pandemic lockdowns in May 2020, more than one-third of U.S. workers were doing their jobs at least partly from home, shifting perceptions of workplace flexibility. Ever since, the share of workers telecommuting because of Covid-19 has steadily declined, falling to 22.7 percent of the work force in February 2021 and 13 percent in February 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now those numbers appear likely to dip lower. Many employers have heightened their calls for workers to come to the office in recent weeks, with companies including Goldman Sachs, Meta, Microsoft and Chevron asking some employees back, even as Covid case counts begin to climb again in some areas and mask mandates drop.
“You see now lots of companies, big and small, starting to put stakes in the ground saying we want our people back in the office,” said Mark Ein, the chair of Kastle Systems, a building security firm whose tracker placed U.S. office occupancy at 40 percent last month.
But return-to-office plans have been met with skepticism from people who say working from home improves productivity and mental health. Some workers of color said telecommuting enabled them to avoid insensitive comments they faced in the office.
“When I’m in a room that’s not as diverse, they automatically think of me as the secretary,” said Eleanore Fernandez, 50, an arts employee in the Bay Area who switched to working remotely during the pandemic.
Some employers are reopening their workplaces but making commitments to long-term flexibility. AppDirect, a software company with 850 employees worldwide, called its return-to-office plan Janus — for the Roman god of transitions and beginnings — to signal that the next phase of on-site work won’t look like prepandemic times. Employees are not required to come back if they prefer to stay home.
“We’re not saying that in office is better or working at home is better — we’re leaving it to be a choice,” said Deb Tenenbaum, AppDirect’s head of human resources.
Ms. Tenenbaum joined the company just before the pandemic and said she was excited by the prospect of building relationships and learning more about colleagues through in-person meetings: “Maybe how tall they are,” she said jokingly.