Back to the Office, Back to Pollution? The Irony of Cities Pushing for a Return to In-Person Work

Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, numerous companies have been summoning their employees back to the traditional office setting. The rationale behind this decision varies from company to company. Some executives and leaders believe productivity levels spike when workers are in the same physical space, while others aim to promote in-person collaboration among employees. Several employers are resorting to drastic measures to ensure compliance, such as keeping track of attendance or even threatening to terminate non-compliant workers.

Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle, recently issued a return-to-office mandate for corporate staff in a memo dated Feb. 17, and the leadership at Salesforce has drafted a return-to-office policy, as revealed in a draft of the company’s strategic plan.

But it’s not just Amazon that is pushing for a return to the pre-pandemic normal. In fact, a number of other companies are also demanding that their employees return to in-person work. A comprehensive list of companies mandating staff return to in-person work can be found in a recent Business Insider article.

Resume Builder predicts that a significant majority of companies, specifically 90 percent, plan to require their employees to return to the office in 2023. In addition, 21 percent of these companies have stated that they will terminate workers who refuse to return to the office as they “[g]enerally … do not have the right to refuse to return to the office,” according to Quartz

Despite the lifting of pandemic restrictions, the idea of returning to in-person work doesn’t seem to excite either workers or employers. The financial burden of maintaining office buildings and infrastructure for employees can be steep for employers, making in-person work a costly option. Recent research by FlexJobs reveals that working remotely full-time can result in significant cost savings of up to $12,000 per year. Another study by Global Workplace Analytics suggests that companies can save as much as $11,000 per employee when they work remotely for two to three days a week. Moreover, in-person work can limit the flexibility that remote work offers, which is highly valued by many employees.

The question then arises: Why is this shift back to the office happening? Experts speculate that one of the primary reasons behind the push is the loss of tax revenue for city governments. With many workers having relocated to cheaper areas outside of cities where they can work remotely and save on living expenses, there has been a reduction in tax revenue for cities. As companies and people are not paying the direct city taxes necessary for the functioning of the government, some city leaders hope that urging employees to return to in-person work will help to generate the necessary funding for city projects.

Several months ago, the mayor of Seattle, Bruce Harrell, expressed concern over the impact of remote work on the city’s retail businesses and the potential loss of tax revenue, GeekWire reports.

“I’m trying to encourage employers to get folks back, develop the energy and synergy that we need,” Harrell said. “But the fact of the matter is, there will never be the good ‘ol days where everyone’s downtown working. … [The work-from-home model] appears to have permanently shifted employment patterns for at least some industries. Downtown Seattle’s workforce is about 40% of its pre-pandemic levels, and a return to traditional five days in the office ‘seems unlikely for many.’”

The question of whether remote work was just a temporary fad or a sustainable option for the future continues to linger. However, in a peculiar contradiction, the push for a return to in-person work goes against the carbon emission reduction goals promoted by our leaders, as they aim to reduce the use of fossil fuels, so they need to decide whether they want more revenue or a cleaner environment.