Zoom Return to Office and The Death of Remote Work

Zoom is asking its employees to return to the office. Some media called this "The Death of Remote Work. But is it? Let's explore!
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
August 9, 2023
min read

I read the entire internet so that you don't have to. Kind of like ChatGPT but focused on the future of work. I report back weekly and what's most relevant for you to know. Here's today's edition.

In this week’s Future Work, I look at a story that generated its fair share of headlines: Zoom asking people to return to the office to collaborate offline. 

Is this the ultimate irony? 

Or is there a more nuanced story out there?

For this and more, read on! (Spoiler alert: the remote dream isn’t dead yet!)

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The irony? Zoom announces return to office … for improved collaboration: The Facts

Zoom has told its employees to return to the office for the first time since the video communications tool saw a boom during the remote work revolution of the coronavirus pandemic.

The tech company now requests all employees within 50 miles of a company office to return on a hybrid schedule for in-person work at least two days a week.

"We believe that a structured hybrid approach – meaning employees that live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams – is most effective for Zoom. As a company, we are in a better position to use our own technologies, continue to innovate, and support our global customers," a Zoom spokesperson told Insider’s Ashley Stewart.  

They added, "We'll continue leveraging the entire Zoom platform to keep our employees and dispersed teams connected and working efficiently.”

Zoom said in January 2022 that only 2% of its workforce worked in its offices. The company, which employs more than 8,400 people worldwide, has two U.S. offices in San Jose, California, and Denver, Colorado, as well as several international sites.

Of course, this resulted in a slew of headlines in the tone of “The Remote Dream is Dead.” (Although a few more sensible points of view were also issued.)

Zoom’s Return to Office: The Facts

Of course, asking people to be in the office two days per week is far from killing the remote dream. An announcement a few years ago that people could work from home three days per week would have made very positive headlines.

Zoom’s approach of two days per week in the office is in line with the trend of companies in the US moving to a structured hybrid approach, the flavor of hybrid work where the company chooses which days employees come into the office. 

As I wrote in “The Return to Office: Separating Hype from Reality,” while the media loves to talk about “return to office” as if people are asked to live there seven days per week, just like with Zoom, it’s often about 2-3 days, as showcased by Scoop’s FlexIndex

WFHResearch data highlights the same, showcasing that most people in the US work hybrid or remote unless they have a job that can’t be done digitally, like airplane pilots, F&B workers, and security. 

In fact, the number of days worked from home has stabilized at around 25%, research from the same study shows. 

Nick Bloom, Stanford Professor, and the World’s Leading Work-From-Home researcher per the Stanford Remote Study, noted about Zoom’s news that:

“This is only back to the office for two days a week, and only for employees within 50 miles of an office. So what they have said could also be stated as "you can WFH 3 days a week if you live nearby, more if you live far away". – Nick Bloom, Stanford

And many Zoom employees live outside of the 50-mile radius, as Dror Poleg highlights in “An Office Is Not The Office. Dror notes that Zoom has twelve "global offices” and employs people in 35 countries, including as far away as Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and across many European countries.  

Nick also noted that while the news hit yesterday, Zoom has been operating like this for a long-time. He had lunch with Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in September last year, and most employees were already hybrid then. So this is just formalizing a long-existing operating practice. 

In short, the remote dream isn’t dead, as most employees, including those at Zoom, work from home most days. 

This makes sense because allowing people more autonomy at work and offering them flexibility in when and where to work has been proven beneficial in many ways, including

  • Increased job satisfaction, engagement, and commitment. (University of Leeds)
  • Employees value working from home as much as an 8% pay increase. In tech and finance, employees value hybrid remote work at up to 11%. (WFHResearch/Stanford)
  • Remote work reduces quit rates by 35%, and 52% of employees we surveyed would quit if they could no longer work hybrid. (Stanford, FlexOS)
  • Increased diversity and inclusion in race, gender, age, politics, and religion. (Stanford / Future Forum)
  • Improved employee satisfaction and morale, reduction in commute time and stress, improved work-life balance, increased productivity, and an expanded talent pool, as reported by hybrid and remote managers (FlexOS.)

[Read: 100+ Hybrid and Remote Work Statistics and Trends in 2023]

So why headlines like “The remote dream is dead?” 

Because the media is still looking to score clicks and eyeballs with polarizing, binary thinking about remote versus in-office, but flexible work is a wide spectrum, and many models, including structured hybrid remote, are still miles better than forcing people into the office 9 to 5 for five days per week. 

We can’t blame the media as their incentives are what they are, but it’s important to acknowledge that hybrid and remote work is as alive as ever and that with its many benefits, we’ll only see more of it in the future, not less. 

Running your own hybrid office? Check out our comparison of the Top 35 Hot Desk Booking Software. Need meeting room booking instead? Check out our Top 10 Meeting Room Booking Software.

Amazon moves too

Zoom wasn’t the only one to demand a partial return to the office this week. Amazon moved officially to hybrid as well. 

Even though many employees disagree, the company’s leadership said to “disagree and commit,” referring to one of Amazon's leadership principles.

Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, reportedly told people to return to the office, “it’s time to disagree and commit. We’re here, we’re back—it’s working,” he said. “I don’t have data to back it up, but I know it’s better.”

The decision to go back to the office part-time is based on Amazon leadership’s belief in in-person collaboration, at least some of the time: “A return to the office is important because it’s the personal belief of CEO Andy Jassy and other top brass that “we just do our best work when we’re together,” writes Jane Thier in Fortune. 

Google discounts near-office hotel nights. 

Google also was in the news for an even more headline-inducing return to office decision: discounted near-office hotel nights. 

Brian Heater writes in TechCrunch that a new perk is rubbing some employees the wrong way.

“The company is internally advertising a $99 “Summer Special” for its campus hotel. Granted, as someone who frequently books lodging in the South Bay, that’s quite a deal, but the whole bit about effectively sleeping at the office leaves something to be desired.” 

Google advertised the hotel nights by saying, “Just imagine no commute to the office in the morning, and instead, you could have an extra hour of sleep and less friction. Next, you could walk out of your room and quickly grab a delicious breakfast or get a workout in before work starts.”

Employees didn’t take it too well, with one Googler writing on an internal message board, “Now I can give some of my pay back to Google.” 

The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg additionally reports that “Google, which has asked employees to come into the office three days a week, announced that managers could take unexcused absences from the office into account when doing performance reviews and could use badge records to identify those absences.”

Even real estate remains the same

Savill’s Executive Managing Director Eric Lonergan notes that another related story is not getting as much attention from the press, which I thought was a great perspective.

Eric shares that despite empty workspaces for days a week, companies adopting hybrid models still allocate dedicated workspaces to eligible employees due to favorable office market conditions and employee aversion to shared desks. 

In other words, as more office space becomes available, rents are lower, making it affordable for companies to keep their current offices. 

Alternatives like downsizing and subleasing office space and having employees book flexible desks through hot desk booking apps have not proven attractive enough options for companies and their people, who still like having their own space, even if they only sit there twice a week. 

Nick Bloom highlighted that in the case of Zoom as an example, they are already locked into a long lease, and the office space is there anyway, so why not use it?

Why we won’t see a full return to the office  

We won’t see a full return to the office because companies who tried it are becoming a warning tale for those considering it.

Besides the many benefits of hybrid and remote work, recent data finds that companies that staunchly refuse to entertain more flexible options are disproportionately struggling with retention and churn.

Offering hybrid and remote is about more than just getting the benefits. It’s also about avoiding real downsizes. 

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky shares a threesome of reports in Forbes, all of which paint a picture of what will happen to companies if they retract their flexible policies. 

Unispace reveals that 42% of firms faced higher-than-expected attrition due to mandates, with 29% struggling to recruit. Greenhouse reports that 76% of employees may leave if flexibility ends, affecting underrepresented groups by 22%. SHED emphasizes displeasure of shifting to traditional work, akin to a 2-3% pay cut.

One person's problem is another person's chance.

In a great post, David Heinemeier Hansson from 37 Signals noted that this also allows startups to offer fully remote. In “Working remotely is a competitive hiring advantage again,” David writes that the move towards hybrid working models is a great opportunity for startups.

“As more and more companies, especially large ones, have started demanding remote workers return to the office, the competitive hiring advantage for remote-first companies is back. And it's even bigger than before the pandemic now that so many workers have tasted what life can be like when you don't have to commute to the office. This is great news for smaller companies and startups in particular.

David notes that every advantage is invaluable in the fierce battle to attract top-tier talent from industry giants like Google or Apple. These companies' mandated return to the office could significantly boost recruitment opportunities for fully remote companies. 

For many, the choice between remote work and in-office presence has become a pivotal determinant of our career choices.  

Indeed, even as remote job postings dwindle, they remain extremely popular among applicants. 

Offering fully remote roles is a big opportunity for companies that want to stand out in a crowded space and at a time when, as Tracy Brower reported in Forbes, people stick in their jobs longer than ever

In conclusion: remote isn’t dead, but choice is more alive than ever.

Yes, it’s a bit ironic, but Zoom formalizing a hybrid schedule isn’t the “death of remote” some media make it out to be. 

Zoom as a platform is still a must-have tool for hybrid teams as different team members will continue to work from different locations. It’s not a remote-only platform. 

As Ryan Anderson from MillerKnoll says: “Zoom is a good product and a useful tool, but no one would suggest that it entirely replaces the value of time spent in-person. We make the best chairs in the world but don’t get upset when people get up and move. We encourage it.”

Companies should also remember that calling people in just to ‘be in the office’ doesn’t work. We must create highly engaging, deeply intentional office days for the hybrid model to make sense and deliver value to people and their organizations.

Second, employees asked to return to the office can vote with their feet. As our research showed, people would consider quitting, and as we’ve seen from the research above, people do. 

Ironically, Zoom's 2022 survey found that 69 percent of workers considered it important that they could choose whether to work remotely, on-site or a mix of the two. Further, 45 percent said they would likely look for a new job if they couldn't work from their ideal location.

Zoom's policy change probably has more than a few employees exploring their options, and that’s what flexibility is all about. 

Even people who love the office and love to catch up over coffee can choose a company or team that offers this and work exactly as they like. In “Lyft’s return to the office: here's why it's risky,” I noted that most people don’t want to be working from home full-time either. 

“But the truth is that employees aren't against being in the office either. They just don't want to be there full-time. On average, they want to be there 2.5-3 days weekly. This is specifically true for younger employees, who prefer more time in the office than older employees and are less likely to want to work remotely completely.”

Similarly, people prioritizing a non-office life can choose another set of companies. And people who love the balance between the two (like myself and many of our team) can enjoy a hybrid lifestyle. 

It’s not about this or that. We just want to exercise control over how we work and tailor our work around our lives instead of vice versa.

We’ve already made big improvements over the last few years, and there’s more choice than ever. Now it’s a matter of not turning back the clock and ensuring we find a win-win between companies and their people. 


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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.