Zoom’s move shows employees are losing the work-from-home war

Research increasingly seems to be on the side of companies who order workers back to their desks. It might be time to begrudgingly consign the all-remote lifestyle to the dustbin


Zoom is the company more synonymous with working from home than any other. In a few short months, the video conferencing software went from obscurity to ubiquity as millions of office workers grappled with propping up their laptops on kitchen tables during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

But in an irony to end all ironies, Zoom itself is calling time on remote working. This week, it announced that any of its 7,400 employees who live within 50 miles (80 km) of one of its offices must work from there for at least part of the week, starting from autumn this year.

“We believe that a structured hybrid approach – meaning employees that live near an office need to be on site two days a week to interact with their teams – is most effective for Zoom,” the company said. “We’ll continue to leverage the entire Zoom platform to keep our employees and dispersed teams connected and working efficiently.”

It’s hard not to see it as something of a watershed moment. Zoom has joined a flood of other high-profile companies starting to compel workers back to their desks – including several who were initially evangelical about WFH.

The major companies ending WFH

Google said in June it would allow fully-remote working arrangements in only exceptional cases – and would start to factor in-person attendance into performance reviews. Amazon has mandated at least three days a week in the office since February this year. Meta, Disney, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs and Apple are among the many others taking a firmer tone in recent months.

Globally, seven in 10 companies have changed their policies in favour of a return to office, according to a survey of more than 6,000 employers by Unispace. That’s despite the fact they experience higher attrition rates as a result. 

Employers who favour a return to office say it offers productivity, collaboration and learning benefits no remote-first strategy can replicate.

Can all these companies be misguided? Several recent pieces of research seem to back up their position, pouring cold water on key claims in favour of remote work.

A paper published by researchers from MIT and UCLA this week examined the habits of data entry workers in India. They were asked to submit their preference for working from home versus the office, but then randomly assigned to one or the other working pattern.

The least productive group? Those who both wanted to work from home and actually did so, the study concluded. In fact, they were about 27% less productive than their counterparts who worked at the office. In addition, the study found that about a third of the productivity loss came about because home workers were slower to get to grips with the working process.

The researchers think some of the effect comes down to people having good reason to prefer home work – such as caring responsibilities or being less well-off.

But another survey published this week suggests an alternative reason that might prove more persuasive to bosses.

More than eight in 10 UK workers confessed to watching TV while working from home, a survey commissioned by TonerGiant found, for a daily average of more than two hours. Significant numbers also said they had socialised, gardened, napped and even had sex while on the clock at home.

Why employers are changing their minds on WFH

At this point, I would like to stress that I am entirely in favour of allowing people to work however and wherever they want, if it’s appropriate to their job. In my view, productivity is more negatively affected by catching colds and flus while crammed onto public transport, or being distracted by chatty coworkers, than a quick nap here or there.

However, were I responsible for balancing profit and loss at a large company, I might view things differently. Many evidently do.

According to the latest ONS data, two-thirds of firms report some kind of concern for their business, with falling demand and inflation topping the list of worries. Meanwhile, productivity in the UK has long remained stagnant and it’s still unclear whether we will tip into a recession this year.

The idea fashionable among remote-work diehards that one can simply hop to another role should your boss order you back to the office might soon go out of style, too, with the labour market showing signs of tipping back in favour of employers.

For better or worse, we might soon be looking back at the era of remote work in the same way we now view elbow bumps: a relic of the strange years of the pandemic, rather than the ‘new normal’ so many hoped for.

Read next: our columnist weighs in on the real reason your back-to-work drive is failing