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After 2 years of working from home, many workers aren't ready to return to the office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. Should workers be forced to return to the office even if they have successfully worked from home for more than two years? Elon Musk weighed in this week. He sent an email to his employees with the subject line Remote Work Is No Longer Acceptable - but it is far from a settled debate, as NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Jonathan Pruiett was facing an agonizing decision. He's a geospatial analyst working for a Google vendor, a company called Cognizant. They're the ones who update Google Maps. They'd been told to return to the office five days a week starting Monday.

JONATHAN PRUIETT: And if we don't return to office within three days, we'll be processed as abandoning our job.

HSU: Employees signed a petition asking for more time to figure things out and for medical exemptions for those who need them. Like others on his team, Pruiett joined the company during the pandemic and has only worked remotely. And so..

PRUIETT: It's not making a lot of sense to us workers. Nothing will change other than, you know, having a couple snacks in our office and having an in-person meeting.

HSU: Which is not an advantage in his mind. Pruiett likes virtual meetings. He says you can process data while sitting through them. In online trainings, you can share your screen rather than having everyone in a conference room looking at one computer. Then you add in COVID risks and the cost of commuting when gas is $5 a gallon.

PRUIETT: We're kind of starting to think that maybe this job isn't worth it.

HSU: He wasn't sure if he was going to show up at the office on Monday. Then today came word that the company was giving them a 90-day extension, so crisis averted for now. Of course, working from home isn't possible in many jobs, but in companies where it is, the return to office has become a point of tension between workers and their bosses. Last month, Apple pushed back a plan to bring employees back three days a week after workers called it inefficient, inflexible and a waste of time. Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do, they wrote. Meanwhile, other companies have started to rethink, what is the office for anyway?

NAWID HAIDARI: Good morning, everyone. My name is Nawid.

HSU: In Arlington, Va., it's onboarding day at Eagle Hill Consulting. A handful of new employees are getting IT training. And the marketing team has just had a photoshoot, so a few of them are in, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So did you hire a local photographer or was it a Chicago photographer?

HSU: Jason Carrier, a consultant who's been coming in about once a week, says it's more people in the office than he's seen in a long time.

JASON CARRIER: This is actually quite packed. There's probably about 20 people or so here today.

HSU: Twenty people at a company that has 200-some employees. Now, Eagle Hill has always embraced flexible work. Employees were never required to work from the office full time, but most did anyway.

CARRIER: Could I have worked from home four days a week before the pandemic? I think I easily could have. It just wasn't the environment.

HSU: People liked being in the office together. It's mostly 20 and 30 somethings here. They like the energy, the happy hours at the end of the day. Now happy hours have returned, and there are also virtual bingo nights, thanks in part to Carrier, who leads the workplace fun team. But the idea of working from the office all day, every day?

CARRIER: Probably very close to a dealbreaker at this point.

HSU: Chief marketing officer Susan Nealon says she wants to see people in the office, but only when it makes sense.

SUSAN NEALON: I view the office changing, so it'll be less about the individual work getting done and more about the group work getting done.

HSU: Meaning you can do your individual work in the quiet of your home and show up for the team meetings as needed. And even on those days...

NEALON: You won't go to the office 9 to 5. You might go to the office 11 to 1.

HSU: An idea that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago, but here, it's already a reality. And it's proved to be a selling point for newer hires. Fara John-Williams in HR and Alessandra Gonzalez in marketing say they wouldn't have it any other way.

FARA JOHN-WILLIAMS: It's hard to even fathom going into the office 100%. I don't think I could do it ever again.

ALESSANDRA GONZALEZ: I completely agree. I would much rather have the flexibility than have to be a little tied down, you know.

HSU: No chance of them leaving for jobs with Elon Musk anytime soon. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.