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Opinion: The absurdity of the return-to-office movement

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify and was the founding editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

I host a podcast, “In the Room with Peter Bergen,” which focuses on national security issues. Every day, I see the merits of being part of an entirely remote workforce.

Peter Bergen - CNN
Peter Bergen - CNN

We have a production team, around half of whom live in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the others live in places like Chicago, Mexico City and San Francisco. We have met in person only twice in the year that the production has been up and running, and we have put out dozens of highly produced episodes, often featuring multiple guests, which go through many rounds of edits.

In my four decades of working in media, I have never worked somewhere with a better esprit de corps, creative energy and a collective willingness to help everyone else out.

And yet, some corporate titans are still pushing for their employees to return to their offices. Banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase and tech giants like Meta are demanding that their staff be back at the office several days a week.

Those return-to-office demands are often couched in non-falsifiable claims about the necessity of having chance encounters at the office where folks bounce creative, productive ideas off of each other.

Typical of this view is JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who claimed in 2021 that working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation.” There is no empirical evidence for this claim, and the desire for employers to see their employees working in their offices seems to be more about the need for control and an attachment to the old ways of doing things.

The return-to-office demands also make little sense from an overall economic perspective at a time when a third of Americans who can do their job remotely now only work from home, up from only 7% before Covid, according to the Pew Research Center, yet the economy is very strong in terms of low unemployment and GDP growth. If working from home suppressed innovation, productivity and creativity, you would expect quite different economic results.

Further, working from home saves Americans an average daily commute of 72 minutes a day, to say nothing about the reduced pollution and energy consumption that comes from fewer commuters, according to a 2023 University of Chicago study.

Working parents, in particular, benefit from not having to waste time, money and flexibility commuting to an office. A 2023 Bankrate survey found that 74% of working women with children are in favor of remote work, while 64% of all working Americans support it.

I have some insight into this as a parent who now works mostly from home. This arrangement gives me a lot more time to spend with my kids, and if there is any kind of unforeseen emergency, I can be there for them in a way that, during the era of the office, I couldn’t be.

The internet and cell phones obviate so much of what was once done at the office, which is, after all, largely an artifact of the 20th century thanks to the rise of mass transportation, the ability to build tall office buildings and the previous immovability of the “work” telephone, which was stuck to a desk. All this, thankfully, is going the way of the dodo.

During the office era, so many workers spent so much time at their desks that workplaces often tried to present themselves as some kind of alternative family. You had your “work husbands” and mandatory “team building” events. Of course, this all came at the expense of your loved ones at home, as you had to spend time away from them while doing all your office-based events and tasks.

I am writing this column in Washington, DC, but work with editors in New York, London or Atlanta. In fact, I have written several hundred of these columns over the past dozen years and I have never met most of the editors I work with, and yet I still have a warm, productive relationship with them.

To be sure, a Starbucks cappuccino is not going to make itself, and certain kinds of work environments — such as hospitals, restaurants, film sets or government offices where classified material is handled in a secure environment — require employees to be in person.

But for much of the economy where work doesn’t need to be in person, the demand to “return to office” is not rooted in any concern for employees, a large majority of whom want to work from home — not because they are lazy or don’t want to be productive, but because it gives them more freedom and control over their own lives.

So why do some bosses still feel it necessary to prolong the slow and necessary death of The Office? Beats me.

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