CONTRIBUTOR

A lawsuit on behalf of thousands of union workers opposing a return-to-office edict by Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker this month is but the latest flashpoint in a post-pandemic workforce.

Unions representing more than 3,000 municipal employees claim the five-days-a-week order “will cause substantial harm for city workers, and will throw city services into chaos,” according to the suit.

The conflagration highlights a labor market roiled as much by digital transformation as genuine health concerns.

Free technologies ranging from videoconferencing services like Zoom, Microsoft Corp.’s Teams and Google Meet, to Salesforce Inc.’s Slack, cloud computing, Google docs, and AI automation have made it easier — and many employees would argue more productive — working from home.

But tech companies, which initially embraced fully remote work during the age of Covid, have reversed course and increasingly ratcheted up the pressure for employees to return to the office. Their rationale is that workers tend to be more productive sitting side by side, using expensive machinery that can’t be brought home. There is also the matter of making use of millions of vacant square feet that comes at a steep price (see, Apple Park and NVIDIA’s spectacular new campus).

Even Zoom Video Communications, the company that helped to usher in the remote work revolution, is telling employees who live within 50 miles of an office, to work in-person at least two days a week.

“Employees should be in the office every day. It leads to more productivity, and collaboration,” C3.ai Chief Executive Tom Siebel said in an interview last year, pointing to a packed parking lot at the company’s Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters.

“I think that the whole notion of work from home is a bit like the fake Marie Antoinette quote, ‘Let them eat cake,'” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a CNBC interview last year. “It’s not just a productivity thing. I think it’s morally wrong.”

Musk’s take is an outlier among the rank-and-file, most of whom worked remotely before the pandemic.

More than a dozen tech employees from across the country contacted by Techstrong said they wouldn’t consider working anywhere but at home, where they say they are more productive, save time and money, and just as communicative with co-workers.

“I would consider remote opportunities first before considering hybrid or in-office positions,” said Lauren Kopulsky, who has worked from home in Castle Rock, CO, for more than four years. “My remote lifestyle is of incredible value to me.” She currently works for Iterable, an AI-powered customer-communication platform.

“I’ve been a remote worker since 2005 and will NEVER return to a traditional office environment,” Ron Favali said in an email. “In 2017, when I was told I needed to report to an office or I’d lose my job, it was an easy decision. I started my own remote-based marketing and PR practice.”

Joel Richman, CEO of PR firm Escalate, started the remote-only company in 2019 after coping with a 90-minute commute for nearly 20 years in the Boston area. “I was, I guess, depressed, and felt guilty for spending so much time in traffic,” Richman said in a phone interview. “Tech has made it easier than ever to not only work from home, but start a business from home.”

One of Richman’s star employees, a Navy wife with two kids under five years old, has the ability to keep her job when her husband deploys.

Conflicting agendas between workers and their companies has invariably led to legal action by employees over return-to-work orders. They argue such policies discriminate against people with disabilities or violate labor contracts.

Tim Donovan, who is neurodivergent, said remote work has allowed him to “create an environment that truly works for me, free from the distractions and sensory overload of a busy office.”

The Philadelphia lawsuit “underscores there is no evidence of more productivity at the office; indeed, just the opposite,” said Angelica Krauss, director of marketing for HR tech startup Remofirst in Pasadena, Calif. “Once I started working from home, I was three times more productive, and felt more human,” said Krauss, who previously worked for Amazon.com Inc.

“It is so empowering when a manager doesn’t check on your whereabouts every day,” said Krauss.

Indeed, a Stanford University study from 2014, predating much of the productivity technology, concluded that remote work is as productive, if not more, than office space work.

“Long weekly hours and long daily hours do not necessarily yield high output and this implies that, for some employees engaged in certain types of work, their profit-maximizing employer will not be indifferent to the length of their working hours over a day or week,” according to the study.

More importantly, workers point to the luxury of starting a workday just a few feet from bed, free of a stressful commute, pricey parking, and office politics. In short, many referred to a game-changing work/life balance.

“I think if I had to go into an office I would probably lose my ever-loving mind,” Kelly Reeves, a cybersecurity writer based in Paso Robles, CA, said in a message on Facebook.

Added Crystal Hazen: “I don’t miss the two-hour round-trip commute and $20 salads. There’s also something magical about wearing a buttoned-up top and pajamas or yoga pants on the bottom”  working from home.