To Jonathan Pruiett, it just didn't make sense.
A geospatial analyst who updates Google maps for a living, Pruiett had been called back to his company's offices in Bothell, Washington, five days a week, starting June 6.
Like many on his team, Pruiett had only worked remotely, having started the job in the pandemic. He'd adapted well to it, finding efficiencies such as multitasking during virtual meetings, using the time to process data.
And yet, now he was being told to report to office. Anyone who failed to report within three days of the return date would be processed as having abandoned their job.
"Nothing will change other than having a couple snacks in our office and having an in-person meeting," Pruiett said. "We're kind of starting to think that this job isn't worth it."
Source of tension between workers and bosses
More than two years into a pandemic that has no clear end, the debate over remote work has only intensified. Working from home isn't possible in many jobs. But for those who have the option, it's now evident that it is feasible, even beneficial.
But how beneficial is a point of contention between workers and their bosses. Some bosses are deciding too much is lost when people aren't in the office and it's time to come back.
Tesla boss Elon Musk is one of them. He recently emailed his employees with the subject line "Remote work is no longer acceptable." He reasoned that Tesla creates and makes "the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in."
Musk told them anyone wishing to do remote work "must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week."
Apple too wanted to bring people back to the office three days a week. But just last month the company decided to postpone its plan after more than 1,000 current and former employees signed an open letter called the plan 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.
It was yet more evidence of the shift in the balance of power between management and rank and file, as demand for workers has hit record highs in the past year. Companies are finding it hard to enforce unpopular policies and mandates when they fear their workers could just walk away.
Google maps workers win a temporary reprieve
The Google maps workers, who are employed by the tech company Cognizant, also decided to fight back. They connected with the Alphabet Workers Union and signed a petition citing COVID fears, the costs of commuting amid $5 gas, and the increase in productivity and morale that employees have experienced while working from home.
With just days to go before the June 6 return to office deadline, Pruiett said he wasn't sure whether he and others would show up in the office on June 6. Members of his team started preparing for a strike vote.
Hours later, Cognizant did what other companies have done in recent weeks: Granted a reprieve.
"Our first day back to the Bothell office full-time will now be September 6," the company said in a statement released on Thursday.
Pruiett called it a 90-day Band-Aid and vowed to continue the fight.
Conference rooms with fancy names like the Kennedy Center sit empty
Even as some companies seek to bring back some semblance of office life, others are asking: What is the office for anyway?
At the management consulting firm Eagle Hill Consulting in Arlington, Virginia, the offices have been open since the fall of 2021, but on most days, there are just a smattering of employees on site — mostly from IT and human resources.
No one has been ordered back full-time or even close to it. Desks and conference rooms, named after Washington, D.C., landmarks such as the Kennedy Center and Navy Yard, sit empty.
It's a dramatic contrast from pre-pandemic times, when every seat would be full — despite the fact that flexible work was offered then, too.
"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," says Jason Carrier, a senior associate who used to spend four days a week in the office and one day at a client site.
Although he lives just a few minutes' walk from the office, he now comes in just once a week, which is more than most of his coworkers, he says.
Working from the office, all day, every day is probably a "deal breaker"
The workforce at Eagle Hill is young, mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. Before the pandemic, people liked being in the office together. They liked the energy. They stayed late for office happy hours at the end of the day.
Now off-site happy hours are becoming a regular thing alongside virtual bingo nights, thanks in part to Carrier who leads the workplace fun team. So the idea of working from the office, all day, every day?
"Probably very close to a deal breaker at this point," he says.
Eagle Hill's chief marketing officer Susan Nealon says she'd like to see people in the office when it makes sense. She recently took advantage of an in-person event — a photo shoot her team had organized — to gather a few members of her team for their first face-to-face meeting in more than two years.
"I view the office changing," says Nealon. "It'll be less about the individual work getting done, and more about the group work getting done."
She believes workers may be happier and more productive doing their individual work in the quiet of their homes and only coming into the office for team meetings at optimal times. Instead of fighting rush-hour traffic to sit in the office from 9 to 5, you might just pop in from 11 to 1, she says.
It's an idea that would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago. But already, it's proving to be a selling point for new hires at Eagle Hill.
"It's hard to even fathom going into the office 100%," says Fara John-Williams, who started in human resources in May. "I don't think I could do it ever again."