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At Amazon they walked off the job. At Starbucks and Walt Disney they launched petitions. At Google they demanded a rethink.

This is how workers at some of the world’s best known companies responded this year to a rule that would have sounded outlandish before the pandemic: come in to the office at least three days a week. Or four in the case of Disney.

Of all the consequences of the new age of flexible work, the one I least expected was this level of corporate rebellion. But it has not been the only surprise. Three years after millions of employees were ordered home, the question of where and when staff work remains remarkably complicated.

Some things are becoming clearer though, starting with the extent to which workers are prepared to fight for a benefit that many did not have pre-Covid.

White collar unions have been the stars of this story so far. 

In Australia this month, unions won a remote work agreement for thousands of federal public servants that could allow unlimited days at home. They also secured homeworking rights at one of the country’s biggest banks, and are challenging another over a rule requiring staff to spend at least half their working hours each month in the office.

These fights can get messy.

More than 150,000 Canadian federal government workers earlier this year went on strike for nearly two weeks over return to office rules and pay, in one of the biggest actions of its kind. They ultimately failed to win the right to work at home though the government agreed to review its policy.

It is also becoming clearer that remote work does not necessarily harm productivity. Robust research suggests a fully remote workforce may be about 10 per cent less productive than a fully in-person one, though losses can be offset by big savings on office space and hiring staff globally for lower local wages. But hybrid working seems to have a zero or slightly positive impact on performance.

Likewise, the WFH backlash is not as dramatic as you might think from stories about BlackRock, Citigroup and other large companies tightening return to office rules.

Three years after the pandemic took off, many office buildings in big US cities are still only half as full as they were in 2019. And even when workers go back to the office, they are not staying there as long as they did.

If that sounds odd, it may be because we hear less about companies such as Allstate, the insurer that has about 57,000 employees and allows 82 per cent of those in the US to work remotely.

Finally, there is the big surprise about the type of countries where working from home is taking off.

Researchers, such as Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, expected to see a rich-poor pattern like that in individual countries, where homeworking levels are highest among high earners and fall as income declines.

But no. Data that Bloom and others just published shows levels are distinctly above average in English-speaking countries: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“This is striking and not what we predicted,” Bloom told me last week. So what explains the difference? “We honestly don’t know.”

There are several theories. Roomier US homes might make it easier to work remotely than squishy flats in northern Europe and Asia. Asian countries that conquered Covid faster had shorter lockdowns and thus less time to experiment with homeworking.

I find another theory more convincing: US companies are generally better at measuring and assessing workers’ performance, so are more relaxed about people working from home.

This matters. US management practices tend to be adopted faster in other English-speaking nations, but then spread elsewhere. That’s one reason Bloom thinks that even though remote working levels may dip, they will eventually rise, like a Nike swoosh.

The spread of tech that makes remote working easier is another factor, as is the number of all-remote start-ups that will become the companies of tomorrow. Also, governments struggling with population collapses are waking up to the merits of remote working, which is distinctly more popular among parents with young children.

A global recession could change this, as could another shock like Covid. But in the meantime I suspect Bloom is right to say, “I think a Nike swoosh is a pretty safe bet.” 

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