The researchers of the remote-work study believe cultural norms are also at play in return-to-work levels. Plenty of American workers said they felt comfortable asking their managers for more flexibility, or even telling them that they would quit without it.
When Laura Zimm, a public defender in Duluth, Minn., was called back to the office last year, she immediately came down with Covid. She worked from home during and after her sickness, and eventually decided with her manager that she would stay permanently remote, which Ms. Zimm preferred and which gave her manager more flexibility with office space.
At Microsoft, the return-to-office process has often included “team agreements,” in which managers meet with employees to discuss hybrid work preferences.
In parts of Europe, unions and other worker associations have helped shape return-to-office policies. At many German firms, for example, employee-elected councils negotiated with managers on the details of hybrid work.
“We needed to find a solution that would work for all of our employees, whether in software development, finance or on the shop floor,” said Julia Bangerth, head of human resources at Datev, a software company in Nuremberg that allows every team to set its own return-to-office expectations.
And the choices that individual employers make are not isolated. In areas of the world where remote or hybrid work has become a norm, employers with strict return-to-office policies worry about retaining talent, said Mark Ein, chairman of the workplace security firm Kastle, which has tracked American office occupancy levels with its “Back to Work Barometer.”
“Business leaders as a group have wanted people to come back in much more profound ways,” Mr. Ein said. “It really is the labor market’s competitive pressures and some cultural norms that have prevented it.”
“The desire to get people back among business managers is nearly universal,” he added. “It’s the ability to do it that varies across countries.”