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Even the U.S. president’s return-to-office push is being ignored by workers: ‘They aren’t coming back’

Michael Ciaglo—Getty Images

Plenty of CEOs have been fuming about workers ignoring return-to-office mandates. At some companies, including Amazon, managers now have the green light to fire such employees, or block their promotions.

But if it’s any consolation to those corporate chiefs, even the leader of the free world has seen his return-to-office appeals ignored. President Joe Biden has been calling for federal employees—and Americans in general—to return to offices for about two years now.

“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person,” he said in his State of the Union speech in early 2022.

Then this April, via a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, the Biden White House instructed agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices.” But apparently that wasn’t being adequately heeded, because in August, Biden chief of staff Jeff Zients told cabinet agencies to “aggressively execute” the transition to more in-office work.

'We’re not there yet'

Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, took note of this at a Wednesday hearing addressing remote work by federal employees.

“The president himself is telling federal employees to get back in the office, and they aren’t coming back,” said Sessions.

He cited a Wall Street Journal article published a day earlier in which a Biden administration official admitted, “We still have work to do. We’re not there yet.”

The underlying question of the hearing, Sessions said, was: “Are the telework policies in federal agencies putting mission accomplishment—and the American taxpayer—first?”

A report in July by the Government Accountability Office found that 17 of the 24 federal agencies had used only about 25% of their headquarters building capacity during a three-week sample period.

Sessions expressed frustration with some agencies not sharing information about how often federal workers come into the office, saying, “Either these agencies simply do not know the answers to some, or all, of the questions we asked, or they do not want to share it.”

The Biden administration has felt pressure to reduce federal employee remote work not only from Republican lawmakers, but also from Democratic mayors worried about the effects on downtowns. Without workers eating at restaurants or using local services, a variety of downtown businesses suffer—and some fail, leaving behind empty storefronts.

“We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses, and by any user willing to revitalize it,” Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the beginning of the year in her third inauguration speech.

'Return to the office is dead'

Yet despite Biden’s proclamations and tough talk from CEOs this year, office attendance in large cities is today barely half the level seen in 2019, as the Journal reported in October. And even while CEOs demand employees return to the office, many companies are simultaneously downsizing their offices.

“Return to the office is dead,” Nick Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor and remote work expert, wrote this week on X, formerly Twitter. His research suggests that remote work did decline between 2020 and 2022, but that the downward trend came to halt this year.

Americans are working from home about 28% of the time now, according to Bloom, and he expects the figure will continue to hold steady until 2026, when he foresees “slowly rising” rates of remote work, driven by technology advances. That’s in stark contrast to the expectations of most CEOs. According to a recent KPMG study, nearly two-thirds of them expect a full return to office by 2026.

This story was originally featured on