A recession could kill the work-from-home revolution

We’re already getting little glimpses of how a bleak economic situation might burst the WFH bubble. Several weeks ago, Elon Musk told his employees to return to the office or else lose their jobs. This initially looked like a straightforward threat by an eccentric CEO with a passion for office-based proximity. But days later, Tesla announced that it would likely have to lay off 10 percent of its workforce, suggesting that Musk was using the threat of return-to-office to get some of his workers to quit on their own, without the indignity of announcing a large layoff.

This morally dubious playbook is widely available. Several tech companies, including Apple, have tried out (and in some cases abandoned) a version of this stealth layoff strategy, according to the investor Jason Calacanis. “These companies are too prideful to do layoffs, so instead they say, ‘Come back to the office or quit!’” Calacanis told me on my podcast, Plain English.

The real-estate billionaire Stephen Ross articulated the flip side of this dynamic, predicting that just as employers may use a return-to-office policy to nudge workers to quit, workers may return to win their bosses’ affection before layoffs begin. “Employers have been somewhat hesitant because they didn’t want to lose their employees,” he told Bloomberg. “But I think as you go into a recession and people fear that they might not have a job, that will bring people back to the office. You have to do what it takes to keep your job and to earn a living.”