Delta boss to CEOs griping about employees not returning to the office: ‘They’re on my planes’

 The return-to-office battle shows few signs of abating, with remote workers holding their ground and bosses getting tougher with in-person requirements. But one corporate boss sees the tug-of-war from an unusual vantage point: Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.

Asked whether business travel had returned to pre-pandemic level, Bastian told Semafor this week that it was “about 80% back.” But overall, he noted, demand for air travel “has been off the charts” as passengers return to the skies with a vengeance.  

He also explained how the switch to remote and hybrid work schedules had affected his industry, even as CEOs push return-to-office mandates. 

“New work patterns mean that people are traveling who in the past couldn’t because they were in an office Monday through Friday,” he said. “When I talk to CEOs and they moan about how they’re having a hard time getting their employees in, I say: ‘I know where they are. They’re on my airplanes.’”

Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary believes that remote work is here to stay and changes the way projects are managed, with 9-to-5 days no longer the norm. “You say to somebody, ‘Look, you gotta get this done by next Friday at noon,’” he told CNN in March. “You don’t really care when they do it…as long as it gets done.” 

 That gives remote and hybrid workers flexibility on when to work—and when to travel or let off some steam, too. Stanford researchers documented how golf courses enjoyed a 278% jump in golfing during mid-afternoons on Wednesday comparing 2022 and 2019, with the most likely explanation being that “employees are golfing as breaks while working from home.”

That doesn’t mean workers hitting the links during traditional office hours are any less productive, the researchers noted—it could just mean they’re spreading their work across a wider range of hours, perhaps working late into the night or very early in the morning. The same logic would seem to hold true for catching a flight.

“Remote work means empowering employees with trust and responsibility, fostering a culture of accountability and initiative,” Firstbase CEO Chris Herd tweeted last week. Herd, whose startup helps companies set up, manage, and retrieve equipment for remote workers, argues that the phrase “remote work” has been hijacked to mean work from home when it really means work from anywhere. He agrees that companies benefit from employees bonding in person, but he thinks a better and cheaper way to achieve that is by being remote and holding semi-regular off-site meetings rather than by signing long-term office leases and insisting workers live nearby.

Were his advice to be widely heeded, it would likely benefit the air travel industry, with remote workers taking flights to employee gatherings, as well as having more freedom to travel overall. Herd also notes that going remote allows companies to draw from a much larger talent pool, which gives them a significant competitive advantage over time.

Amazon, for one, is headed in the opposite direction. It’s reportedly requiring some employees to relocate in order to comply with a return-to-office mandate it began enforcing earlier this year. Workers at its Seattle headquarters held a walkout in late May to protest the mandate, but that didn’t faze Amazon leaders. 

With in-person work resuming, “there’s more energy, collaboration, and connections happening, and we’ve heard this from lots of employees and the businesses that surround our offices,” Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser told Fortune

Herd believes CEOs will ease up on RTO mandates and embrace remote work more as office leases expire, tweeting on Friday, “Tell me when a company’s major offices leases expire and I’ll tell you when their CEO announces they are becoming a distributed company.”

If he’s right, that could be good news for airlines like Delta.

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