The R.T.O. Whisperers Have a Plan

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Being the boss doesn’t mean you get exactly what you wish for. That’s what Craig Knoblock discovered when he tried to get his employees to come back to the office in the fall of 2021.

The morning of his office’s grand reopening, Knoblock was feeling energized. He traded out his hole-ridden jeans for nicer pants and happily raced along palm-tree-lined roads to the Information Sciences Institute (I.S.I.), a research organization connected to the University of Southern California that he has run since 2018. Knoblock — who is 61 and radiates the kind of bronzed, healthy glow that might seem out of place at an academic institution, were it not in Los Angeles — rode the elevator to the 10th floor, where his executive assistant greeted him with one of the gift bags she had assembled for returning workers. An entire conference room had been set aside for them: 250 bags filled with KN95 masks, hand sanitizer, pretzels, nuts and Welch’s fruit snacks.

But as the week drew to a close, dozens of those bags sat untouched, and the office remained far emptier than Knoblock had expected. He realized with dismay that many people didn’t want to return to the office. When he surveyed his roughly 400 employees and student researchers that month, Knoblock found that nearly 30 percent of them preferred to work from home — forever.

I.S.I. happens to be the very place where in 1981 scientists invented “packet video,” the software technology that enables video meetings, but Knoblock was determined that at least some old-fashioned office work would prevail there. “We’ve got to fix this,” he told himself. “We need to convince people to come back.”


https://static01.nyt.com/images/2023/04/16/magazine/16Mag-RTO-1/16Mag-RTO-1-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webpPhoto illustration by Derek Brahney



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