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Inflation Complicates Return to Office Plans

A recent analysis from Square, the technology company, quantified the “lunchflation” that workers like Ms. Jacobson were facing. The average price of wraps last month was up 18 percent from a year earlier, with sandwiches up 14 percent and salads up 11 percent. At the same time, fast-casual restaurants are drawing more lunchtime customers as offices fill back up. Orders placed at quick-service restaurants in the United States from mid-March to mid-April rose nearly 13 percent from a year earlier, according to the analysis.

Companies are trying to head off the clashing forces of inflation and return-to-office expenses with attempts to make transportation and food more affordable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in its recent Consumer Price Index that the price of food at workplaces had declined even as broader meal prices went up, most likely a sign of companies’ “widespread free lunch programs.”

Take OrderMyGear, in Dallas, which recently told its 165 employees that by June many would be expected to begin coming into the office, at least part time. Jaclyn Unruh, the chief of staff, reminded employees that the company offered free passes for public transportation, which about 10 percent of them use, as well as free parking, and meals two or three times per week.

In other workplaces, inflation has become a factor that reduces the R.T.O. appeal. Cambium Learning Group, an education technology company based in Dallas, told its 2,300 employees in December that most would have the option to stay remote, but it reopened the office in January for those who wanted to use it.

“My food bill is really different from not going into the office, not grabbing coffee,” said Melissa Yates May, Cambium Learning Group’s head of human resources. “It’s helped a lot of employees manage their finances better.”

The company has not yet increased wages to the rise in consumer prices. “We’re waiting a little bit to see where it normalizes before we make those types of adjustments,” Ms. Yates May said, noting that the company uses market data to ensure its wages are competitive.

Still, many managers making decisions on return-to-office plans aren’t immune to the stress of rising prices. And they know that employees who are paid less than them are even more likely to feel pain at the pump or coffee shop.

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