What if you don’t want to go back to the office?
For Jeff Anderson, 61, working from home during the coronavirus pandemic has been a respite from office politics and the chatter around the copy machine.
But as the push to reopen the country’s economy intensifies, so do feelings of dread at the idea of returning to the office, said Anderson, a self-described introvert and anthropology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.
“Just walking from the parking lot to my office I feel like I could be sick,” he said. “It’s that bad.”
In wanting to work alone, Anderson is not alone. People other than introverts view a return to the office with sadness and anxiety, and not just because they still risk getting infected. A Gallup poll found a majority of U.S. adults working from home would prefer to continue doing so “as much as possible” after the pandemic.
These fans of online work worry that they — and the country itself — will lose important benefits discovered during this unprecedented experiment in mass remote work. People who have never liked schmoozing with colleagues have found new heights of productivity away from meetings and office chitchat. People worried about climate change are eager to reduce their carbon footprints by avoiding commutes by car. And while many parents are desperate for schools and day care centers to reopen, some working parents are appreciating more time with their children.
Before the pandemic, Christine Reilley had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch an early bus to Manhattan where she works as senior director of strategy and innovation for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
“I’m better rested. I can devote more time to my work,” she said. “Just saving the time and money of commuting, I really like this personally.”
Impossible for some and ‘overrated’ for others
It did not take long for naysayers to declare that working from home was “overrated.”
And yes, it is an option mostly for white-collar office workers. Telecommuting is rarely possible for people in manufacturing or service jobs, and for the health workers, emergency responders, grocery store clerks and delivery people who have been deemed essential personnel. And the more than 30 million Americans who have lost their jobs since March may be impatient about complaints from people still drawing paychecks.
Nor can the other downsides be denied. Trying to meet on Zoom from a kitchen table with bored children and annoyed spouses complaining in the background is hardly good for productivity. Women say that video calls make it harder for them to get in a word during meetings dominated by men. This crisis has also increased the burdens on working mothers.
Telecommuting was already a growing trend that left out many low-wage workers and was viewed warily by employers who worried that people were slacking off at home. Researchers warned that problem solving and creativity suffer when workers are isolated from one another. Isolated work can lead to loneliness and boredom. Remote workers have also reported they have had to work even longer hours.
OK, so what are the benefits?
For remote work to be successful, employers need to provide the right equipment and other support, said Laurel Farrer, chief executive of Distribute Consulting, a business consulting firm. And the employees must be able to get work done without supervision. If set up properly, experts and advocates say, remote work has many benefits:
- Less time on the road. Commuting by car has been linked to increased stress, more pollution and respiratory problems. The average American who drives to work spends 54 hours per year stuck in traffic, according to an analysis by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
- Greater productivity. One well-known study from 2014 led by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13% more efficient than their office-based peers.
- A cleaner environment (maybe). According to estimates from Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm, if everyone in the United States worked remotely half the time, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle travel by more than 51 million metric tons a year. Graphics showing the reduction in air pollution and pictures of clearer skies over cities like Los Angeles have been among the silver linings of the pandemic. Of course, when people return to work, the roads may fill up again, especially if people fear getting the virus on public transit. And even if more people start working remotely, they might use their cars more for errands closer to home, said Bill Eisele, a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Office commuters make up only about 18% of all traffic, he said.
- Money saved. Global Workplace Analytics estimated that people could save, on average, $2,000 to $6,500 every year by not spending on things like gasoline and day care. Companies could spend less on real estate. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office estimated it saved more than $38 million in 2015 by not using as much office space, according to a Harvard Business School working paper from November.
- More job satisfaction. A 2005 study found that job satisfaction increased with each additional hour people spent working remotely. But it stopped increasing beyond 15 hours worked remotely.
- Less sickness. Even as companies consider reconfiguring workplaces with plexiglass barriers on desks and special air filters, letting employees work from home can help keep them safe from communicable diseases (and not just COVID-19).
- More time for fitness. You may be able to squeeze in more workouts. “Having a little more time, if you’re using it wisely, can be very beneficial,” said Marilyn Skarbek, an assistant professor of exercise science at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. “There are a lot of other things you can do around the house to keep you moving: laundry, cleaning — all of that keeps you active. My house is definitely cleaner than normal.” But there is a risk you could be more sedentary, she warned.
Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, predicted that workers will be looking for the “happy medium,” splitting time between remote work and showing up at the office. The hope is that the pandemic will have shown managers that workers can be trusted to do their jobs without constant supervision.
“Any kind of flexibility is something that people are really, really ripe for, just some control over where and when they work,” she said.
Happy tales from the home office
Many people who had never considered this kind of working life have now had a taste of it, and they love it.
Jacquie Benetua-Rolens, communications and engagement coordinator at Santa Cruz Community Health Centers in Santa Cruz, California, has a 2-year-old son who has become a daily part of Zoom meetings with colleagues, waving at them in his pajamas.
“There is this softened, unfiltered, more honest version of ourselves that I’m enjoying getting to know,” Benetua-Rolens said. “There is room to be forgiving and understanding with each other and ourselves. And it’s because we’ve all had to juggle.”
Benetua-Rolens said she often thinks of her small cubicle back at the office, which she decorated with plants and pictures of her two children.
“I used to love it,” she said. “But I don’t miss it at all. I don’t want to go back to that even though my house is filthy.”
Jessica Keup, a 37-year-old single mother and a computer programmer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to her parents’ home in rural Tennessee with her 3-year-old son in mid-March, after her company told employees to work from home.
Since then, she has been coding from the deck while her son plays with the goats, chickens and peacocks that roost on the vast property.
Keup said the solitude has made her more focused and more productive. Her work is not interrupted by chatty colleagues who want to say hi or need help fixing a computer glitch.
“The people who are in the office who are extroverts stand out and talk a lot and can take the oxygen out of the room,” she said.
At least one poll from early in the pandemic suggests a strong preference for remote work. Gallup found that almost 60% of Americans working from home would prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” after restrictions are lifted, with 40% saying they preferred to return to the workplace. The online survey of 2,276 randomly selected adults was conducted from March 14 through April 2. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
At the very least, some workers would like to see employers put lessons of the pandemic into practice, including more compassionate management in general.
Rico Sisney, who works for Greenpeace USA, said he would like to continue seeing the kinds of emails his organization has been sending lately encouraging employees to take walks and small breaks.
“Organizations can continue that even when there is not a pandemic,” Sisney said. “Highlight mental health.”
Christine de Denus, a chemistry professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said she has relished the quiet of working from her porch. She thinks workplaces should adapt to all styles of working.
“Go to the people and say, ‘How can I help you thrive?’” de Denus said. “Just because I’m quiet in a meeting doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas.”
When the time comes to return to the office, Keup said she plans to ask if she can work two to four weeks a year from Tennessee.
“It’s beautiful. It’s resting and restorative,” she said. “And I’ll miss that.”
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