As I See It: The Reluctant Return
June 7, 2021 Victor Rozek
Another day, another questionable announcement from the CDC. This time it was a guideline suggesting that vaccinated people need not wear masks in most circumstances; a pronouncement that many experts found to be both ill-advised and premature.
Nonetheless, many heard it as an invitation to return to normalcy. Long-suffering restaurant and bar owners exhaled for the first time in many months, and everyone seemed delighted just to see the bottom half of their friends’ faces again.
One group in particular was unabashedly eager to return to the pre-pandemic past: CEOs. Newsweek reported on a poll conducted by the Best Practice Institute which found that 83 percent of queried CEOs wanted their employees back in the office full-time. On the one hand, that’s welcome news. It means your old job is still available; your old desk has not been sold off for scrap metal; and your old manager is ready to give you in-person evaluations again. But there’s just one small complication: Only 10 percent of queried workers have any desire to return to the office.
For better or worse, the pandemic taught us that many jobs can be done remotely. Employees discovered that although working from home was rife with challenges (kids, pets, spouse), it also offered abundant advantages (reconnecting with kids, pets, spouse, to name just three). But management, particularly the old guard, decided that empty offices were not necessarily optimal, if for no other reason than the fact that the exercise of power intensifies with proximity.
There are understandable arguments on both sides. Who, after all, longs to waste irreplaceable hours of their lives commuting on crowded highways or packed subways? Who wants to experience the joys of working long days, enduring endless meetings, and attending compulsory team building sessions? Who wants to arrange for spendy child care, pay for dry cleaning, and $5 cups of coffee? Who wants to go to the gym at zero-dark-thirty, or after work when they’re already spent? Who wants to fill their weekends running errands? And if the deadlier, more contagious versions of COVID burn through the population, who would want to work in a petri dish? “Normalcy,” for a lot of working folks, was not all that desirable.
But that’s not true for everyone.
Some actually enjoy their commute because the time they spend in their cars each day is the only time they’re able to be alone. Some miss the camaraderie of the workplace, the brain storming, the ability to communicate with colleagues without having to initiate a Zoom session. Some work in project groups that are best served by adjacency. Some need the structure of the workplace in order to be productive. For them, home is a place of many distractions.
As for management, they either build or rent, and maintain, a lot of expensive office space. It makes little sense to have 3/4 of it sitting empty. The perception, right or wrong, is that the least engaged, the least devoted employees are the ones who don’t want to come to work. Commitment to the company, management argues, requires making the sacrifices remote workers shun.
Delegation notwithstanding, the essence of management is control, and it’s difficult to control people when you can’t even observe them. If the workplace can be analogized as a vessel powered by employees all rowing in the same direction; working remotely is akin to everyone rowing their own boat. It’s tricky for the captain to know if they’re actually rowing for their entire shift, with the same heads-down intensity of office staff; or even if they’re going in the right direction.
While employees grapple with the cost of returning to office life and the inherent loss of flexibility, management fears the erosion of company culture, and the upheaval of a business model built on everyone coming to work every day.
While returning to the office will exact an undeniable cost and require a major lifestyle change, refusal to do so will likely also carry a price. Remote workers, because of lack of proximity, will have a limited career path. When it comes to promotions “out of sight, out of mind” may become the prevailing reality. Management will soon forget about its absent employees; their contributions will be devalued. With few exceptions, off-site people are rarely asked to manage on-site people.
Then there’s the very real possibility of demotion to hourly or contract employment with no benefits package. In order to encourage a return to the office, companies may define full-time employees as those who show up. The rest may be classified as contractors, the gig economy’s wet dream, thus saving employers a great deal of money.
As satirist Alexandra Petri declared: “Everyone must be in the office with their assorted smells… It is bad that the office is empty of people and filled only with the scent of hand sanitizer and flat sodas that were opened in March 2020.”
IT is undoubtedly better suited for remote work than many other professions, and a number of industry leaders are preparing for a hybrid future in which employees spend less time at the office. Ideally, they’ll be able to maintain the relationships essential to the smooth functioning of the company – and their careers – while preserving much of the flexibility to which they’ve become accustomed.
Ultimately, top tier, experienced IT professionals will always have options. Over the next year there may be a sizable reshuffling in IT employment as companies clarify their post-pandemic strategies, and employees decide what they are willing to tolerate.
In highly competitive environments it may be advantageous to make frequent office appearances. Ambition often starts in the home, but seldom ends there. If you have judgements about the people you work with, follow the advice of Anthony Hincks: “I can’t work with idiots. That’s why I work from home and got rid of all the mirrors.”
And if you’re able to work from home but become frustrated by the distractions, interruptions, and temptations, give yourself some grace. “Successfully working from home is a skill,” said Alex Turnbell, “just like programming, designing, or writing. It takes time and commitment to develop that skill, and the traditional office culture doesn’t give us any reason to do that.”
Given that so few people are eager to return to the office, however, that culture is about to change.