“Dropped my bong,” the boss said after the thud on his floor rattled our recent Zoom meeting.
Actually, I’m reasonably sure he didn’t say that. My 61-year-old’s hearing, conspiring with videoconferencing’s sometimes funky audio, distorted whatever word he really uttered. The incident gave me a chuckle, a desperately needed commodity these days and one that made working from home that much more pleasurable.
My experience during the pandemic, and that of the millions of others forced to Zoom, beg the question: Once the sunrise of normalcy banishes these dark days of social distancing, will our disease-forced seminar in videoconferencing permanently remake the homefront into the typical office for many workers?
Please, God, make it so. While my own university workplace plans to get back to campus as soon as feasible, more frequent workdays home would be welcome, and for the economy broadly, it could mean happier, more productive workers. The writing is already on the home-office wall.
Twitter recently announced that employees able to work from home may continue to do so once the pandemic lifts. “A beautifully hopeful sign,” gushed the co-director of Harvard Medical’s Human Network Initiative, who argues that decongesting urban job centers by letting workers labor from home in the burbs would distribute the ranks of the employed to other zip codes. It also might drive down exorbitant housing prices in those cities, he adds, as demand for shelter dropped.
... will our disease-forced seminar in videoconferencing permanently remake the homefront into the typical office for many workers?
Twitter’s not an outlier. Nationwide Insurance will scale down to four campus worksites while sending the rest of its workforce to work-in-place. And a survey of 500 start-ups found a majority saying they’d stick with at-home employees post-pandemic.
Homework, pardon the pun, had been trending upward even before COVID-19, abetted by the rise of reliable broadband. It got another kick in the seat from the Great Recession, when some companies cut back on office space to save money and kept remote work, and the savings, afterward. Chicago-headquartered software firm Basecamp (formerly 37signals), founded in 1999, is one example of a business that reaped success allowing employees to work from home. Turns out I’m not alone in appreciating a commute from bedroom to living room only.
I’m aware of, and honor, the many low-wage workers in jobs that can’t be done remotely. I also know other workers prefer the office; I live with one. My wife enjoys the shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie of the institutional workplace. After months of exile, it’s easy to imagine the like-minded stampeding back to the office when they can, craving real rather than virtual interactions and escape from the stress of juggling work and childcare. (Then again, working from home can make it more convenient to attend a child who’s sick or needs school transportation.)
“Telecommuting is not the future,” declared the (over)confident headline atop Washington Post columnist Helaine Olsen’s recent jeremiad, which cited Yahoo and Bank of America among companies that recalled remoters to the office. “Online communications can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings — anyone who has spent much time on social media knows that humor and tone are easy things to misinterpret,” Olsen writes. “There are serendipitous benefits to in-person collaboration that no number of Zoom meetings or Slack channels can replicate.”
Well, sure, and anyone who has spent time in an office knows humor and tone can be misinterpreted in person as well. As for collaboration, Olsen cites research about the perils of work-from-home; counter-research, including by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, says those who want to work from home, and can do so, are more productive.
Bloom agrees employers wring optimal creativity when there is some direct, personal contact between employees. He recommends workers show up at the office at least two or three days a week. I’d live happily with that compromise. Even I miss the chance to shoot the breeze face-to-face with co-workers, swap family news, and empathize over some problem via facial gesture that’s not transmitted by Zoom.
But the hour on mass transit to work, requiring an hour’s earlier wake-up, with a repeat at the end of the day? Enjoying small pleasures from working at home, from seeing neighbors walk their dogs out our window to quick jaunts around the nearby reservoir? I know that, like winter, the old routine is a necessary part of life’s normal cycle, and we all long to get back to normal. Still, if more frequent thaws, courtesy of working and Zooming at home, warm up that normal each week, fine by me.