State of the Planet

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The Growing Momentum Behind Going Back to the Office

There are some types of work that can’t be completed from home: health care, food and drug manufacture and distribution, auto repair, and quite a few others. During the pandemic, the essential workers who perform these functions did not get to work from their couch in sweatpants. They continued to go to work during the pandemic. Many do not have the luxury of working from an office: they work in warehouses, hospitals, factories, or stores; many drove trucks, cars, vans, and bikes. Some of us had a mixed experience. Those of us who teach learned to teach over Zoom and were grateful for the technology that enabled us to continue working. But as an educator, I am under no illusion about distance learning: it is effective and often necessary, but it is not better. Teaching, which is at its heart simply a form of human communication, is better in three dimensions. Eye contact, body language and all sorts of nonverbal cues are missing from today’s online experience. There are many forms of learning that we can do online, but some teaching requires face-to-face engagement.

I started my return-to-work last summer as I learned to teach in what we call the hy-flex mode of instruction. Under hy-flex, we teach in a classroom. Some of my students were in the classroom with me, masked and socially distant. Some were at home on Zoom. Since I live within walking distance of Columbia’s campus, my commute was not the obstacle for me that it was for others. But I remember the sense of relief I felt, teaching, even in a mask, in a classroom back in September of 2020. In September 2021, Columbia is returning to full campus density with a nearly fully vaccinated maskless faculty, staff, and student body. I can’t wait.

While many people have gotten used to life without commuting and are arguing for greater flexibility to enable more working from home, businesses are eager for workers to return to the office. As Matt Egan observed on CNN Business:

“Even more than other industries, Wall Street is clearly in a rush to turn the page on this extended era of virtual work. Executives, employees, and those who follow the industry point to a range of factors for this. First, there are the cultural concerns. Zoom calls and Slack messages are no substitute for in-person bonding and training. Others worry about the cybersecurity and risk management vulnerabilities inherent in businesses that conduct billions of dollars of transactions every day. At its core, banking is a face-to-face business — and no one on hyper-competitive Wall Street wants to lose a deal because of a slow WIFI connection.”

Organizations that live off creative processes such as design, advertising, software development, research, and communications thrive when people interact with each other in formal and informal settings. The problem with the virtual office is that the casual two-minute drop-in conversation is replaced by a 30-minute formal meeting. It is a cumbersome and tiring substitute for the real thing. The in-person group session punctuated by a tangent that turns into a meaningful discussion is harder to stimulate in cyberspace. Sharing a meal, a long airline flight, and even a disastrous client briefing provides opportunities for bonding and communication that build understanding, friendships, and loyalty.

Nevertheless, there is resistance to the return to the office, as indicated by a Wall Street Journal piece recently filed by Lauren Weber. The article’s title summarizes its main point: “Forget Going Back to the Office, People are Just Quitting Instead.” According to Weber:

“More U.S. workers are quitting their jobs than at any time in at least two decades, signaling optimism among many professionals while also adding to the struggle companies face trying to keep up with the economic recovery… Several factors are driving the job turnover. Many people are spurning a return to business as usual, preferring the flexibility of remote work or reluctant to be in an office before the virus is vanquished. Others are burned out from extra pandemic workloads and stress, while some are looking for higher pay to make up for a spouse’s job loss or used the past year to reconsider their career path and shift gears.”

For some workers, they’ve discovered they can do their job as well from home as in the office, so they are asking management why should they be required to incur the time and expense of commuting? There is little question that the American workforce adapted to the pandemic and remained productive. I am confident that more flexible work patterns will emerge from this catastrophe. This is a trend that started before COVID-19. The gig economy, the internet, and temporary workspaces such as WeWork have separated some work from the traditional office.

But work is not simply a set of tasks. A well-managed organization evolves into an institution when the people who work for it value the organization for what it is, not simply what it does. A generation of brutal management, hedge fund asset stripping, and ruthless downsizing has made many organizations less an object of worker loyalty and affection. But better-managed organizations understand the importance of morale and human relationships. People with high morale are more productive than people with low morale. A sense of spirit and team-building requires human interaction. While the nature of work is changing, we are not about to see the demise of the physical workplace.

In addition to workers who believe they don’t need to return to the office, there are a large number of people who are scared to return. Those who will need to return to their offices after Labor Day will have been working from home for over a year and a half. While vaccinations and the reduction of COVID cases have allowed them to engage in more activities than before, some people remain scared to be in crowded spaces. Over a year of social distance has made some of us wary of each other. These fears are far from trivial, and the psychological impact of the pandemic must be understood by employers as they seek to resume normal operations.

The momentum for a return to offices persists despite these fears. It is driven both by management and by staff eager to put the pandemic behind us. It is the same force that filled up the Barclay Center for the Nets playoff games and is starting to draw crowds to Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. I see it in the classroom when I am teaching this summer. Students may value the convenience of Zoom for some group meetings, but they are delighted to be together during and especially after class. Humans are a social and tactile species. This pandemic robbed us of family, friends and, for those of us in cities, the presence of crowded streets, theaters, stadiums, places of worship, and of course, restaurants and bars.

The other source of momentum is that for ambitious and upwardly mobile professionals, they know that they need to be visible to top management and be present in the room when decisions are made. If the boss has abandoned the virtual workplace, they will need to climb aboard the train and make the commute back to work. And for those who are less ambitious but perhaps fearful of losing their position, fear of being left behind will motivate them to return to the office.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catastrophe for the planet, the nation, and my home city. Government’s failure to protect us from this highly contagious but containable virus has caused unspeakable pain, trauma, and death. Humans are capable of learning from disaster and I hope this one results in learning about the need for public health institutional capacity. I am confident that it has taught us quite a bit about organizational management and the advantages and disadvantages of place. There is a great deal of momentum behind the return to the office, but that office will never be the same.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Pamela Alabaster
Pamela Alabaster
2 years ago

Great piece Steve!