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The pandemic and the end(s) of office work

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This is an interesting essay from Derek Thompson about the likely permanent changes to work from home policies that the COVID pandemic has wrought or at least seriously accelerated.

Some bottom line numbers:

A chart showing responses to the question "How often would you like to have paid work-days at home post-COVID?" The hybrid total seeking at least 1 day a week is 45.3 percent, while 32 percent seek 5 days.

As Thompson notes, individual preferences in regard to WFH policies are all over the place. It’s true that slightly more than half of respondents would prefer to come to the office two days per week or less, but on the other hand nearly a third of office workers would still like to come in at least four days per week.

In the white collar work world, tech, finance, and media companies (and also from my observation law firms) are reacting to all this by almost universally planning to go to either hybrid work schedules, with a three-day Tuesday through Thursday in-office work week being the most common variation, or in a small but growing number of cases going to a fully remote model.

Thompson points out that, somewhat surprisingly, these changes don’t seem so far to be generating much in the way of office vacancy: since the vast majority of firms are beginning to employ WFH policies that will still require almost everybody to be in the office simultaneously for at least a couple of days per week, demand for office space hasn’t slackened much if at all in most major American cities.

What likely is going to get hit hard is the entire economy built around having office workers in the immediate vicinity during what used to be called the business day/week:

If office occupancy never recovers, downtown areas will experience an extended ice age. Emptier offices will mean fewer lunches at downtown restaurants, fewer happy hours, fewer window shoppers, fewer subway and bus trips, and less work for cleaning, security, and maintenance services. This means weaker downtown economies and less taxable income for cities.

For this reason, some of the most outspoken advocates for return-to-office these days aren’t chief executives, but rather politicians and state officials. “Business leaders, tell everybody to come back,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said earlier this month. “Give them a bonus to burn the Zoom app.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams echoed those remarks. “New York City can’t run from home,” he said. “It’s time to get back to work.”

[Side note: Eric Adams seems like a pretty terrible mayor already. NYC’s batting average in that department has been way below the Mendoza Line for about a half century now.]

The advantages of WFH policies, whether fully remote or hybrid, are so obvious they don’t need to be elaborated, especially in an age in which climate change has made the external costs to society of five-day per week long-distance commuting so extreme.

What’s less obvious are the costs of those policies, especially in regard to three issues, two of which Thompson discusses perceptively, and the other which he ignores almost completely.

The first cost is the acceleration of the already-severe levels of social atomization that characterize contemporary life. at least for “knowledge workers” and the like:

“The one great advantage of the office is that it meets our tremendous desire for human contact,” Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, told me. If people are going to come back to the office multiple days a week, Moss said, the office will have to adapt. “Successful new offices will be like vertical yachts,” he said, “an experience that people seek out, with terraces, and outdoor areas, and fancy gyms, and places to eat.” . . .

Many young college graduates starting careers in remote companies without routine physical gatherings might miss the social glue that comes from being in an office. “My sense from the anecdotal evidence is that young workers are worried about the lack of such connections,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University. “Difficulties in forming connections with peers and mentors generates a sense of drift for many new employees, leading them to be more open to moving jobs.” When the office is a place, there is a physical connection to colleagues. When the office becomes a group chat punctuated by Zoom all-hands meetings, switching jobs is practically as easy as logging out of one Slack account and logging into another.

For fairly obvious reasons no one in a position of authority at my work place ever asks me about anything, but if I were in charge I would arrange to have a couple of decent “free” lunch options available for people who come into the office, as I’m quite confident the costs of this would be overwhelmed by the dynamic interpersonal synergies ™ thereby generated just be getting people to actually come into work occasionally.

But seriously, Erik writes a lot about how the workplace is a critical social space in all sorts of ways, and this side of the equation is being somewhat underemphasized by all the paeans to WFH (Again I’m not in any way minimizing the immense benefits of WFH as an option for both individuals and society as a whole).

A second cost that Thompson notes is that pandemic-driven WFH policies are surely exacerbating the pre-existing deterioration of the division between being at work and not at work:

For some knowledge workers, Friday through Monday may come to occupy a murky space between weekday and weekend—a sort of work-play purgatory, where the once-solid walls between work and life become more porous. “Mondays and Tuesday are the fastest-growing days of the week for travel,” Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, told me. “More people are treating ordinary weekends like long holiday weekends.” In short, the typical five-day workweek may dissolve into something stranger and less settled—a three-day office week that exists within a longer work week.

Because of information and communication technology this was already happening in a big way of course, but the hybrid or remote work week is for a lot of people becoming a literal week, with all that this entails.

A third cost that Thompson almost completely ignores is the asymmetrical effects of all this on workers for pay who are also unpaid caregivers to children, aka “women.” (Yes this is a generalization. It’s also a very valid one).

“Working from home” is difficult to impossible for people who have to care for young children at the same time, which because it’s the most important work performed in our society is usually unpaid work, reflecting the general principle that the social utility of work in this culture is inversely related to its compensation.

Thompson nods at this issue in the second half of one sentence:

But that’s not all. Bloom told me that he’s also seeing signs of remote-work envy from people who can’t do their jobs from home. “There is real resentment among workers who don’t have this cushy work-from-home deal but all their white-collar friends do,” he said. I’ve talked to hospitals whose shift workers would rather work longer hours for four days than fewer hours for all five.”

Add it up—three days in the office for tech and media workers; four days in-person for hospital staff—and the five-day workweek seems endangered. Bloom suggested that schools might respond to these changes by offering teachers Monday or Friday off, which could be the nail in the coffin of the old-fashioned workweek.

This is all a bit speculative, and I can already see how these changes will be celebrated by some (Summer Fridays forever!) and problematic for others (Waitwhat do I do if my kid’s school cancels Friday classes forever?).

BTW, nothing annoys me more in our non-troll commentariat than people who mock the hardships generated by remote school attendance during the pandemic as merely the selfish whinging of parents who want “day care” for their children, as if wanting to have help taking care of children so that people can among other things earn a living is like wanting a Lamborghini or something.

Thompson’s failure to discuss this whole side of the issue is of course symptomatic of our society’s failure to even discuss having anything like rational child care policies. (Thompson does acknowledge quite directly that hybrid and remote work options are things that aren’t going to be available for the foreseeable future for large sectors of the work force. ETA: this is going to generate massive class stratification effects: a point that Thompson mentions but doesn’t really explore).

But he’s surely correct that the future of office work in particular is going to look quite different that its past, in ways that will reshape society significantly for both better and worse.

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