Professional Distancing: The argument for returning to work

Many companies are preparing to bring employees back in the spring or summer, depending on how fast the vaccines roll out. Picture it: At first, the office will feel like the first day of school, senior year — everything’s familiar, and all your old comforts are there, and everyone’s thrilled to have the sort of proximity we’ve actively avoided for months.
Professional Distancing: The argument for returning to work
Photo: Reuters


But the old annoyances will arrive right on schedule. The commute will still be long; there will still be too many meetings and time-sucks; it’ll still feel like a mad rush to get out the door in the morning or get dinner on the table at night. The question will present itself: Why, again, do we insist on traveling to an office every day? 
When I talked to dozens of analysts, H.R. experts, architects, consultants, real estate agents and office furniture designers, the consensus was clear: The future of office work is flexibility. At one end of that flexibility spectrum, there will be fully “distributed” companies like the software maker GitLab, with no headquarters and employees scattered across the world. At the other, there’ll be more old-fashioned firms that demand face time in the office, but whose belief in the infeasibility of remote work has been permanently undercut. 
And then there’s the vast, corporate in between. Headquarters aren’t going away, but more companies will embrace the hub-and-spoke model: smaller footprints in big, expensive cities, and smaller offices in places where employees want to (and can afford to) live. Some companies will keep their existing office space and allow people to claim staggered schedules that align with their preferences, avoid peak commuting times, and reduce overall capacity in the office. 
Others will try what used to be known as “hoteling” or “hot desking,” in which multiple workers share a desk. Still others will offer stipends for employees to join the small, neighborhood-oriented working spaces that will proliferate as Americans get vaccinated. 
People will be leaving their homes, having conversations, working with others — which is what they actually miss when they say they miss the office. They’ll just be doing it more on their terms than ever before. 
There are problems, of course, with each of these scenarios. Let people do what they want and the pre-pandemic power dynamics of the office will simply reproduce themselves. No one, for example, should be allowed to go to the office every day — otherwise it’ll just become yet another way to prove yourself the better, more present worker. And the employees most likely to embrace the flexibility of working from home are the same people expected to perform the majority of labour in the home: women. Remote work will have to be viewed as equally important as in-person work. In practice, that means rethinking what remote working actually looks like — that is, very little like what we’re doing now. We’re not just working from home, after all. 
We’re working from home during a pandemic. We might have haphazardly arrived at workarounds, but there’s still so much more to develop, whether in terms of dedicated heads of remote work, or technology that actually makes hybrid in-person and remote meetings feel less awkward. 
Actual work-life balance — the kind that comes with health care and the ability to someday retire — should be for everyone, not just programmers and web designers. The bargaining power that comes from something as old-fashioned as a union or something as seemingly radical as Universal Basic Income would liberate workers to ask for more. Not more money, necessarily. But genuine flexibility to make work secondary. 
If the future of work is flexibility, our challenge now is to make sure that future doesn’t just worsen the ever-widening divide in American society between those promised a new vision of the good, balanced life, and those for whom “flexibility” means effacing your wants and needs and dreams, once again, to the fickle demands of your employer. 
Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study and is an author. NYT©2020 
The New York Times

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