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September 23, 2021

Steven V. Roberts: The future of work

When I returned to my office at George Washington University last week, the calendar on my wall — curled and faded with age — read March 2020.

Many Americans are facing a similar experience this fall, and are confronting these questions: What is the future of work? What did we learn during the pandemic about the virtues — and drawbacks — of online labor?

Put another way: How do we redefine the phrase “work-life balance”? Traditionally, that idea meant calibrating the time spent at our jobs versus the hours devoted to family and leisure. Increasingly, it means not just when we work, but how and where we pursue gainful employment.

The key word here is “balance.” We don’t face a binary choice between working at home and commuting to an office, between Zoom shirts and business attire. The goal should be to maximize the virtues of both experiences and minimize the downsides.

A recent headline in The Washington Post captured both the ambivalence and the opportunity many of us are now facing: “We hate the office. We love the office. Do we want to go back?” Writer Roxanne Roberts shrewdly concluded: “The post-pandemic takeaway: One office size no longer fits all.”

Let’s be clear: Only some workers have a choice. A Gallup survey found that while 72% of white-collar employees worked remotely during the pandemic, only 14% of blue collars did so. It’s hard to pour concrete or empty bedpans from home.

For those who do have a choice, the last 18 months have taught a clear lesson. As Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the freelancing platform Upwork, told Vox: “A lot of people had a taste of working remotely this year and they see the flexibility that comes with that, and they want even more.”

But “flexibility” means fresh thinking; it does not mean “one size fits all,” or the same size all the time. A survey by Wakefield Research for Eden Workplace found that 62% of employees want a mixture of staying home and traveling to work. Only 23% prefer working full-time at the office, and barely 15% never want to commute.

The joys of remote work are obvious and tangible. I save two hours a day by not driving, shaving or dealing with the distractions of office life. That’s time to walk my dog, do errands, and even — I admit — take an occasional nap.

The Post profiled Zenita Wickham Hurley, a senior government official in Maryland, who has been working remotely since March 2020. “There hasn’t been a day when I’ve said, ‘Boy, I miss commuting,’” Hurley said. “I almost feel like a different person.”

“Money saved on gas and parking during the pandemic has gone toward paying off her student loans,” reports the Post. “Lunch breaks at home during the summer brought extra time with her 10-year-old, and she often starts fixing dinner while wrapping up a work call.”

But there is another side to this balancing act. When I returned to the office, I was able to have lunch with an old friend. We discussed the death of his father and the birth of his first grandchild. He asked how I was coping with tragedy in my own family. The bonds were strong, the hugs and handshakes irreplaceable.

More than half of those surveyed by the staffing agency Randstad said the main thing they missed about the office was interacting with co-workers. This was particularly true for younger employees, who are more likely to live alone and lack family support systems.

“The mental health repercussions of this could be serious, with not just productivity at stake, but the well-being of the younger employees themselves,” reports Tech.Co.

A smart businessman who runs a financial services firm told me that while his senior people were fine working remotely, it was much harder for new employees who didn’t understand the culture or values of the company. Another executive pointed out that while he could maintain ties with existing clients online, initiating new business relationships and establishing a level of trust required in-person contact.

As Apple’s Chief Executive Tim Cook put it, “Videoconference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

Yes, we hate the office — and love it, too. We despise commuting but also desire camaraderie. Pajamas are both comforting and isolating.

In the future, work has to provide both independence and interaction — personal choice and personal connection. That’s what we humans need.

 

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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