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COMMENTARY | The best job perk is self-determination.
Unless you’re extraordinarily wealthy (congrats on that), your experience of working through the pandemic has probably been miserable. If you’ve had to work in person, your days have been dangerous and precarious. If you’ve been able to work from home, you’ve had an enormous privilege. But devoid of choice and novelty, remote work has lost some of its romance for office workers who previously dreamed of ending their commute. In home offices around the country, the wallpaper has begun to yellow.
WFHers have been working longer hours and more weekends than before the pandemic, and they’re more likely to report loneliness, depression, and anxiety than people working in person, according to Gallup. At the end of April, nearly 66 percent of respondents to a Morning Consult poll said they wanted to return to the office as soon as possible. Half of remote workers even miss their commute. But these data aren’t as conclusive as they might look. In the same Morning Consult poll, 84 percent of respondents said they enjoyed remote work. Gallup found that remote workers reported better overall well-being and higher engagement than those in the office. Many office workers also seem to be more productive at home, even in the middle of a disaster.
All of this has been enough to make some employers reconsider their future. Much attention has been paid to a small number of influential companies such as Facebook and Twitter, which have announced their elective remote-work policies, as well as to those such as Goldman Sachs, which insisted in February that remote work is a temporary anomaly and not a new normal. But rumors of the office’s death have been greatly exaggerated, as have those of its triumphal return. Most companies are still deciding exactly what their post-pandemic workspaces look like, which means many office-going Americans are about to enter a few months of relative freedom during phased, attendance-capped reopenings. Employers are trying to figure out what they can get away with down the line, and workers are trying to figure out what they can demand.
What would be best for most office workers—and what’s most likely to happen for many of them—is something between the extremes of old-school office work and digital nomadism. What’s right for you might end up being a little further in either direction, depending on how social or siloed your job is, or if you’re a particularly extreme introvert or extrovert. But I’m here to argue for a particular baseline: three days in the office, and two at home.
Working from home certainly can have perks. You can sleep later and sit on your couch. Your boss probably can’t monitor your every move. Even if you have hated remote work during the pandemic, WFH advocates are quick to point out that the experience of the past year is not at all a good barometer of what your remote-work future could be, especially if you’ve had kids at home all day who would otherwise be at school. In a post-pandemic world, even a couple of days a week at home will let people with substantial commutes, for instance, win back a few hours of their time—for sleep, for exercise, for reading a book in the morning, for avoiding after-school child-care fees, for whatever.
Working from home also gives you more control of marginal time in the workday itself. At the office, if you need a break from your computer, that might mean going to stand in line to buy a salad or yet another coffee. At home, it could be washing dishes or folding laundry or doing a grocery run—stuff that would otherwise eat away at personal time. Remote workers can walk their dogs and make sure their packages don’t get snatched off their porch, and they have more flexibility to travel. Working from home can also open up new choices about where to live; even if you’re commuting two or three days a week, you might be able to opt for a more affordable neighborhood, or a town that offers more outdoorsy activities that’s farther away from the office.
But working from home is also not what most people say they want to be doing full-time in the near future. In a 2020 survey from Gensler, an architecture and design firm, more than half of respondents said that they’d ideally split their time between home and the office. (Only 19 percent said that full-time remote work was their ideal setup.) Many people benefit from working and living in separate places. Commutes can have upsides. Last year, I was somewhat embarrassed to realize that I was among the half of American office workers who missed mine; the time I used to spend walking and riding the train every morning provided a psychological in-between, when all I needed to do was let my brain transition into work mode while I listened to a podcast.
Once you’re actually at work, seeing others there can be valuable, even if you have a robust outside social life. In-person communication provides texture and detail that Zoom can’t re-create, and can make working with your colleagues feel less transactional and more humane—listening to your boss say something absolutely wild in a meeting isn’t quite as bad if you can make eye contact with a friend across the conference table and then run out for a coffee afterward to vent. That effect is particularly strong for early-career workers, who need opportunities to learn from older colleagues, network with people in their industry, and figure out the internal politics of their workplace—a set of office advantages that would be tricky for even the most well-meaning employers to offer for a fully dispersed workforce, and not all employers are well meaning.
Maintaining access to an office also helps ensure that the financial burden of work stays with employers. Your company has to find space for you, instead of you renting a bigger place with an extra bedroom to make room for your job. Your company has to provide you with the equipment necessary to complete your work, instead of you furnishing your own home office. (I can’t be the only one who was dismayed last year to find out how much a decent desk chair costs.) The company pays the power bill to climate-control your workplace all week, and it provides internet access that’s good enough to have multiple people using video services at once.
The term American office worker might conjure images of lawyers and accountants, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common type of job in the country is office administration and support. Receptionists, assistants, file clerks, mail-room attendants, and people who enter data and field customer-support calls do vital work, much of which is paid at significantly lower rates than their big-shot colleagues, and many of them can’t do their jobs fully remotely. For those who can, extra bedrooms and home-office equipment aren’t cheap. In an all-remote future, the wealthiest employers would probably provide stipends for these things to retain the people they see as the most valuable talent. If you’re outside that circle—or, worse, someone they see as support staff—good luck getting your gratis Aeron chair.
I’m sure you strenuously object to at least one of my descriptions of office or remote work. Maybe you hate having to share compulsory niceties with your co-workers just to refill your coffee. Maybe you are totally unable to complete work tasks anywhere but the office, and think anyone who says they can is lying. But the beauty of hybrid work is that to be engaged in it productively, no one has to see eye to eye with their co-workers about why either extreme is good or bad.
By letting people choose their own office adventures, employees can gain back some of what’s sorely missing in American work culture: self-determination. Need to plow through a task that will take you a full day? Stay home. Need to talk through some plans with a few co-workers? Everyone goes in. Kid got the sniffles? Expecting a delivery? Have dinner plans near the office? Do what you need to do to manage your life. Being constantly forced to ask permission to have needs outside your employer’s Q3 goals is humiliating and infantilizing. That was true before the pandemic, but it’s perhaps never been as clear as it is after a year in which many employers expected workers not to miss a beat during a global disaster unlike anything in the past century.
Now that many American companies have been forced to adapt to remote-work life, there are good reasons to demand continued flexibility from your employer—and good reasons to believe you could get it. “There’s this new realization and awareness of how you work best, what’s important in life, and how you want to spend your time,” says Janet Pogue McLaurin, the global-research principal at Gensler, the architecture firm. “People are going to shift to align with that.” Employers, she told me, know that the genie is not going all the way back in the bottle, and some will see this switch as a win-win. They get to reduce their office footprint and brag about providing a highly sought-after benefit that saves them money.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, are the office traditionalists—bosses who didn’t believe in remote work before the pandemic, and who steadfastly refuse to let a massive catastrophe change anything about their worldview. Even these people might be wrestled into acquiescence this year if enough of your co-workers needle them. If you’re new to hybrid working and are trying to figure out what might work best for you, start your demands at three days in person, and two days remote. You’ll still be in the majority of the week, which might help a reluctant boss come around, but you’ll have enough flexibility to make a real difference in your work life.
We’re in a rare moment when American office workers are likely to have significant leverage over their working conditions—in a recent survey, well over half of middle-income workers said they were considering switching jobs this year, and for most of them, remote flexibility would be a factor. Companies that don’t want to spend a fortune replenishing their ranks in a hot labor market will need to make concessions. They can start with two days a week.
Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic.