There are very few times when I feel like the old guy in the room. I credit my ability to keep up with modern culture — music, art, film, books. Like everyone, I enjoy the classics, but I’ve got room in my noodle for new things, new ideas, new music from the next generation. When it comes to technology, I’m your run-of-the-mill early adopter. I stood in line for the first iPhone, I download new apps as soon as they’re announced, I listen to music on Spotify, I run with an Apple Watch strapped to my wrist. A Luddite I am not.
So how come I feel like the “old guy” when the discussion turns to “remote work”?
I never saw a future in which so many people are working from home. Then again, I also didn’t foresee a crippling pandemic that drove people there in the first place. In May 2020 in these very pages, I wrote about visiting my office at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it was like living out a scene from the 1971 Charlton Heston sci-fi thriller “The Omega Man” — empty streets, empty offices, a glance at the end of the world.
That column concluded by acknowledging that some thought COVID-19 would last forever, that it would never be the way it was just a few months earlier. Always the optimist, I had no doubt after a summer of COVID that “normal” would slowly creep back into everyday life. And I was right … sort of.
Last month (and two-plus years after that column), the CDC announced an end to COVID-19 was in sight. The numbers had plummeted. Wearing a mask has become the exception rather than the rule. The only people I see still masking in public are young folks (What do they know that we don’t?).
Life is getting back to normal, except for one thing: Companies have adopted remote work policies that are keeping employees out of the office, in some cases permanently. Technology — camera-equipped computers, Zoom apps — is making personal workplace encounters obsolete, or so it seems.
Two things are driving the work-at-home revolution for office slobs like me. First, employers (and employees) discovered the workforce is as productive — if not more so — working from home, especially in urban areas where dreadfully long commutes are suffered daily. Now, instead of sitting on a freeway or a subway for an hour or more per day, many office workers just turn on their computers, sign in and get to work.
During the pandemic I quickly discovered when I work from home I tend to log in early and stay logged in later because I can’t pull myself away from projects. More work per day. Productivity!
The second fact is that with the national unemployment rate at around 3.7 percent, for the first time in memory, employees have leverage over work situations. Companies that don’t offer a remote-work option could find themselves standing in line behind those that do when it comes to hiring prospects.
According to a recent Gallup survey, 91 percent of employees want workplace flexibility. Meanwhile, companies like Microsoft, Apple, AT&T and Google that are telling employees they have to come back to the office are being met with protests and resignations. When Elon Musk told Tesla employees who work remotely that “they should pretend to work somewhere else,” he quickly backtracked and said he was talking only about his executive staff. Right, Elon.
As of Aug. 22, office occupancy in 10 of the country’s top business centers, including D.C., New York City and Los Angeles, was 43.5 percent of what it was before the pandemic, according to The Washington Post. And if unemployment stays at its current rate, I can’t see that changing.
Here’s the part where I sound like the old guy: I vastly prefer working in an office to working at home.
I miss the action when I’m at home. I miss the bustle of hundreds of co-workers entering the building in the morning. I miss the pleasant surprise when someone brings in donuts. I miss the conference rooms being filled. I miss bumping into acquaintances in hallways. I miss the breakroom chats about yesterday’s ballgame. I miss the gossip.
And, God help me, I actually miss in-person meetings. I miss last-minute brainstorm sessions and the ability to peek around a corner and ask someone for an idea, for a hand, for feedback, for sympathy, to share in a victory or help curse a mistake.
It’s these things that have kept me working in an office for 34 years. On the other hand, the folks I talk to who love remote work miss none of it. They point to having more time with their families, their pets, their home. I get it.
When I mention I prefer the office to home I often get an eye-rolling “OK, Boomer” response from those who’ve been in the workforce less than a decade (I’m not a Boomer, BTW; I’m your classic Gen X slacker). Whereas those who have spent the last 20-plus years working in an office think something is being lost with the move to remote work, though they’re hard-pressed to prove it.
Meanwhile, plans are in motion to build a $600 million, 40-plus- story downtown headquarters for Mutual of Omaha. Why build a massive new HQ when portions of your workforce are working remotely? What does Mutual know that we don’t? Is it only a matter of time before unemployment rises again and those sad ol’ boomers, sitting alone in their offices, decide they’ve had enough and order the troops back to their cubicles?
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.