The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, the office is back. It just might never be the same.

Workers are suddenly feeling happiness and angst; frustration and relief. Sometimes all at once.

From left: Jason Moon, Simon Poulton and Barron Kennedy during happy hour at the Wpromote office. (Linnea Bullion for The Washington Post)
10 min

LOS ANGELES — Just past the ping-pong table, in front of the kombucha tap and around the fully stocked snack bar, an executive bounds over to a couple of people who have just stepped foot in an office for the first time in more than a year.

“Are you shaking?” he asks. The visitors are confused. His outstretched hand solves the mystery.

Handshakes are back from the dead, against all odds. Hugging, too. And small talk, about the weather — Is humidity good for curls? — or the snacks — Is blue or yellow Gatorade better? — is thriving.

This is office life in summer 2021, the sort-of-maybe-hopefully-but-probably-not-ending stage of the pandemic, at least here at the headquarters of Wpromote, a digital marketing company of about 500 employees in the office district south of Los Angeles’s airport.

Employees huddle near a television playing European soccer, laptops open. There are small faces on Zoom tiles everywhere — at desks, in huddle rooms and on the computer screen a man holds above him, shouting “Can you see?!” as he walks through the kitchen.

There are the awkward disclaimers about vaccinations. And for the most part, there are no masks.

Across the country, the leaders of corporate America have begun opening their doors again at companies such as Facebook, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft, bringing the country’s white-collar workforce back to the skyscrapers, office parks and campuses that were long assumed to be the only way to corral them.

But a lot has changed in the past year and a half, and offices have, too.

The Washington Post spoke with a wide range of workers and companies that have begun bringing people back into their offices, even as data shows that most big commercial buildings are still well below full capacity across the country. Some workers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their employers to comment publicly.

Most workers described a strange office environment bearing little resemblance to the one they left behind — a world of complicated social interactions, lingering anxieties about masks and vaccinations, and simmering frustrations about inflexible work policies. Companies spoke about the challenge of getting a workforce that has grown accustomed to working from home fired up again about office culture.

Mask on, mask off

Only about one-third of workers — 32 percent — are back in large office buildings, according to data from building security company Kastle Systems, although the numbers have been increasing in recent weeks. Of the major cities the company surveys, San Francisco and New York have the lowest occupancy, at 19 and 21 percent, while cities in Texas have the highest — about 49 percent of workers are back in Dallas, Houston and Austin.

The people The Washington Post spoke with who had returned to their offices all described different experiences.

Some went back to workplaces operating at only a fraction of the capacity they used to have; others returned to packed rooms with people in every seat. Some dreaded the return; others looked forward to it. Some found the new office life little different from the isolation they felt at home, just with a longer commute; others said they were invigorated from being around people again.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined that companies can require vaccinations for staffers, but many companies have been opting for a less confrontational approach — encouraging and at times incentivizing vaccinations but not explicitly requiring them.

All of the workers The Post spoke with except for two described environments such as these, with vaccinations encouraged but not explicitly required.

Many companies, including Wpromote, are asking employees who are not vaccinated to wear masks, but none of the workers interviewed across the country said the requirement was enforced — companies are putting their faith in the honor system.

Sabrina Arredondo works for a construction company of about 15 people in Los Angeles. The company asked people to be vaccinated before coming back to the office in early June.

Bosses told workers they could choose whether to wear masks inside, which she said had created a somewhat tense atmosphere — because of the way mask-wearing has become such a stand-in for political beliefs over the past year.

“I’ve heard conversations with some passive aggressiveness, of like somebody talking about somebody else that isn’t wearing a mask and is super relaxed. And they’re kind of like, ‘Well, it’s not that hard to wear a mask,’” she said. “It’s causing tensions that weren’t necessarily there before. I mean, our whole office gets along pretty well. It’s just that now there’s like this new clear divide.”

A man who works as an analyst at the state of Indiana’s tax agency, which he said recently brought back nearly all of its approximately 700 workers, said that unvaccinated people were supposed to wear masks at work — meaning that in many meetings, one or two people would be sitting in the room with a mask on.

Workers described some physical modifications made to the offices — increased spacing between desks or plexiglass dividers — but overall said that the physical makeup of the spaces had been little changed, despite all the talk about the reinvention of office space last year.

“The extent to which everything is sort of exactly the same is very weird,” said Emily Miller, 38, who works in logistics at the headquarters of an equipment company of about 1,000 in Minnesota. The office reopened in June. “You know, I expected a sense of it being more different, but it’s almost like we’re picking up where we left off.”

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Sad cupcakes

Many said the comfort of being around other co-workers had yet to return — complicating a fundamental plank of corporate culture.

Gabriela Casco, 25, a legal assistant who started a new job at a nonprofit in New Jersey in May, said that she had been looking forward to having a social life with colleagues again when her office reopened.

But she found little in the way of interaction when she began at the office the next month.

“Everyone kind of talks about that camaraderie of going into the office with their colleagues and stuff,” she said. “But everyone got so used to being by themselves that the office is so quiet, even with people there. And then we’re still wearing masks, and everyone’s keeping their distance, and everyone’s in an office by themselves.”

The new normal has led Casco to conclude that the previous social norms in offices were constructed — a facade, she said. The digital tools people leaned on during the pandemic, messaging programs such as Slack and video chat applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are still just as prevalent.

“Everyone has their headphones in, and they either call you on Teams from across the office or they go to your office and then they pop in and ask a question and they leave. That’s about it,” she said. “I honestly don’t see the point of going in.”

Miller, the logistics worker in Minnesota, said there are fewer meetings and impromptu conversations between co-workers at her company — part of a trend of more distance between people.

Social events have lost their luster, too.

While celebrating a co-worker’s birthday last week, people took the cupcakes back to their seats, she said, instead of hanging around to chat as they used to. The cafeteria is open but more empty than it used to be, she said.

She knows that the small group of people she most frequently interacts with is vaccinated but doesn’t know about the rest of the office, which gives her pause about getting too close.

It’s that lack of cohesion that has led some workers to question the point of the return to the office — already an issue of contention at many companies that are trying to curtail the flexible work routines that have flourished over the past year.

“I don’t know anyone who’s actually even enjoying being back in the office now,” the Indiana office worker said.

A manager at a law firm of about 250 people with multiple locations that has been open for vaccinated staffers since the end of April gave another perspective, saying that the results of people working from home had been mixed.

Some people were more productive, she said, while others suffered from the lack of supervision — some lawyers had taken advantage of the flexibility, for example, disappearing on vacations without telling anyone.

The company also believed strongly in the social interactions that offices provide, she said, and the benefits of face-to-face communication.

“My opinion is that working from home really affected people’s mental health,” she said. “There is something about that camaraderie from being around other adults who do what you do and interacting with them in person that is better.”

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Still, with about 80 percent of people back in the office part time, some employees at the firm had been granted exemptions for more-flexible schedules, or to work remotely for good after moving away during the pandemic.

There are other little changes too: Kastle says some clients noticed during the pandemic that the dress code for skeleton crews working from offices slipped — from business casual to extremely casual.

Ashley Durkin-Rixey, 40, who works in communications for a technology trade association in Washington, found returning to her office for the first time since March 2020 to be an unexpectedly emotional experience.

Her desk was plastered with pictures of her dog, Chewbacca, a Chihuahua-corgi who died during the pandemic. A Black Panther figurine she kept there reminded her of actor Chadwick Boseman, who died last August. She found herself sobbing on the drive home.

“I thought it would just be relief — ‘Welcome back!’” she said. “And then it was just kind of like: ‘Oh, wow. Here’s the gravity of the last 16 months again.’”

Evolve or go extinct

A couple dozen employees and executives showed up to Wpromote’s office on a recent Tuesday, including many people who had not been back since the office’s closure in March 2020 and others who were hired in the past year who had yet to meet any of their co-workers in person.

The crew was in good spirits as people greeted one another loudly with hugs and shouts: “Hey stranger!”

It was a celebratory atmosphere, and one that Taylor Riddle, a recruiter spending her first day in the office after being hired remotely, described as like “the first day of school.” There was a happy hour with craft beers and wine at 3 p.m.

Reminders of the strange alternative universe that was the past year were everywhere — in the many desks that sat empty, the dried-up plants here and there, the calendar that stopped at March 2020 on one desk.

In what one employee said used to be a bustling area of the office with a couple dozen desks, only two were occupied. A thigh-high stack of cardboard desk dividers — purchased by the company during the early days of the pandemic, when attention was focused more on surfaces than airborne transmission — sat unused on the floor nearby.

But the return to the office had brought the extroverts out, and many workers said they were newly grateful to be with one another again.

“Last Thursday, I remember going home and just being happy,” said Tyler Julius, 27, an operations manager at the company. “Not just like, ‘Oh, it was a good day.’ I felt buoyant. I was like, ‘I haven’t felt like this in more than a year!’”

Like many companies, Wpromote had surveyed its staffers during the pandemic about their work preferences. And like most companies, it found that its employees overwhelmingly preferred a more flexible work-life arrangement.

But the company also had always prioritized its office culture — the sunny workplace energy that meant an executive could be playing shuffleboard with a junior employee at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. The office was always considered “the best closer” for prospective hires.

Other companies have thought about this dilemma in binary terms, debating between the flexible and remote-friendly policies that their employees want to continue and the idea that being physically present in the office is central to work.

But with its dueling priorities of both workplace culture and employee preferences, Wpromote decided to emphasize both tracks.

The company opened its headquarters and smaller offices in Dallas, Chicago and New York in early June and has been encouraging employees to come back a day or two a week if they are willing and comfortable, plying them with catered lunches, happy hours and the usual office perks like cold brew, and hoping that FOMO will do the rest.

But at least 15 percent of the workforce has been given permission to work remotely — one staffer moved temporarily to Colombia during the pandemic — and new staffers have been hired in places such as South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida and Georgia.

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It was a decision the company made because of a longtime philosophy that keeping its employees happy is central to its success. But executives said they were also concerned that the company could lose relevance if it failed to adapt to rapidly shifting work preferences.

“We have to be a place that helps our employees succeed, and if they’re bringing those values, we embrace it — or we’re cutting ourselves off from a huge swath of the market,” said Michael Block, 39, the company’s chief operating officer. “We’re only going to succeed, and our clients are going to succeed, if we’re building a place where people want to grow their careers. The world changed. We could shake our fist at it and try to change it, or we could adapt.”