Ignore those cheerful notes from human resources, assuring you that a committee of the very best people is working hard on getting you back into the office. What that committee has undoubtedly found is that the problem of getting large numbers of people back into the office is difficult — probably insuperable — until we get a vaccine.
Start with the elevators, the core of high-rise development both physically and operationally. It doesn’t feel very safe to cram yourself in cheek-by-jowl with up to a dozen other people, all breathing on each other in what is essentially a poorly ventilated closet. However, if we don’t all cram in together during the peak hours, then in a building of any significant height, it quickly becomes impossible to transfer people to their floors in a timely manner. Moreover, the wait for the elevator will itself become unsafe, as people queue in a space that wasn’t designed for it.
This problem can be alleviated to some extent by requiring people to bring lunch, and staggering their arrivals and departures (though that is possibly hard to coordinate in a building that houses multiple firms). But now imagine that you have patiently waited in line for an elevator shared with one to three other people, and have arrived at your floor. Close your eyes and remember what it looks like . . .
Most probably, decades of “open office” evangelism, abetted by firms searching for lower real estate costs, have placed you in, essentially, a larger version of the elevator: a sealed box, not very well ventilated, in which large numbers of people are crammed together with nothing much between them to stop germs from traveling freely. And it has air conditioning, which may help droplets travel even further. If a super-spreader gets into an environment like this, it is fiesta time for the covid-19 virus.
Since the advent of the Internet, there have been a lot of unfulfilled prophecies about the End of the Office. These prophets failed because, underneath our jackets and button-down shirts, we’re still just glorified monkeys, evolved to do things in a group. We’re better at reading subtle social cues face to face, and more loyal and collegial with people we see that way fairly frequently — learning our co-workers not just as screen names, but as people we chat idly with over coffee. Moreover, that idle chat often spurs unexpected ideas that can turn into a new product or a new sale.
You can believe in the office while recognizing that it just doesn’t work in the time of covid-19. You can keep some people home to make it easier to put some distance between the remaining workers, and have the folks who come in wear masks. But take a minute to go over the mechanics of this in your head, and then ask: Why bother?
People can’t read those subtle social cues when two-thirds of someone’s face is covered by a mask, nor will they want to stand close to one person, chatting — or worse, close to many, holding a meeting. And there’s not much point in holding a meeting with only half your team; you’re still going to have to hop on teleconference software, at which point, it might actually be better if everyone was at home, so you can look at each other’s faces.
Stripped of the social contact that makes offices so productive, mostly you’re left with an annoying and possibly dangerous commute, and the physical discomfort of strapping a piece of cloth across your mouth and nose for eight hours. This is what those committees all over the country are discovering right now, though they may not be quite ready to admit it.
Certainly, some office workers need to be physically in place — people who work on necessary equipment such as servers; people who need to collaborate on complicated visual problems that don’t lend themselves well to screen sharing. Others may simply find it nearly impossible to work in their homes, because of intrusive family or roommates. But, as for the rest, what is the point of hauling them into the office — quite possibly on public transit — just to have them hunch miserably at their lonely desks, sweating into their masks? Better, as the saying goes, to “Stay safe. Stay home.”
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