Opinion A seismic standoff over remote work is building

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

Tracy Moore is a writer in Los Angeles.

The pandemic finally seems to be easing its grip on the United States, nudging us back into public life, friendly visits, even travel. But going back to the office full-time?

According to most workers, the answer is simple: I would prefer not to.

Not yet. Not every day, anyway — and maybe not ever. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the old way of working left little room for living. Between our fragile mental health and a work world desperate to have us slot back in, something has to give. The obvious answer is a new model that allows for in-office, hybrid or fully remote work. But it’s an open question how many workplaces agree.

A poll by the Best Practice Institute and reported in Newsweek found that some 83 percent of CEOs want employees back full-time, while only 10 percent of workers want back in. A seismic standoff is building. “There is a belief in our culture that we’ve proven that most jobs can be done virtually,” Melissa Swift of consulting firm Korn Ferry told Newsweek. “But that’s not the belief within the leadership of organizations, so we’re headed for a real clash.”

Certainly some people are thrilled to squeeze into hard pants and rejoin the thrum of the office. But for many, going back to working for the weekend is the nightmare. Who, exactly, is thirsting to wake up earlier to slog through their commute? Who’s excited about team-building exercises, long hours and impromptu meetings? Who could possibly be jazzed about sharing colds (to say nothing of, still, the coronavirus), wrangling child care or promising to work late because you had the gall to schedule a doctor’s appointment?

Not me. I’ve been working remotely for more than a year, and though monitoring a fifth-grader’s virtual education has certainly tested my limits, it has granted me greater sanity and family connection than in my previous life. A part of me misses in-person brainstorming and camaraderie, but a larger part wonders: At what cost?

That cost has remote workers around the country agonizing over the time and effort required to shift their routines back to working-stiff mode — and worried they’re powerless to object. People across industries and pay grades express the same fears, including legal administrators, analysts, people who book athletic travel for colleges, corporate office workers, software engineers and those in administrative health care.

This isn’t just about butts in seats; the clash goes to the heart of the white-collar work culture that for many people is a drain on both productivity and mental health.

At the core of workers’ dread is rise and grind, the notion that one must appear to be killing it 24/7 or be deemed not “in it to win it.” Of all the cultural baggage Americans might hope to shed after the past 14 months, it is this: the expectation that work should always come first, that personal responsibilities are mere inconveniences to be minimized, that taking vacation days or sick leave — if you are lucky enough to have them — somehow reveals a lack of professional dedication. The pandemic’s dramatic expansion of remote work, with its attendant humanization (Your toddler interrupts a meeting? A colleague joins the Zoom from their car? Just another day at the “office”!), suggested there was a different culture on the horizon — one that accepted the realities of family, health, disability and more, and that, critically, treated workers as adults capable of managing their lives and their deadlines.

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But many higher-ups seem dead-set on maintaining the status quo, from continuing to force tone-deaf positivity meetings of yore to directing all employees to return to the office by a specific date, no exceptions. Others have expressed “concern” about the “erosion” of company culture; in The Post this month, Washingtonian Media chief executive Cathy Merrill wrote that employees who don’t want to return to all that camaraderie risk being demoted to the status of hourly contractor — if they keep their jobs at all.

WeWork chief executive Sandeep Mathrani took bolder aim, telling the Wall Street Journal that the least engaged workers are easy to identify — they’re the ones who prefer remote work. That’s about what you’d expect from a guy who rents office space. But if top brass are learning that a large portion of their workers want out of the same old rat race, it’s their own souls they should be searching.

Smarter companies are already preparing for a limited return or for fully remote work. They know that the “office” is never going to be the same, and that a rigid refusal to change their culture will cost them their best people, who will flee to more flexible rivals.

As for the rest? Employers in America have an unprecedented opportunity to change their culture for the better — at least if they still want employees. For my sake, and possibly yours, I hope they take it.

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