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Opinion Out of office: The pandemic and the new meaning of work

A person works from home in Princeton, Ill., in 2020. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

This Labor Day, pause to consider what it means to work. A long commute? Long hours in the presence of the same co-workers? Anxiety over striving for better assignments, compensation and the chance to clamber higher up the ladder? All of this may be familiar to those who have toiled in offices, factories and other workplaces. But it may also be, increasingly, a distant memory. More than two years of pandemic have jolted the meaning of work and the way employees think about it. The consequences are just unfolding.

The pandemic caused the biggest shake-up to the workforce in decades. Remarkably, all 22 million jobs lost have now returned, and then some, a feat worth celebrating on its own. The rapid recovery has created a lot more demand for workers than the supply, giving employees leverage they have not had in decades and leading to new, high-profile union drives. The labor market will probably cool off, but it is unlikely that workers are going to revert to the mind-set of 2019 and the usual ways of doing business.

Workers across the spectrum are looking for more — many are seeking more fulfilling lives and no longer assume they will spend a career in a traditional office, putting in long hours and pursuing ever-higher ambitions. At the top of the earning scale, we’ve seen a viral discussion of “quiet quitting,” which isn’t quitting but is when white-collar workers scale back from 60-hour weeks to something a lot closer to 40 hours. Millennials and Gen Zers are shifting ambitions from wanting to reach the top to having a meaningful effect on their communities, nation and the world. And for those making lower incomes, the tight labor market has been a boon for jumping to new jobs with higher pay and more flexible hours.

The office cubicle culture that defines work for millions is in the throes of uncertainty. At the peak of pandemic shutdowns, about two-thirds of work was done remotely. Now that number has come down but stabilized at an extraordinarily high level: about a third. Many workers who had been all-remote are shifting to a hybrid schedule. The impact is seen most vividly in large cities. According to the Wall Street Journal, less than half of pre-pandemic office workers are consistently returning to urban business districts. Many employees are resisting a full return, saying that remote or hybrid work is just as productive and valuable as being in the office full time. This tension will require companies and workers to be innovative and flexible in figuring out the path ahead.

Yet another uncertainty is the impact of long covid. It is impossible to say for sure, but companies may be struggling for years to provide treatment for employees who suffer injuries and disabilities caused by this disease. American workers proved in the pandemic to be resilient and adaptable, whether on the job in hospital wards, driving delivery trucks or attending Zoom meetings in pajamas. These qualities will be tested anew in a future of work that looks far different from the past.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).