The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Workers are putting on pants to return to the office only to be on Zoom all day

Pandemic-era safety procedures have created a new dynamic at work, in which many employees say they’re operating at work the same way they were at home.

(Mengxin Li for The Washington Post)

Nick Kneer was excited to go back to the office. After working from home for about a year and a half, Kneer had missed the camaraderie he had with his co-workers at the Ohio-based university library system where he works as a communications coordinator. He was counting down until he could mingle with students and staff again.

But his excitement quickly faded after the reality of in-person work turned out to be far from what he expected.

Instead, to avoid contracting the delta variant, he ended up locked in a “windowless, cinder block room” — his temporary office — attending most of his meetings via Zoom.

“It was definitely a bummer,” he said.

As many office workers head back to the office — even as the delta variant spreads across the United States — employees are facing a bizarre new reality: They’re still spending most of their time isolated and glued to their computers for Zoom meetings, email and Slack. With more companies implementing permanent hybrid working options — in which some employees work from home and others in the office — the virtual nature of work may far outlive the pandemic. And with it, so may the quirks of the new office environment.

“There’s this weird tension,” said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for research firm Gartner. “We want everyone back in the office, but we still want everyone to do work by video.”

Navigating the return to the office

The way people work in offices now doesn’t look like how it did before the pandemic. And the technology that allowed many employees to work from home has followed them back into the office, from video conferencing to messaging services and collaborative work programs.

Businesses are turning to software that can track remote employees' productivity. But the tools can also record their keystrokes, screens and even audio. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Zoom’s latest earnings suggest that video conferencing continues to be in high demand despite offices reopening and employees working in-person. During the second quarter, the company reported that revenue rose 54 percent from a year earlier to $1.02 billion, though that’s a slowdown compared to the 191 percent pop the company reported the previous quarter. Still, Zoom marked its first billion-dollar revenue quarter and had more than 504,000 customers using its service.

“Sales meetings have moved from conference rooms to Slack and to Zoom,” Salesforce President and Chief Operating Officer Bret Taylor noted during a recent earnings call. Salesforce recently acquired Slack for $27.7 billion.

Google parent company Alphabet said during its recent earnings call its digital business tools product called Google Workspace, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, and video conferencing service Google Meet, “continues to show strong growth.”

Emily Wagner, a classroom program manager for tutoring and test prep company Summit Educational Group in Newton, Mass., compared her back-to-work collaboration to prairie dog style of communicating. Occasionally she and her co-workers pop up from their office cubicles to talk to each other from across the room. But the majority of the time, she’s at work Zooming her team, who come in on different days for safety.

Beyond the “weird” experience of it all, Wagner says the biggest issue is when two people at the office in earshot are on the same Zoom call. If both people have their microphones on, the ambient sound creates an echo on the call. The only real way to solve it is to make sure others nearby don’t have their microphones on at the same time.

“It’s an unmitigated nightmare,” she said. “It made me so crazy the first time I had to deal with it. It was like, ‘This is awful! Why are we doing this?’”

Four reasons you’re tired of Zoom calls — and what to do about it

The dreaded video conferencing echo is a common complaint among workers who have been joining video calls from the office. One employee, who works at a public education system in Illinois and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid conflicts with her employer, said she has the same problem on Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. The technology causes plenty of frustrations including spotty Internet in the office, where she is required to be five days a week, that sometimes can’t handle the volume of people on video calls.

Working from the office feels “essentially the same” as what she was doing from home. The most socialization she gets at work is an occasional “hi” if she passes a colleague in the hallway, she said.

“They’re still making sure people are social distancing and not all crowded into one conference room,” she said of her employer, acknowledging that the procedure makes sense from a safety standpoint. She said it feels “100 percent … pointless” to be in-person.

Some workers are in the office voluntarily. Harlan Crystal, co-founder and chief technology officer at mobile gaming company Pocket Gems, returned to his San Francisco office in May, about a month after the company opened its office for workers who wanted to voluntarily return. For him, going back to the office allowed him to get into a head space where he could better focus. It also helped him better separate his work life and home life.

But he says Pocket Gems’s hybrid working environment has been “messy for sure.” When teams have Zoom meetings, the few who are at the office convene in a conference room and join the meeting as a group via camera. As a result, people on the call have a hard time reading the emotions and reactions of the people joining from the conference room because their faces are too small, Crystal said. And if any remote employees share their screen on Zoom, in-office workers find the low-resolution images almost impossible to read, given that they’re viewing the presentation via a projector in the room.

“It feels more like going to Starbucks and working there,” he said. “You’re going to a shared place, but most of the people you’re working directly with aren’t there with you.”

The hybrid office is here to stay. The shift could be more disruptive than the move to all-remote work.

Gerry Martini, associate director of admissions for the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, said the lack of in-person interaction with his co-workers and prospective students makes him “dread” going to the office two days a week. On top of that, he commutes 40 minutes each way via subway, only to show up at work and do most of his interactions online. Meanwhile, the cafeteria and coffee shop in his building are closed, leaving little opportunity for him to have spur-of-the-moment conversations.

“I look forward to going back on campus when I can do actual campus things,” Martini said. “It’s the people that make the experience. That sort of thing is not happening.”

Martini said he believes he and his colleagues were sent back to work mostly for economic reasons.

“There’s a perception we should go back because it’s good for the city versus what’s good for the employee,” he said.

Matt, a web developer at a university in New Jersey who spoke on the condition of not using his last name, said going back to the office to be on Zoom makes it hard to tell who is available or tied up. Before the pandemic, it was clear when people were busy in a meeting, as they’d all be together in one room. He hasn’t quite figured out the best way to solve the problem yet.

“When everyone is doing Zoom from their desk, it’s impossible to tell who is in a meeting,” he said, adding that co-workers have walked in on his meetings from his desk. “It’s very weird.”

Workers say employees going back to the office need to be prepared for a few things: They need to have a good set of noise canceling headphones or ear buds, and be prepared for in-person isolation.

For Kneer, the strange feeling of working from the office to do the same thing he does at home could be simplified down to the humor of his lunch situation. He takes lunch items from his fridge at home to take to work. Then he brings the items he took to make his lunch back home and puts them in his own fridge.

“It’s surreal,” Kneer said.

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