If I see one more article on when and how office workers will return to the office, I think I'm going to hurl.
Such essays always dwell on three main points. First, that white collar employees are entirely happy working from home, if they can. Second, despite this, employers want them back an inevitable "two or three days a week" though I've never seen anyone try to figure out why those figures, and not one, or four.
And finally, there is some hint at the bountiful benefits to be found going into the office, the hallway conversations that lead to breakthroughs, the energizing meetings, the eureka brainstorming sessions around the foosball table.
While such articles sometime mention that there is no real data backing any of this up, they never take that extra step. Those who can work at home are obviously happy about the prospect of remaining there. Why? Maybe because going to the office is a bad idea for many, maybe most employees. What if the guilty secret of COVID is that a big swath of white collar workers never needed to come into work, not five days a week, not two or three, not ... gulp! ... ever. What if nothing that happens at the office can possibly counterbalance the time lost commuting, and the smartest thing any business could do is ditch their physical space entirely and distribute the savings to the staff as bonuses.
I don't have a dog in this race. Since I began my column in 1996, I've worked at home far more than in the office—in fact, the first 10 months I was on paternity leave and never came in the office at all. Not once.
Don't get me wrong A newsroom is an exciting place, and I would occasionally go in to pick up my mail, to schmooze, to press the flesh, grab lunch somewhere. It was fun, and it helped that I went in when I wanted and stayed home when I didn't, which was most days.
Going to the office always has risks, downsides. I remember a certain manager who rode the same Madison bus as I did. I'd notice her there, and fixedly look out the window, because I knew, if we made eye contact, she'd smile and try to draw me into whatever cracked project she was hatching at the paper, and I'd have to spend part of my limited face time at the office extracting myself from it. Luckily, she was only there a couple years, but any office is filled with such people. Bad idea generators. Martinet bosses. Treacherous colleagues. Bumbling subordinates. Time sink coworkers ready to snap their teeth into your ear and start chewing.
I might be one of the latter, by the way. I'm a PWC, a person with chattiness. Many the time I'd slide over to a colleague's desk and start executing one of those meaningful personal interchanges that are the holy of holies to what passes for business journalism. And I'd notice, just as I was approaching my point, or the punchline, or nearing the midway point in my exegesis anyway, and my prey would toss the briefest of glances toward their computer screen, yearning to return to the story they had been working on when I barged in. At least I got the message, wrapped up, and moved on. Not everybody does.
As someone who wrote a book on the death of men's hats, I know that society clings to the most ridiculous practices, essential right up to the point they are abandoned as pointless. Of course top hats would survive: how could there be weddings and funerals otherwise? I see a similar fate for the office. We needed workplaces the way we needed someone to pump our gas. It was nice, to have Jack say hello and ask what octane, clean the windshield and hand a stick of gum to the kids in the back seat. But it wasn't actually necessary, and we got rid of Jack, long ago, to save a nickel a gallon.