Telework And Its Discontents

We’ve seen a major shift toward telework (for jobs that can be done remotely) during the worst of the pandemic. Now, as there finally seems to be some progress toward getting the virus under control, some business leaders and politicians have been pushing back. The arguments I’ve heard for moving back to the office are:

  • Reduced foot traffic in commercial districts, which has various negative effects (loss of local small businesses catering to the workday crowd, increased crime, erosion of the local tax base).
  • Difficulties in training and mentoring, particularly for new employees.
  • Lack of social contact and personal connection.

While there’s some truth to these points, I suspect that the real driving force behind the objections is hidebound managers complaining about the brain sprain pain as they struggle to adapt to a new normal.

The first issue you list falls under “Not my problem”. I might empathize with the coffee shop losing business because they bought a spot near a headquarters that now is largely vacant but I’m not going to change my employment over it

The second two are legitimate to me. I’m working a new job and parts of it are very hard to receive guided practice via MS Teams/Zoom/etc. Likewise, I do notice the lack of contact with other employees both for work collaboration and for socialization. How much that matters probably depends a lot on the person and job – if you have a call center gig where you never talk to the guy in the half-cube next to you, who cares. If you’re working on pulling together a contract with four other people, you might feel it more.

But, for all that, I still prefer the work from home and feel the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Fortunately, I’m in Illinois and my manager is in Colorado so there’s not much risk of me getting called into the office.

This. The same argument might be made for manufacturers and sellers of reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, vinyl records, and CDs now that MP3 files and streaming audio are far and away the most popular methods for listening to music. Business entails risks, and disruptive innovation (in this case, telework) is definitely one such risk.

Admittedly something is lost when coworkers never get to see each other in person. There’s a lot of casual banter and social bonding that happens in hallways and around water coolers that you just don’t get with Teams/Zoom meetings. A hybrid workplace would seem to be the best of both worlds, helping to sustain social bonds between coworkers while also reducing commuting and allowing employees to spend more time in whichever work environment (home or office) they feel most comfortable and productive.

I agree.

A well run company will continue to be well run with a remote workforce. The question is whether you can develop a well run company without in person interaction. Humans are social creatures, we do our best when we have real social interaction.

I imagine businesses that use a lot of paper have only been putting up with scanning everything to enable remote work out of necessity.


if the question is “why are companies trying to push employees back into the office” then I would argue that the reasons are:

  • the company doesn’t believe employees will work as hard if they aren’t being watched
  • the company pays a lot to rent workspaces, and wants to maximize the value they get out of them
  • the company believes that certain tasks are optimally done in person (legitimately, training and onboarding are good arguments)
  • the company believes that their main source of innovation and creativity stems from people randomly bumping into each other in the hallways
  • widespread relevance anxiety experienced by managers whose job mostly consists of attending meetings and asking people if tasks are done yet

It’s all about the type of job. I work at a small architecture and interior design firm, and while we managed ok working remotely during lockdown, it wasn’t particularly pleasant either. Sharing design sketches and going over questions that would normally be handled by simply turning around in your chair to talk to the person behind you now becomes a whole process of emailing, checking that it was received and that the other person is available, then setting up a call to discuss it. We also look at tile/carpet/countertop/cabinet samples all the time, and that’s also much harder to do remotely. Then there’s work/life separation, which many people aren’t equipped to properly corral if they need it.

As a a general rule, it seems like creative professional jobs need some level of in-person collaboration. Whether that’s with clients, product reps, or other designers/technicians. That doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be five days a week of full in-office time, but there needs to be some collaboration time. I also think there’s some novelty benefit to working from home that may be wearing off. The fundamental issues with a lack of personal interaction could be ignored and somewhat dealt with in the short term, but now after two years are becoming a real strain. Like you can coast or even slow down for a while, but eventually something has to give or it’s not possible to recover.

Would widespread telework encourage outsourcing? If the employee is never going to visit the office anyway, why not hire the guy in Eastern Europe for lesser salary and no benefits?

There is also some current controversy about salary, whether it’s justified to cut someone’s pay if they move to an area with lower COL (and, of course, few companies are going to be happy to pay Bay Area cost of living; might that lead to a weird kind of hiring discrimination?). That may be a place where the law has to catch up a bit.

At least for me, the kinds of meetings I have with my team are distinctly inferior over Zoom. Interruptions feel different, especially.

The contract I was working on ended recently. I searched my employer’s website and found a position under an ongoing contract. At first, they told me I had to commute. This was about 75 minutes each way. I had to pay about $200 a month for the train. I had to wake up earlier.

I asked to work remotely. I was prepared to negotiate and make several major concessions. I never had to. They granted me permission to work from home.

There is a definite downside for the Philly Pretzel Factory near Jefferson Station. If there’s a downside for me, I’m not seeing it.

Does anyone have good info as to trends in commercial real estate? I would expect there to be considerably more vacancies, but I’m not really finding it. I’m hard-pressed to think of an “office-type” business that could not do with significantly less space than previously. But I know my shop has something like a 10 year lease on its space. Even as we begin returning, it is only on a VERY part-time basis. I am scheduled to be in the office a total of 6 days through August. But I have a big private office just sitting there.

Who is going to fill all of those big buildings in downtown Chicago all week long?

This. Much this.
IT guy at an Architecture/Engineering firm. First, the A/E’s just need to be able to be with each other to physically review things. A 10-second point-to-the-paper question now takes 30 minutes to properly show, display, and discuss. Sharing screens with CAD drawings just doesn’t work sometimes.

And in the IT field, me, my boss, and my coworker have a shared brain, and are listening to each other’s conversations ALL THE TIME. Usually, if someone gets a help call for X issue, and I get a call for X issue, we can start establishing a pattern of something going on. Or I can hear my coworker talk about Issue Y, which has a very complex solution but one I know about and he doesn’t, so I can interrupt his phone call, let him know I have an answer, and fix it before he spends two hours looking for a solution.

But for the accountants? They could work independently, or via phone call, forever, and nobody would really know.

It depends entirely on the work and the team.

I’m not sure the law can catch up with that entirely, at least not in the way I think people want it to. It’s at least theoretically possible that laws could be passed so that someone who was working in-person in NYC doesn’t take a pay cut now that she’s 100% remote and moves to Rochester - but I don’t see a way that it’s possible to keep a company from paying all new hires the Wichita salary, since after all, they don’t expect you to live in NYC or Seattle or San Jose.

Why is a law required? The market dictates salaries, not the law. Most people would leave their job if they received such a pay cut. Mostly on principle.

Personally, I like the flexible work model. If I need to fly to a client to give a presentation or run a meeting, I’m fine with that. I don’t even mind going to the office on occasion just to network and socialize. But I don’t want to have to sit in some half-empty office pretending to be busy just so some executive can feel powerful.

Prior to the pandemic, my employer moved a lot of paper around, and a great deal of it was just about getting people’s signatures on printed forms. There had been a slow/gradual move toward electronic documents in recent years, but after March 2020 that effort really took off. It was of course good for facilitating remote work, but in the long run - even if everyone comes back to the office someday - it’ll mean fewer filing cabinets, a smaller paper/toner bill, and less time spent physically chasing people down to get them to sign a sheet of paper.


“Doesn’t feel like a putz for spending $$$ on office space”

It’s interesting to me you bring this up as a benefit of going in to the office. I found that working from home GREATLY improved my work/life balance (and I switched years ago, long pre-COVID). Right off the bat, I get back 2 hours of my life I wouldn’t have otherwise…

Actually make that nearly 3 hours - 45+ minutes there, 45+ minutes back, and an hour lunch. Whereas before I’d have to eat out or bring a packed lunch, now I have access to my full fridge and kitchen. Whereas before I had to hang out in the office or go for a drive to pick up food on my lunch, now I can take a walk with my baby daughter, or go work out on the gym equipment in my garage.

This is exactly what I saw. I had 3 new people start in my team late March 2020, i.e. when we started full time remote work. Getting them onboard onto an active team was a challenge.

One was an industry veteran very familiar with the work, had been at a few different shops in time, and even knew some people at the company - no issues getting acclimated and took off running.

One was an industry veteran who was also familiar but to a lesser extent with the local shops and knew some people at the company - some issues getting acclimated until we went back to in-office work and he could interact more personally with people.

One, though familiar with the industry, was not especially familiar with the local scene and didn’t know anybody - major issues getting onboard and ongoing issues picking things up. Refused to come into the office at all (as in literally only came in the first day for HR and pick up remote work kit) over the next 2 years and eventually quit rather than come to the office even once a week. And to be honest, it wasn’t a big hit to productivity, either.

And even for the good cases, they got noticeably better the few times we did physically come into the office the first year. They were able to pick up things about their teammates and company culture that they couldn’t over a screen.

The rest of my team more or less did ok. Some better, some worse, but the work got done. I’d say tougher on the larger projects where coordination or self-described mavericks ( :roll_eyes:) could become an issue but still possible for us to get things done with minimal (not none) loss in quality/timing.

So, what we saw was things were ok (not overall better or worse) for an established company and team but training and onboarding were especially difficult and not entirely successful until we got back in-person.

From that experience, maybe 2-3 days in the office and the rest remote might be optimal for our particular group where people sometimes have to work together.

That’s great for you, but note that I didn’t say “balance” but “separation.” Some people need to be able to leave work at the office and disconnect from it at the end of the day. That’s much harder if you don’t have a home office that can be closed off. If you’re using the same computer in the same room as in your home life, you feel like you’re still at work. Again, that’s not a problem for some people, but for others the advantage of being able to make your own lunch, play with the cat, or stay in your pajamas all day doesn’t counter the feeling that you’re constantly on-call and still in the office when you should be home and able to decompress.


People who didn’t answer their phone or reply to chat messages or email before 8:30am or after 5:30pm in the old days, still don’t.

The separation problem we’ve experienced (at my employer, not me personally) is people trying to take care of a baby or toddler while “working”. Having to drop out of meetings to do feedings, deal with meltdowns, etc. It is the home life intruding on the work life.

Then some of these people are offended and claim discrimination if they are told they need to be available during working hours. The idea that they would put their kid in daycare while they are working from home seems shocking.

These are both valid issues, but they’re kinks being worked out in what is a relatively new system, not reasons to abandon the whole concept. The idea that we would, by the millions, drive in to an office so we can work on a computer that’s connected to a network anyways, is outdated, inefficient, and frankly ludicrous.

Not every job can be remote, and not every remote job can be full-time remote. But as a whole, the more we can do remotely, the better.