The Great Return: After the Pandemic – will you work at home or back at the office – or both?

Recently, Elon Musk ordered his staff to return to a 40-hour work week or face termination. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Citigroup and BNY Mellon, are just some of the financial institutions that have also declared their staff to return to work. Tim Smart, a reporter at the U.S. News wrote on March 22, 2022, “After grappling with the Great Resignation and the Great Retirement, the workplace is now facing the Great Return.” But what will it be like?

Some journalists have speculated that companies demanding their staff to return full-time might risk “a huge talent drain” since they are finding that employees have found other ways to work that was more productive, more pleasurable, and gave them the flexibility they needed to find their work-life balance. When forced to the Great Return, Millennials especially, fought back and found other options. They found that there were in control. Not their employers.  They could decide whether to work full-time or part-time at the office or find options that would allow them to work entirely from home. Others sought higher incomes, better working conditions, and other demands. What is the solution, ask employers? According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of U.S. employees are working from home all or most of the time. They plan on continuing to do so. Is there a revolution taking place in the workplace?

Taking Work Online

Like many, I spent the past two years trying to protect myself and my family from the global pandemic and its variants. And as many of you, I’ve learned to evolve my daily activities to include broadband-enabled virtual platforms and applications, including dependence on email, Skype, Teams, Zoom, Webex, Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, and a myriad of other applications that help in work-productivity, banking, taxes, communications, news, and entertainment. As long as I had good connectivity and working technology, I was able to cope. When I had a breakdown in communications, such as a camera on my laptop malfunctioning during an important virtual meeting, power disruptions during a storm, or interruptions in the quality of the Internet connections, my life went to hell. My students depended on our technology working properly. So did my co-workers. And so did my family during weekly cross-country check-ins. Sound familiar?

The importance of having a robust, reliable, and affordable communications capability will be the foundation of how we globally transition from our pandemic-induced daily activities to a more resilient and regular work and home life. But once we move away from the discussion about whether we are blessed with these basic utilities and community assets, we are forced to discuss what we will do with them. Will we decide to return to life as we experienced it in our pre-pandemic days?

Commuter Daze

Remember our commuter-forced way of life? Not so long ago, we’d get up at 6:15 a.m. – shower, exercise, eat breakfast, put our faces on as well as select the clothes for that day. We’d kiss our spouses and kids goodbye and head to the subway or get into our cars for the next hour of commuting to work. Upon arrival, we’d park, ride the elevator to our floor, grab a cup of coffee and start our computer to begin our day working in a virtual environment, sometimes interrupted by a passing greeting from a co-worker. Maybe the day might include a meeting in your boss’s office or taking a moment to kibitz with another coworker as we got another coffee. Then at lunch, you might purchase a sandwich and return to drink and eat it at your desk unless you and a coworker decided to go out together for a quick bite or maybe take in a little bit of exercise. Upon your return you were once again within your virtual platforms and apps, analyzing your data, responding to your emails, returning calls, managing your calendar, and writing your reports. If you were in a more social setting you might meet with coworkers over a topic or scrum around an issue. At the end of the workday, you’d wave goodnight to your coworkers, head to your car, or join the worker class on the crowded bus or subway train. When you arrived home after another hour or more of your commute, you might decide to take a shower or just get a drink with your spouse to relax for a moment before making supper, catching up on chores, or saying goodnight to the kids. As I remember it, I often didn’t get home until after 7:00 p.m., and soon after dinner I was too exhausted to go out to enjoy some family time in the evening, play baseball or even work on a house project. I just wanted to veg out. Weekends became the only real time to do anything with the kids. I often felt guilty not being there for them all week long. I was happy that my spouse was, but I only heard about some of the cool things they were up to during the week. It was worse in later years when I traveled extensively on business.

Where was my work-home life balance? Broadband-enabled Internet and other applications were supposed to do that for me. But it didn’t. I had many virtual engagements, but most of my life was still very much face-to-face. I worked regionally and internationally. Over 90% of my activities were physically connected. Then along came the pandemic.

With a forced lockdown, I had to shift 99% of my activities to become virtual. I was fortunate that I had the communications capabilities to make the shift overnight. From the reports that I read, however, not everyone was as lucky. I was involved in a business that allowed for virtual communications in everything I did. Teaching, consulting, speaking, writing, and participating in international activities and administration of activities via the Internet allowed me to not miss a beat. But all around me were questions about the mental health of my co-workers and community as we waited through this prolonged and seemingly never-ending virus. On the screen of some of my video calls, I could see the stress or the physical distractions that young children and other family members, pets, and the happenstance of daily life could mean for some people. Some even yearned for the sanctity of working from their offices with little or no distractions. But I, on the other hand, became resolved to work within this virtual envelope for the rest of my life, punctuated with intersections of physical connections such as meetings, conferences, travel, and vacations to a beach somewhere from time to time. That was my revolution, or more accurately, my evolution, but that may not meet many others’ expectations or work-life balances. And then there are those working in lower-wage jobs or in service jobs that have little or no choice whether they could work exclusively at home or take a hybrid job option.

What Will the Future Bring?

I have monitored this topic since February 2020 when I started my own lockdown experience. I returned from Asia in mid-February and limited my exposure to the rest of my work prior to the official lockdowns in my city. I was part of many Zoom-initiated conference panels on such questions as the future of work, what the physical world might become without the need to commute or how best to achieve a work-life balance in a potential post-pandemic world. I used my urban planning, design, and economic development background to explain these to myself and the world around me.

But after reviewing hundreds of articles, surveys, podcasts, and videos on this subject, I have come to the conclusion that it won’t be a revolution at all in how we might work and live in the future. It will be a gradual transition that will include a workforce of young, highly educated, and driven workers seeking to advance their careers by returning in droves to the offices in urban and suburban centers. They will celebrate daily work or experience reduced work-week hybrid environments to connect with their peers, collaborate with their mentors, and work up the corporate and government-office ladders. Their offices may change in how they look and how people might occupy the space. Teams might collaborate in large co-working and co-creation spaces; or individuals might work in smaller hotel spaces, sharing work desks and monitors; or senior executives might have access to smaller private offices for those who may be traveling more or working from remote virtual locations, returning briefly for essential meetings and gatherings such as essential relationship-focused conferences, staff meetings or for marketing purposes.

At the other end of the spectrum will be workers that will choose to work from home 100% of the time. More seasoned workers will likely lean toward taking advantage of this opportunity that the pandemic accelerated for them. They will choose to be able to live and work from a more remote location, such as in the suburbs, but also perhaps in more ex-urban, rural, and even remote locations as long as broadband-enabled communications allow them to do so. They might benefit from less expensive real estate, more family time, and other community-wide benefits offering a flexible work-life balance. They may be less concerned with developing deep interpersonal relationships that only come from face-to-face connections. They may even choose to accept less compensation reflecting the lower cost of living they find themselves in.  They’ll ratchet it up to saving hours commuting, spending more time with their families, and other benefits of working from home.

But even with remote work and all the benefits of a flexible work-life ecosystem, there will be some people who will be dominated by the virtual demon that might take over their lives, by choice or circumstance. Such a bipolar situation is unfortunate for their personal mental health and they’ll need to be exorcised from it to be able to enjoy the opportunities that working in a commuter-free environment offers them.

Then there are those who’ll choose a hybrid work environment. These will be workers who’ll agree to work part-time in the office and part-time at home. According to Pew Research, a majority of employees were either working from home already or were able to adapt to that at any time, with or without the pandemic forcing them to do so. They’ll tend to be younger, university-educated workers eager for interaction with co-workers and mentors, but they might also be more geared toward a work-life balance than keen to climb the corporate ladder. It is in this hybrid model that most employers in an office environment might find their solution. It will benefit them in the long run, requiring fewer bricks and mortar and finding innovative solutions for their operations.

New businesses will likely spring up in interior design and coaching in social interactions with the advancement of such remote and hybrid models. Many of the urban retail and restaurant activities will slowly return once again, but the larger benefit will likely be at the local level where the retail and restaurant activity of neighborhood main street initiatives might be revived and thrive. Planners have courted the concept of the 15-Minute City whereby everyone should have access to essential services within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This transformation of communities could become a reality with the hybrid model in a post-pandemic world.

John G. Jung
Urban Planner; Urban Designer; Economic Developer; Author; Speaker; re. Smart & Intelligent Cities; Co-Founder/Chair ICF; ICF Canada, Global Cities Navigator.
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