Before the pandemic, Jessica Hullman did not like to work from home.
A computer science professor at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago, Hullman, 40, drew energy from her students, she said. But away from campus, it dawned on her that the same students who fueled her also drained her focus with their frequent interruptions. In her mostly male department, she was often too aware of what she was wearing and how she appeared. Now she views Zoom faculty meetings as a kind of gender equalizer.
“It’s almost like everybody takes up the same amount of space,” she said. “What I realize is that I feel much happier working from home.”
Hullman is in no rush to return to the office.
Not so for 25-year-old Allie Micka, who moved from Boston to the District of Columbia to start a new job as a solutions engineer at a tech firm, one she admired for its highly social culture. Micka imagined going out for after-work drinks and making lifelong friends. And the office was just as she had imagined—for exactly 10 days, before the coronavirus pandemic descended. Her now-virtual contact with her co-workers feels much too transactional. “As friendly as everyone is, it’s hard to just say ‘hi’ to get to know someone when you have no purpose for reaching out,” Micka said.
She cannot wait to be back in the office again.
The country is deep in the bleakest period of the pandemic, with thousands of Americans dying each day. That reality is not lost on affluent remote workers, who are quick to express gratitude for their own good fortune. They feel guilty complaining about Zoom fatigue and social isolation when they are working in relative safety and comfort.
Yet with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of two coronavirus vaccines, many of these remote employees find themselves imagining the new shape of their work lives in a post-pandemic America. Some glimpse a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; others see an oncoming train.
In June, PwC surveyed 120 U.S. company executives and 1,200 office workers to see how they felt about that future. About a third said they hoped to work from home full time. About 9% wanted to work from home hardly at all. The majority preferred a hybrid workplace: two or three days at home in sweatpants and sports bras, refreshed with sleep, away from the stresses of office politics, then two or three days in the office, freed from the frustrating difficulties of making eye contact through a screen.
Companies are envisioning a new future for the office, too, with surveys finding that 70% of employers expect to downsize their office space. Although such a move poses a potential nightmare for a commercial real estate industry already rocked by the pandemic, it could be a boon to workers for whom the expense of big-city living is now prohibitive.
Many supervisors now realize underlings can be just as productive, if not more productive, laboring away in yoga pants or pajama bottoms between bouts on the exercise bike and kitchen runs.
As a housing and mortgage industry analyst for Wall Street, Richard Koch spends his days in his Westchester, New York, condo interviewing companies about their plans. “Overwhelmingly, they say, ‘We are totally shocked and surprised at how well this is working out and how productive people are working from home,’ ” Koch, 62, said.
Of course, he knew that firsthand. He had worked effectively from home full time for years before his new employer, in a compromise, offered him a hybrid schedule. Before the pandemic, he commuted to Manhattan three days a week and sat at a desk in the office “and did the exact same thing” he did at home. What was the point?
“I feel more relaxed. It’s easier to focus” working from home, he said. “There’s no office noise, no people stopping at your desk. I get more done.”
The distractions in the office come with a price. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every 3 minutes, 5 seconds on average. It takes an average of about 23 minutes after each interruption to engage fully with the task again, often leading to higher stress, bad moods and lower productivity, the researchers said.
But for some, the ability to focus in solitude comes with a price, too.
Robyn Davis Sekula’s home lacks the joyful distraction of the Rev. Lee Hinson-Hasty, her co-worker at the Presbyterian Foundation in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Sekula and Hasty collaborate easily on advertising campaigns and share a love of Jerry Seinfeld, church, family and cooking. “But I think what I love most about Lee is that when you are talking with him in person, you have his full attention,” said Sekula, vice president for communications and marketing. “He doesn’t look at his phone; he looks at you.”
Of course, to see Hinson-Hasty again, she’ll have to leave Auggie—her 8-month-old black Lab-ish pandemic pup. “A year ago, I would have told you were crazy if you paid for doggy day care. I didn’t understand people who treated their dogs like people,” she said. “Well, this year I fixed my dog his own Thanksgiving plate, and he ate in the dining room with the rest of us.”
Even so, she cannot wait to get back in the office—never mind that “my dress pants and suits aren’t going to fit at all like the way they did.”
Sekula’s commute is 15 minutes each way; Heidi Schweingruber’s totals more than two hours a day. She’s now reclaiming some of that time strolling with her dog in her Columbia, Maryland, neighborhood, taking breaks to pull weeds or pick up prescriptions. Paradoxically, these small gifts of time have heightened her awareness of the dark side of remote work.
“I talk to a lot of folks who seem to be having an issue setting boundaries,” said Schweingruber, 53, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in D.C. “I saw something on social media that said, ‘We shouldn’t be calling this working from home. We should be calling this living from work.’ I was like, ‘That feels so right.’ ”
Lessons she will carry back into the office (with any luck, no more than two to three days a week): “More awareness of the sort of point of diminishing returns and that boundaries matter, and breaks can actually make you more productive.” Also: “The importance of being there in person, that there really is something qualitatively different about that” that cannot be duplicated through a screen.
Without long experience and established work relationships, younger remote workers appear to be struggling the most. Forty-two percent ages 18 to 49 say this period has been difficult for them, compared with a fifth of workers 50 and older, according to a December Pew Research survey. Younger employees are also among the most likely to say that they lack adequate home office space and that self-motivation has been an impediment to getting things done, the survey said.
Brianna McCullough, a tech worker who lives in San Jose, California, believes that in the long run, the trend toward more remote work could help rearrange the rungs of the corporate ladder. For starters, it could make office politicking or the ability to live near the office in the city far less consequential to career success. But for McCullough, 27, working full time from home is less than ideal, she said.
“I think a lot of the time, you draw energy from other people being energized,” said McCullough, 27. At home, “sometimes your motivation can run out pretty quickly.” Also, she added, there are no free neck massages.
Sarah Rosenthal, an architect at bwdarchitects in Falls Church, Virginia., loves setting up her drafting table just a foot off the living room floor and doing yoga stretches while her cat, Savina, weaves gently between her arms. In her quest to stay upbeat and creative, she’s inspired by the example of Sir Isaac Newton, who on a trip to the family estate during the Great Plague of London in the mid-1600s pondered the impact of falling apples, leading to his theory of gravity.
“I try to be optimistic and see if I can see any apples falling from my trees,” said Rosenthal, 28. Even so, she thinks working at home is taking a toll on her career development.
“Architecture is a very collaborative process, and right now I feel like I haven’t really grown like I would have in the office” while overhearing her boss on the phone with clients or peeking in on other people’s projects, she said.
Micka gets it: Everything is such a mission now. No tapping a colleague on the shoulder if she has a question after a meeting. Even a virtual holiday party has been hard to arrange with co-workers spread across time zones. Micka excitedly imagines a return to the office that unfolds a lot like her first day. “People will look at me and say, ‘Who’s that new girl?’ ” she said.
For Hullman, the Northwestern professor, the pandemic has been unexpectedly renewing. Before the pandemic, “I was content to go to the office and meet with my PhD students and sort of give my time away,” she said.
Others’ work and concerns often came before her own. Now her creative juices are flowing. In the office, she mainly did technical writing.
At home, she is immersing herself in publishing opinion articles and essays related to her research: “How we represent and communicate uncertainty in data.” Which has turned out to be quite timely. Whether predicting the course of the coronavirus pandemic or forecasting who would win the presidential election, “people were acting more confident than they should have been, based on the data,” she said. “People really just want an answer. They want to round it up.”
Hullman finds herself sitting not altogether comfortably with the ambiguity of what a return to the office will bring. “What will work look like?” she mused aloud. “I think there is a ton of uncertainty there. I don’t know how to reduce it.”
She misses her students but hopes to preserve her newfound freedom and creativity by working more frequently from home.
“I guess I’m kind of assuming, or I want to assume,” she said,” that everything will be normal but that I will still have a choice of what to do.”