The impact of Covid-19 on where, when and how America works has been no less than seismic.
For some, it was a silver lining: no commute, lower expenses for everything from driving to dry cleaning and more time with family. With proximity less of a priority, many migrated from cities to suburbs in search of homes big enough to accommodate remote work and school. Initially, employees encouraged the shift, using technology to mimic in-person connectivity and reassuring customers, shareholders and lenders that they could remain productive and profitable in spite of the upheaval.
Erin Albert, who works for a pharmaceutical benefits and consulting firm in Indiana, started with her current employer in April 2020.
"I was hired as a remote employee," she said, adding that, as a caretaker for her elderly parents, she needs the flexibility of a work-from-home arrangement. "It's not about where you work anymore. It's about what your work contributions are, and they should stand on their own wherever you are on the planet."
It's not about where you work anymore. It's about what your work contributions are, and they should stand on their own wherever you are on the planet.
After nearly a year and a half, such arrangements felt like the new norm for many people. For others — including many top executives — it was an anomaly. Wall Street was the first to make a push for a return to the pre-pandemic workday; the CEOs of banking heavyweights like JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs all agitated for workers to get off their couches and back into their cubicles.
"In the short run, people were able to be really productive when this crisis hit. People who went home were able to do a remarkable amount of work in the short run, but I think it's this longer-run productivity that has really suffered," said Andrew Challenger, vice president at the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "It's harder to move bigger things forward when people aren't together."
Evidence suggests that the push to return to the office is becoming more the exception than the rule. Even as the surge in the delta variant makes more people nervous about resuming in-person work and school, employers are forging ahead with plans to bring workers back. The Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, said 72 percent of supervisors in a recent survey said they prefer to have their underlings in the office.
"There is going to be continued tension between employees and supervisors as they determine how much remote work will continue to be offered to staff," said Liz Petersen, quality manager of the human resources knowledge center at SHRM.
Art Glover, a human resources consultant in Colorado, said: "I'm working with a client who does much of their work on-site. Their CEO really wants people in the office and has really pushed that since the spring. He wants to be able to see people in the office, see what people are doing and make sure the work's getting done. It's already becoming apparent to me that it is an issue for at least a couple of people."
If people are happier and more productive at home, why are bosses pushing to get them back in their cubicles?
It's less complicated, for starters.
"Supervising employees in an office environment is comfortable, easier and visual," Petersen said. "When staff are in the office, you have the 'passerby effect,' where a supervisor can visually assess whether employees are being productive."
HR experts also say there are interpersonal, largely intangible connections that are hard to forge or maintain in a strictly digital working relationship. "The connective tissue between employers and employees is really disintegrating," Challenger said. "I think the loyalty, the stickiness of being part of a group, has really frayed."
Glover said: "You can build camaraderie through Zoom meetings and a variety of other things, but it's not one-size-fits-all. I think there are legitimate concerns about work culture."
Petersen said SHRM found that employees who have gotten comfortable working remotely over the past year and a half are more likely to ask whether they can continue the arrangement on either a full- or a part-time basis. But workers have found that the choice to work from home can come with consequences.
Companies, especially in expensive parts of the country, like Silicon Valley and New York City, have argued that workers decamping to Florida or Fargo don't need to be compensated as richly. Tech behemoths like Microsoft, Google's parent, Alphabet, and Facebook have all suggested that pay could be correlated with place, which means urban apartment dwellers who haven't already snapped up more bucolic property might find it dauntingly expensive: Home prices are smashing records on a regular basis, buoyed by low mortgage rates and constrained new construction. The May S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index was 17 percent higher than it was a year ago and the highest ever in the dataset's three-decade history.
Although working from home means saving on transportation and takeout, Albert said home offices like hers need to be stocked with supplies, too. "The cost of living is increasing. Little things add up. Like, I'm going to use my own binders and pencils and equipment to get my job done," she said.
Workers also might want to think twice about skimping on their workstations.
"I see a lot of injuries from people who work on computers," said Rick Gutierrez, an occupational therapy assistant based near Long Beach, California, who said there had been an increase in such complaints since the pandemic began.
"For some, they're having a lot of pain somewhere, so when I talk to them, I ask them how's their desk set up? Some of the time it's not set up properly," he said. Gutierrez, who said he saw entrepreneurial potential in the challenge, recently launched a startup to help remote workers configure ergonomically correct at-home work areas.
More than 2 in 5 managers admitted that they can forget about the people who aren't in the office when they assign tasks.
Aside from the possibility of smaller paychecks or strained wrists, remote workers also risk being ignored — an outcome that could have even bigger financial implications down the road when it comes to raises or promotions.
"Remote workers are often overlooked for opportunities," Petersen said, adding that more than 2 in 5 managers admitted that they can forget about the people who aren't in the office when they assign tasks.
An SHRM survey found that a large majority of managers have an outlook that's more "out of sight, out of mind" than "work from anywhere." Just over two-thirds said employees who work remotely are easier to replace than people who show up at the office every day, and 62 percent said working from home full-time hurts employees' career advancement.
That means remote employees need to be proactive and make sure that they remain visible, engaged and productive, Petersen said. "Before requesting to work from home full-time, do your research and ensure you are prepared to put in the extra work yourself to remain connected and secure in your position," she said.
Albert concurred, saying she made a point of attending client meetings and training sessions in person to augment her frequent videoconferences. "I think there's some validity to your career suffering if you're not physically face to face," she said. "Now more than ever, the employee needs to be cognizant of their own personal brand, professional brand."
The dim view some employers take of remote work, however, could get a reality check: The spread of the delta variant has raised concerns about commuting and working in offices full of people again.
Companies like Alphabet and Apple have pushed back their timelines to bring people back into the office, shifting from September to October. Because children younger than 12 can't yet be vaccinated, school administrators in some hard-hit areas are considering remote learning again because of rising caseloads, a prospect freighted with child care obligations working parents will once again have to meet.
For the time being, employees seem to have the upper hand, labor market experts say.
"We are in the midst of a talent shortage, and it's an employee or job seeker's market, so employees do have their say and are in a position to have their needs met," said Catherine Fisher, a career expert at LinkedIn. "It may be time for companies to allow individual teams to decide how and where they want to work."
LinkedIn found that about 1 in 7 people have looked for jobs that would let them be fully remote and that 8 percent are either considering quitting their jobs or have already done so. Among that pool of workers, LinkedIn found, about 1 in 5 were motivated by a better work-life balance, and 15 percent more said they enjoyed the work more when they could do it at home.
"Companies have the opportunity to think differently and will need to meet employees where they are," Fisher said. "Companies looking to retain their current employees and attract new talent should ensure a flexible working environment is a priority."