‘I Was Serenely Independent and Content’ – Do Workers Want to Return to the Post-Pandemic Office?

‘I Was Serenely Independent and Content’ – Do Workers Want to Return to the Post-Pandemic Office?

Managers of my fair acquaintance are rip-roaring to get their staffs back to the nearly virus-free office and start making hay.

Their delight at marking cadence as we ‘row-row-row’ the corporate boat has been denied them too long.

The boss man and woman, even the best of them, simply love that control. Take Professor Henry Higgins, from whom I poached a tuneful line for our title – you’d think he would be smitten by Eliza from the start. A cold-hearted Englishman? Nah; he simply found power over her more appealing than love. After all, Pickering, he’d say: I’m doing it for her own good.

“I love you all,” said Alexei Y., head of research at a small but respectable Moscow investment firm, a decade ago. “Just not very much,” added the A-man, leaving a measure of doubt to secure his position, and our submission.

Lyosha, in Russian diminutive, was slipping out for the evening, home to wife and life at an early bird 8:00 pm. We, his galley crew, not quite slaves – rather ladies and gents, ‘dami i gospoda’, were forging ahead at full speed, intent on finishing the day’s big project. Our zeal was pleasing to Lyosha, but I do suspect: he wanted more.

Even in those early millennium days, it was clear certain tasks could be handled remotely. Not when the joint was jumping, like on that dark winter evening, in our glass tower cattycorner cross-river from the Kremlin, everyone shouting and waving, instructing and countermanding, swimming in tea, Russia’s chief non-alcoholic tipple, with java for me. Sometimes, the team needs face time if they’re to pull strongly in tandem.

Other days, I could have stayed home. A research editor needs quiet to focus, far from the bellowing analyst crowd. Just now I recall, in the e-frontier year 2000, I indeed worked remotely from my apartment. In 2000, I flew editorial dawn patrol for the Russian government’s polling agency (I asked for a Kremlin office, discovered that while a Connecticut Yankee can turn up at King Arthur’s, a louche Boston loudmouth best stay in his lair). Today’s so-modern ways in fact date back a spell.

That’s how history runs: little sparks light up the forest. Samuel Morse tapped out the first telegram in 1844. Lines were briskly laid to parallel the newfangled railroads, speeding transport and messages at revolutionary tempo.

Engineers tarried not with scribbling in gazette and journal. Why dots and dashes – the same physical principles work for voice. How about pictures? America’s first fax was sent in 1860, I’ll have you know. In 1866, a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid to Europe. Who needs these wires, scientists said, when the clear air is a wave-loving medium? Why, we could send pictures, too – live, moving pictures. They didn’t take long to gel, these world-upside-downing ideas.

Yet even when change is here, clear to all, the ‘new’ takes time to digest. I remember it well: working from home was first posited in the 1980s, part of the nativity scene of the digital revolution. Remote work has been an easily practicable reality for well over 20 years. Yet it’s just catching on, spurred by a submicrobial foe. Was the pandemic our telegraph line?

As workers return to the office, some sigh with relief. Freed from their homespun prisons, they’re happy to see workmates, stroll out for lunch, shout ‘cross the desktop, laugh at the sales team’s antics – at that petite Moscow firm, they’d bombard one another with day planners and staplers, lobbed like pineapple grenades. There was a compliance-enforced glass wall between us, but in equity research, we had fine seats for the show. There’s nothing like flesh-and-blood colleagues to fire the boilers under the workday.

Unless you can’t take the racket. A lot of folk won’t return to office – unless browbeaten into compliance – because they’ve learned that working at home, undisturbed, is more productive and pleasing. Morse’s children did right: we all have our phones now, so face-to-face isn’t a vital necessity. We all know what’s happened with meetings, too: via video, they tend to be terser, right to the point – there’s that productivity thing again. The old normal was fine, but we may have stumbled on something better.

Riddle thee this: how much green would you save if you didn’t commute? Back again in old Moscow, a friend once switched to a new apartment – a short jump, only two kilometers. Why bother? His new pad, he told me, was across from a direct-line metro to his office. He calculated the transit time savings at two extra weeks per year handed back to his life.

Fourteen free days to spend with his jolly wife and jolting kids – just by cutting his commute! Managers, ask: How much is that worth to you? Now you have the insight for empathy when a staff member would rather stay home.

Insurance firm Breeze commissioned a poll to see how much people who’d been working at home, or were looking to do so, valued remote office life. Among respondents who said they could do all of their tasks remotely, 65% said they would take a 5% pay cut to remain stay-at-home staff. Among all respondents, 25% would accept a 15% shave; and 15% would take a 25% buzzcut to avoid going back to the office. The benefits of homework must rank as real money in the bank.

The big takeaway: managers will need to adapt. Remote working is in demand, and for good. Some roles require regular office hours, clearly. If you’re manning a machine, robots are replacements, not helpmates, so you’ll need to stand to your drill. Everyone must come office-side occasionally, for strategy sessions and holiday parties, if nothing else.

My informal poll suggests two days at home, three days in office may become the new normal. I like working from home, tapping away ‘sans’ trousers, with a beach towel screening my shame – I live in a resort-y sort of town, and so we roll. Yet I admit: I miss the bustle and office-supply shellfire of a jumping financial office, and I doubt I’m alone. The hybrid office, they’re calling it: that is the future, and bosses, listen up: it’s here.

Cue another old Russian ‘chef’, as they call them: Sasha. Same scenario: he’s heading out; we’re bashing away. “Don’t stay too late, ‘rebyata’” – ‘kids’, that’s what he called us – “you won’t finish tonight, there’s no use in exhausting yourselves.”

Oh, we love you, father… but then Sasha sighed: “Mind, I wish I could chain you all to your desks, like Japanese machine gunners.” There’s not much you can’t say in a Russian office.

I’m telling you, respectable executive folk: don’t even think it. Your workers have tasted freedom and are past going back. Fear not: all evidence points to increased productivity from rested, empowered staff, overjoyed to find choice in their professional lives. Long may the new regime reign.

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