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'Why Do We Have To Go Back To The Office?': Employees Are Divided About Returning

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A large part of the workforce began working from home when the pandemic hit last year, so what may have felt like an extended snow day in the beginning turned into 15 months and counting of Zoom calls and logging on to work in sweatpants, which I may or may not have experience with, given that I'm broadcasting to you from my attic. Now that about half of Americans are fully vaccinated, some are trickling back into the office. So when we asked all of you how your work has been for the last year and how you feel about returning to the office, the response was mixed. Sam Underwood and Sriti Kumar feel relieved to be back to some sense of normalcy at work.

SRITI KUMAR: My name is Sriti Kumar. I'm 36 years old. I live in Atlanta, Ga. And I work in technology industry.

SAM UNDERWOOD: So I'm Sam Underwood. I work for a data analytics and digital marketing firm here in Columbus, Ohio, called Futurity.

KUMAR: Most of my office and my team work three to four days in office and one day work from home. So the whole transition working from home was very smooth.

UNDERWOOD: I'm here in our house, my wife and I, with our two kids under 2. So every now and then, you hear some stops on the floor and somebody cries and that sort of thing. So we both just kind of looked at each other one day and said, we can't sit around this house anymore.

KUMAR: I do not want to work from home full time. I miss my colleagues and especially having in-person meetings.

UNDERWOOD: When you're working remotely, the people that you're working with, no matter how hard you try, they tend to turn into icons on a screen just a little bit rather than people. So being back in the office, it kind of restores that relationship aspect. So now I know who is moving into a new house. I know who just bought a new car. Those are things that I didn't know as a manager when we were all home.

CORNISH: On the flip side, some of you have really taken to working from home and don't want to give it up. We heard from employees Ashley Flinn, also Cindy and Adam. They asked we only share their first names because they're worried their opinions about working from home could have negative consequences at work.

CINDY: My name is Cindy. I'm 44 years old. I'm in El Paso, Texas. And I'm in education administration.

ADAM: My name is Adam. And I am 30 years old. I am in advertising. And I live in Detroit.

ASHLEY FLINN: My name is Ashley Flinn. I'm 38 years old. I'm an associate director for a large university in Los Angeles, Calif.

ADAM: Once we started working from home, we adopted a dog. And we - I was spending more time with my wife, meeting up for lunch, throughout the day checking in on each other.

FLINN: My husband is a firefighter. And so when he's gone, he's gone for 24 hours at a time. But when he's home, it was nice to be able to stop and have lunch with him and do some of those things that we were missing out on.

CINDY: I'm probably one of those people that you see walking down the street and you wouldn't realize they have health concerns. I realized pretty quickly that the new routine I found working from home was really beneficial to me. The brain fog, those physical things just seemed to vaporize.

ADAM: I can't pretend. Like, I want to pick a new outfit every day and play the games and cubicle life.

FLINN: Previous to the pandemic, the university that I work for had been one of these workplaces that we hear about now that previously didn't want employees working from home, but is now beginning to rethink that policy and kind of understanding that, yes, working at done remotely without them seeing a break in productivity.

CINDY: We got an email saying that on June 1, 2021, all remaining remote workers were returning back to the office. And for me, I actually cried when I read that notice.

ADAM: Is it the chain of ego where it's like, I'm going to make sure that you do what I say, you better be here at 9:00, you better be here a little bit past 5?

CINDY: And you do this between these hours, five days a week. We haven't had that sort of conversation probably since the Industrial Revolution, and it seems entirely too long to have not had that conversation as a society.

ADAM: Why do we need to go back to the office?

CORNISH: Why and how to bring employees back into the office - those are the kinds of decisions company leaders are having to make. And they're thinking about how to give employees flexibility, how the pandemic has impacted innovation and company culture. We spoke to a variety of CEOs - Christina Seelye, CEO and founder of video game publisher Maximum Games in California, was one of them.

CHRISTINA SEELYE: Innovation's a big one. I think that innovation - I haven't seen the technology yet that replicates what it's like to be in a room with people and bounce off of each other.

CORNISH: And Dan Rootenberg, CEO of SPEAR Physical Therapy Company in New York.

DAN ROOTENBERG: I do believe that people learn from each other more. There's more collaboration. There's Zoom fatigue. I mean, I'm on so many Zoom meetings. It's, you know, it's really exhausting after a while. And so there's a totally different feeling when you get together.

CORNISH: Those at the C-suite level, they turn to experts at places like McKinsey & Company.

SUSAN LUND: So we're getting calls from executives and chief human resource officers to say, OK, we've now gotten used to everybody remote. But how do we bring people back? When do we bring them back? What protocols do we need?

CORNISH: I spoke with Susan Lund, a partner at McKinsey & Company and leader of the McKinsey Global Institute. They put out a report in 2020 that was updated this year looking at the lasting impact of the pandemic on the workforce.

LUND: If you had told any business leader a year and a half ago that we were going to send the whole workforce home - at least the ones who could work from home - home for more than a year, they would say this is going to be a disaster. And, in fact, it's worked out quite well.

CORNISH: But brass tacks, were we all more or less productive when it comes to remote work? What did your research find?

LUND: So what we find is that in the short term, people are definitely as productive, that it looks like they're spending more time at work, in part because they don't have the commute. They don't have to go out necessarily to get lunch. They don't even have the office chit-chat. So on one level, it looks like the number of hours that people are working is actually up. But long term, there are questions about innovation and new products and new ideas are going to be as forthcoming because of the remote work setup.

CORNISH: I want to dig into this data more. But first, who do we mean when we say we? Who's been able to work from home? What portion of the workforce are we talking about?

LUND: It's really office-based workers who are able to work from home. Overall, we found that 60% of the U.S. workforce doesn't have any opportunity to work from home because they're either working with people directly, like doctors and nurses or hair cutters, or they're working with specialized machinery in a factory or in a laboratory. So it is a minority of people who even have this option. But overall, so 40% of the U.S. workforce could, in theory, work from home one day a week or more. And about a quarter of people could spend the majority of their time - three to five days a week - working from home.

CORNISH: When we talk about that 40% of people who do computer or office-based work, now a large number of them have had the experience of remote work. With that experience in mind, what are people learning about what a post-pandemic scenario could be for them?

LUND: So when you look at employee surveys, you typically find that the majority of people say, going forward, when we're vaccinated, when it's safe to return to the office, they still would like the flexibility to work from home a few days a week. So that's a hybrid model. But then you do have a segment of people, maybe a quarter, who say I want to be in the office full time. Now, maybe they don't have a good home working setup. It's often young people in their 20s who are starting out in their careers. They want the mentorship and the camaraderie. And then you have another small portion who say I would like to work remote 100% of the time and work from anywhere.

CORNISH: There have been CEOs out there quoted here and they're saying things like, well, we're going to know who's really committed to the job.

LUND: Yeah. So there is a lot of issues. So for companies going down this hybrid approach, there are a lot of pitfalls to watch out for. And one is that you end up with a two-tier workforce, that the people - it's always the same people in the room making the decisions and other people are on Zoom or video conference, and that those on video conference end up being passed over for promotion, not considered for different opportunities because they're not there. So companies are being thoughtful. The ones who are pursuing some kind of hybrid approach are thinking through these issues. And how do we avoid that to keep a level playing field?

CORNISH: We've been talking about this idea of who comes back, whose decision it is, that sort of thing. Legally, what do we know? Can employers force employees to come back? Can employers gently encourage employees to be vaccinated? What have you learned so far?

LUND: Well, it's a complicated question. So on vaccination, it looks like it's a bit of a gray area, but it looks like under federal law, yes, companies can require employees to be vaccinated if it impacts the health and safety of their workforce. On coming back to the office, I think it's a little bit more clear. Companies can require people to work on site - right? - as a part of the employment contract. But what they risk, especially for talented professionals, is that people will go to other companies that do allow more flexibility on some remote work or work from home.

CORNISH: When people look back at this time, will it be considered a reset in some ways when it comes to work, or are we going to be back to where we were in 2019?

LUND: Well, my crystal ball is broken, but I think it will be a reset. I don't think that we will go back to the same pattern of working. I think that the forced pause for everyone to spend more time at home with family and friends has really caused many people to rethink. I think that this really has been a reset.

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CORNISH: That's Susan Lund, leader of the McKinsey Global Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.