Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Great Divergence

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 4, 2021 --  

Bosses who delight in office life are forcing workers to come back with them. Those who resist will find plenty of opportunities elsewhere.

When Google began reopening its office buildings last month1, it was dipping its toes in soon to be crowded waters It has been 13 months since the pandemic emptied office buildings around the world. Now that majority of American adults have received at least their first vaccinations, we will soon see how the future of white collar work plays out.

Will offices ever go back to the way they were? Or is the new culture of remote work with us to stay?

Companies like Google seem firmly committed to returning to something at least resembling how things were. Last December, a leaked memo from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai set a plan to require all employees to report to the office at least three days per week starting in September of this year.2 JP Morgan Chase has similarly said employees must return to the office on rotation starting in July3. These initial schedules with some days remote and some days in the office will let companies to reduce density so workers aren't packed less than six feet apart.

Lots of people will certainly enjoy heading back -- workers with young children challenging their concentration, young adults who enjoy office socials, people with short commutes, and of course, extroverts who can't stand solitude. But there are also those who never want to go back to the office again -- employees with long commutes, people who have moved away during the pandemic, and workers who found success juggling work with child care and other home responsibilities.

Those who enjoy remote work will face a tough choice when told to come back. Looking for a new job is difficult and often provokes anxiety. People usually choose the easiest path, and that path is to show up in the office when told to do so.

Bosses will offer all kinds of reasons why their employees need to come back to the office. They say it fosters better collaboration, creativity and trust. But more than a year has gone by with everyone working from home, and things seem to have gone pretty well. It's easy to claim the benefit of squishy things like "creativity", "collaboration" and "trust," but these things are very difficult to measure. What is easy to measure is cost -- and there is no question that maintaining office space for employees is more expensive than letting employees work form home.

Cost cutting has greased the wheels of transitions to "open" office plans in recent years -- it's cheaper to cram more employees into a smaller number of square feet. American businesses cut office space from 225 square feet per worker in 2010 to 123 square feet per worker in 2016.4. Remote work offers a way for businesses to cut costs even further than the most crammed open-office plans could possibly allow. When most all workers are remote, the office becomes meeting space for impressing customers and partners. You just need the lobby, a few conference rooms, fewer bathrooms and one kitchenette. No more bull pens of desks lined up end-to-end.

Of course, some people don't want to work this way. And those people often include the boss. It won't shock anyone who has spent a few years in an office that personal considerations are often the real reason that executive decisions get made. Remember all the cities that bent over backwards to give tax breaks and free land for Amazon's HQ2? Well guess what: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chose Arlington Virginia, just a few miles away from where he happened to have a second home.

Apparently, Jeff Bezos enjoys being in Washington, DC. And apparently, Sundar Pichai enjoys roaming the halls of a busy Googleplex. If your boss is signing your paycheck, you'd better learn to cater to these kinds of whims -- even if those whims mean you have to commute for an hour just because he likes to see you sitting at your desk.

The next several months are going to see a divergence in corporate culture. Bosses who like the in-person office experience are going to push to get that experience back. They will do whatever they can to drag their employees back in with them. Bosses who enjoy working from home or value the money they can save will embrace the changes of the past year and make them permanent.

When it comes time to look for their next job, workers will be able to choose between one kind of company or the other. Time will ultimately tell which model will prove more successful.

Related Web Columns:

Cramming Them In, October 1, 2019


1. GeekWire, Google to Begin Opening Some Seattle-Area Offices for Optional In-Person Work Starting April 20, April 7, 2021

2. CNBC, Google CEO Delays Office Return to Next September, But Axes Idea of Permanent Remote Work, December 14, 2020

3. Bloomberg, Employees Won’t Decide When to Return to Office, May 3, 2021

4. Work Design Magazine, The Limits Of Workplace Densification: How We’ve Moved Beyond Efficiency, May 3, 2018