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The Case For In-Person Working

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Ah, Sunday - coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, as the line from the Wallace Stevens poem goes. For many office workers, that line could also describe Monday and Tuesday and the rest of the week spent working from home for the last year or so after organizations shuttered offices to promote social distancing. Gallup says some 70% of the workforce in white-collar jobs, which they define as occupations traditionally performed in offices or behind a computer, is still working from home, and more than half of them want to stay remote as much as possible. Well, workers, don't raise your hopes too high.

TOM GIMBEL: Employees think that just because they want it, they're going to get it. And that kind of goes a little bit against the social contract that exists between the employer and the employee.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Tom Gimbel. He runs the staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network in Chicago. In March, LaSalle sent out a survey asking over 350 top executives and HR heads what they plan to do about returning to the office. And...

GIMBEL: Seventy percent of companies plan to bring their employees back to the office in the fall of 2021.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As vaccination rates improve and the number of serious COVID cases trends downward, that's only looking more likely. But those CEOs were saying that in March. So what was driving their opinions then?

GIMBEL: Innovation, collaboration and retention. When there's people in a conference room, they can see each other's eyes and get the feeling of the energy that that creates collaboration and it sparks innovation. And it's a heck of a lot easier to leave a company when you don't go in every day and you don't have as many relationships, and that's what happens when you're working from home. And so if companies can get people together, they're going to create more, and they're going to be happier and want to stay there longer.

ALEXIA CAMBON: I'm Alexia Cambon. I'm a research director at Gartner, where I head up research looking at the employee experience. So we polled white-collar workers, office workers and asked them what it was that they had really enjoyed about working remotely over the course of the pandemic, and we found a couple of things. So the first one is that they just enjoyed having more control over their work environment. So employees with a disability, for example, were all of a sudden able to design work in a way that suited them - same thing for women.

Another piece that we found was a greater ability to integrate personal and professional obligations. You know, we don't really realize how much time commuting takes from us, and I think we're starting to understand now that it takes away from personal time. It is time away from loved ones, from our children, from our hobbies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the pressure to return to the office isn't just coming from the C-Suite. Cities are eager to have their commuters back commuting again.

JAY BYERS: Des Moines has a very large employment base downtown, and we have somewhere between 70- and 80,000 workers who work downtown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jay Byers is president and CEO of Des Moines Partnership, which helps foster economic and community development. His job is to lure employees to his city and to make sure there's a healthy amount of businesses to serve those employees - restaurants and dry cleaners and entertainment venues.

BYERS: We have the highest concentration of insurance workers, actually, in the country. And so, you know, when COVID-19 hit, a large number of those employees, you know, started working from home, and all these companies made these pivots, which, as you can imagine, it definitely made the streets of downtown Des Moines very, very quiet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you been lobbying bigger businesses to make sure workers return? I mean, what has been your sort of role in that?

BYERS: Yeah, so we have definitely led by example. Our entire team has been back, and we've been activating our events as well, too. Our farmer's market in downtown Des Moines, which on any given Saturday attracts more than 20,000 people, we've been up and running since the beginning of May. We hosted the Dew Tour for professional skateboarding a couple of weeks ago. So there's a lot going on. We're definitely leading by example and trying to create that fear of missing out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Labor Department reported Friday that employers added 850,000 jobs in June, beating expectations and well above the previous three months' average. That's a strong labor market, and it means that an office worker who's not so keen to go back to the office full time or to spend so much time commuting may just have some leverage. And that may come to the benefit of places, well, like Des Moines.

BYERS: We have had a number of folks who have moved here who, you know, are still working, you know, in other cities as well.

KRISTI KAYE BURMA: Well, we had roughly 300 people we hired in the last year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristi Kaye Burma is executive vice president of human resources at Athene Holding, an insurance company with offices in New York City; Stamford, Conn.; El Segundo, Calif.; Hamilton, Bermuda; and West Des Moines, where she works.

BURMA: We are starting to see applicants from larger cities because larger cities have a higher cost of living, and they have commuting issues. So they can move to a more affordable, thriving community like Des Moines. So we are starting to see that trend.

GIMBEL: CEOs need to make a decision of what kind of company they want to have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tom Gimbel of LaSalle Network.

GIMBEL: Now, I'm not saying just because I like having people in the office and think it's best, I'm not throwing stones at people that don't. And I think that if you want to have a company that's completely remote, Godspeed, I think that's great. I think we all have to pick how we run our companies, and employees have to pick what type of company they want to work for and where the prioritization is of those things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alexia Cambon at Gartner agrees and says employers and employees both have an opportunity now to reimagine office work.

CAMBON: We're kind of in this pivotal moment in time where we shouldn't just be recreating what we used to do. We shouldn't just be virtualizing the office. And we shouldn't be going back to what we were doing pre-pandemic. What we saw a lot of organizations do during the pandemic was to effectively just virtualize the way that they had worked in the office, so to just recreate how we used to work in the office at home. And that has been causing real issues for employees. That has been driving real fatigue.

GIMBEL: Well, we don't know what the long-term repercussions of everybody working remotely is. And in one side of the - of society, we say that mental illness is just as big of a health risk as physical illness, but yet we have mental illness coming as a result of isolation, working alone and not being in an office. And it's being discounted because people want it. And that, to me, is lunacy.

CAMBON: I think the way to think about the office now is to really understand what is worth commuting into the office for. What is it that the office can offer us that the home environment or the third space cannot? And this is where companies are going to have to get very good at doing that analysis for their specific value proposition, for their specific culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So maybe my plans of hosting WEEKEND EDITION from a beach in Portugal or Greece will just have to wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.