So many bosses have repeated the same arguments against remote work so many times, most workers could recite them during a desk nap: People are less productive at home. Offices are necessary to maintain company culture. Chance encounters at the water cooler breed innovation.
Most of these familiar justifications for mandatory office attendance don’t hold up to scrutiny. Several studies have shown that knowledge workers tend to be just as productive at home as in the office, if not more so. Office culture often excludes people of color and other workplace minorities. And the water cooler certainly promotes idle conversation, but not necessarily new ideas. In other words, there’s no good prescriptive argument for enforced office attendance, and I won’t try to make one here. There are plenty of reasons why certain people want to work from home forever. I hope their bosses give them what they want!
But when I returned to the Slate D.C. office for the first time last week, it was with a smile and a sigh of relief. So consider this a letter of office recommendation from someone who doesn’t have an incentive to force employees back to the office nor has any real reason, such as young children, to want to stay away—this is the worker-centered argument for office life.
You’re probably thinking, “Did an office write this?” Or maybe you think I’m sucking up to my managers, writing about how much I looooove dutifully typing at my desk. Well, you’re wrong! I’d much rather be diving off a yacht in Lake Como—or kayaking on the Potomac, or even picking someone else’s stray Band-Aid off my leg after a dunk in a city pool—than writing this post right now.
But if I have to write posts to clothe my body and fill my fridge (and I do), I’d much rather do it in a space dedicated to post writing than in the one dedicated to everything else in my life. At the office, everything around me reeks of work: the hum of chatter from the conference room; the public bathroom that rewards a brisk, businesslike pee rather than a peaceful, leisurely one; the mediocre coffee that begs to be chugged, not savored; the previews of colleagues’ upcoming stories, drawn from my stealthy eavesdropping on their phone interviews. Work feels like the natural state of things here, so it doesn’t cause me great offense to be doing it. At home, I’m surrounded by reminders of all the other things I could be doing—and, in many cases, would rather be doing. Both the good (an arresting novel, a comfortable couch) and the bad (an overflowing laundry hamper, a tacky piece of furniture I’ve been meaning to replace) beckon to me. Even after 16 months of working from home, I can’t shake the put-upon feeling of having to do work while my surroundings are nudging me toward my chillaxing spots or to-do list.
In a recent New Yorker story, computer science professor Cal Newport points to a related impediment to working from home on knowledge-based tasks. “The home is filled with the familiar, and the familiar snares our attention, destabilizing the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly,” he writes. The brain toggles between work mode, chore mode, and fun mode with every midday trip past the dishwasher or TV, leading to distraction and frustration. For me, and for the many celebrated writers whose away-from-home hidey-holes Newport enumerates, the comforts of home are exactly what make for an uncomfortable workplace.
That’s a recipe for work dissatisfaction, of course, but it can also poison one’s home life. Though work-life balance has been a primary focus of employee appeals for extended remote-work arrangements, working from home can make home feel like work, an association no exchange of commute time for family time can erase. Even after my laptop closes for the evening, I’m still puttering around my workplace. The sunny table where I eat breakfast now reminds me of morning emails. This blurring of boundaries was acute during the pandemic winter, when I could spend entire days rolling from bedroom to “office” to kitchen and back, without ever leaving the house. But even now that my world has expanded, taking work calls in the same place where I host friends and flirt with my spouse continues to make me feel like I’m shitting where I eat.
As for the commute—the main reason employees cite for preferring remote work, according to one survey and plenty of personal anecdata—I’ve got to say, I don’t hate it! When I used to take the cross-town bus to work, my 90-minute roundtrip journey was when I got some of my best reading done. (Likewise, a friend with twin toddlers embraces her lengthy train commute as “me time,” a treasured break for watching dumb TV shows on her phone.) Now that I commute on my bike, I am guaranteed exercise and fresh air, even on my busiest days. Technically, I could manufacture these conditions for myself without an office at the other end. There’s nothing stopping me from taking a 15-minute spin around my neighborhood before and after every work-from-home day. But in my 16 straight months of working from home, have I gotten myself out the door for a fake bike commute even once? No, I have not. Just like I need deadlines to motivate myself to write, I need an office to motivate myself to commute.
But the best part of the commute is not the travel itself, which I realize for some people might also entail traffic, crowded Metro cars, and wasted time that could be spent on more fruitful or pleasurable endeavors. It’s the implication of distance. When I work in an office, I’m forced to spend time in a different part of the city, surrounded by people, architecture, restaurants, and (most importantly) vibes that differ from those around my home. I would never want to live in downtown D.C., but I like having a reason to be there. On a practical level, it’s closer to the doctors, dentists, and salons where I might have appointments before or after work. On a psychological level, the change of scenery makes me feel better in touch with the city as a whole. And on a gastronomic level, it’s nice to be able to pop out at lunchtime for a sad brown bowl of hummus or greens. I’d sooner make lunch of the pile of cicada carcasses outside my back door than bike all the way downtown just to get a caprese sandwich from Pret a Manger. But after I walked one block to my office’s closest Pret last week, that first post-pandemic bite of pesto-slathered baguette tasted like coming home. The neighborhood where I live isn’t the sort of commercial hub that attracts medical practices or fast-casual restaurants. I like it that way. Having a workplace means spending time in two distinctive settings, each of which satisfies its own set of needs.
Maybe that’s the Stockholm syndrome talking, or maybe I’m just sick of having to make three meals a day for my dumb, hungry body instead of just two. But there are plenty of other reasons to love the office. I miss seeing people, and speaking to them in person makes it much easier to convey my interest and enthusiasm in their work. I miss the momentum of already being out of the house when the workday ends, so I don’t have to overcome the inertia of the couch to head out somewhere else. I miss industrial-strength Wi-Fi that always works. I miss the daily reminder that my work takes place in a real world full of people and places, not an imaginary world within my computer. And I’m sick of taking from my own cache of toilet paper when I use the bathroom during the workday. Sure, the stuff in the office restroom isn’t exactly plush. But I’m not there to linger over the pleasures of lavish bathroom supplies. I’m there to work—in a place where my employer subsidizes my trips to the toilet, just as the heroes of the labor movement intended.