Future Tense

The Problem We’re Now Facing With WFH

And why so much talk of returning to the office is disingenuous.

A man in a suit stands backlit in front of a window in an empty office overlooking Fifth Avenue buildings.
A man in an office in New York City in October. Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Pandemic-era questions about the irrelevance of the office are inching toward a resolution. Some bosses are calling employees back. Others are telling them they don’t have to come back at all. And that has profound implications for downtown buildings, for the cities that depend on their property taxes, for the small businesses that depend on their traffic, for the service workers who maintain them, and for the trains and buses that make a big downtown of office buildings possible. But perhaps most of all, it has implications for the workers themselves.

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On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Brigid Schulte—director of the Better Life Lab at New America—about how to make the new era of the office work for officer workers.

Henry Grabar: J.P. Morgan brought back workers on Tuesday. Goldman brought them back earlier this month. Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will allow all employees to keep working from home. It seems like at white collar offices, this is the moment to either consolidate these changes or reverse them.

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Brigid Schulte: This really is a critical moment. What comes next in the next three to six months could be the start of defining what happens in the next 10 to 20 years, or the next generation. And I have to say we’re all over the place. You’ve kind of got those workplaces on one side—everybody back in the office!—and then on the other side, you’ve got Zuckerberg saying, “Hey, I kind of liked having more time at home. I liked not having to fight the commute. So I’m going to have more of a hybrid.” I have to tell you, I’m confused. There’ll be one survey that’ll say companies are embracing remote or hybrid work and they’ll cut down all these real estate costs. This is going to be great! And then a few days later, a new survey: CEOs want people back into the office. So I think that we’re in real flux.

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Right. And you don’t think that we should go back to normal—and not just because you’re calling in from the beach?

I don’t think that we should go back to the way it was. Work defined our lives before the pandemic, and it didn’t really work. If you were a professional with a college degree or more, or you worked on Wall Street, well, maybe it paid you a whole lot, but it also ate you alive. It cost health. It cost relationships. If you were an essential worker—what we used to call low-wage workers, hourly workers—you didn’t have enough hours. You didn’t have enough money. You were scrambling to find other jobs to make ends meet. Work was the dominant force in our lives before the pandemic. It’s so tied with identity and meaning, and it’s very complicated in the United States. It’s how we value each other; what we do is who we are. But it wasn’t even giving us the basics in some cases.

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One thing that gets trotted out a lot is the idea of work-life balance, that the commute really just took up so much time. So on the one hand, you have this promise of more time spent at home, spent with family. And on the other, maybe that commuting time is actually going toward working more, and that without the office as a place to concentrate your work tasks, those responsibilities end up encroaching on your life at home.

I would say that the responsibilities at work were already encroaching on life at home. If you look at work hours pre-pandemic, there was already this phenomenon called “spillover.” Work spilling over into family and home life, creating a lot of work-life conflict, work-life tension, work-family tension. And very little spillover the other way—spillover of family or home demands into work or taking us away from work. So the phenomenon of work already expanding into our lives was already in effect before the pandemic. And I do feel like that’s part of why so many people who were able to work remotely at home might’ve felt a sense of relief. Honestly, I think the pandemic sort of reminded people just how much of their own lives they were missing.

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Remote work has sometimes been viewed as a mixed blessing—the idea that it might even reinforce hierarchies about who shows up, who puts in face time. And that might translate into advantages for people who continue to show up. In that way, I think there’s a fear that remote work might exacerbate some of the inequalities that characterize life at the office.

Absolutely right. In most office cultures, in the United States in particular, we have what’s called face-time bias. Managers and CEOs, bosses, people in power—that’s the way they work, so they turn around and reward people who work like they do. In the office, I can see you. You’re always here, you come in early, you stay late. I don’t know what you’re doing, but I have this sense that you’re dedicated. What that does is that equates presence and long hours with productivity and commitment. And that’s not necessarily true at all. And it disadvantaged people who needed to work flexibly, who needed to (or wanted to) work remotely.

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Typically, before the pandemic, [those people] tended to be women and caregivers. So it’s not surprising that that face-time bias then just reproduced those kinds of patriarchal hierarchies of largely white men in power promoting more white men into positions of power. There were surveys before the pandemic that asked CEOs around the world who is the ideal worker, and more than three-fourths said somebody with no caregiving responsibilities, somebody who’s always here. Well, that’s never going to be a mother. We saw women just completely hammered by all the care giving responsibilities that they had to take on through the pandemic.

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Are you speaking from personal experience here?

Absolutely. I remember I did go down to a four-day workweek for a while after my daughter was born. And I remember editors calling me and saying, “You’re going to ruin your career. Don’t do this.”

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One symbol of remote work during the pandemic has been these digital nomads, people roaming around the country in their vans, getting Wi-Fi to send a bunch of emails in the morning, and then going for hikes in the afternoon. And it sounds like that is sort of a red herring. Those people do not represent where we’re going as a society.

I think it’s too early to say that digital nomads are a red herring. I think it’s just really going to depend on the cultures that develop and what they allow, what they value, and ultimately what they end up rewarding. Because if you’re a digital nomad, but you keep missing promotions and you’re not getting pay bonuses and you’re not valued, well, I can imagine you’re going to get the message that even though the policy says you can do it, if it’s not working out in practice, you’re going to run right back to the office. This is why we’re at this kind of very fragile, gelatinous moment where a lot of managers and CEOs who already have a lot of power will have a lot of power to figure out how work is going to shape people’s lives next.

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I think it’s important that we recognize how limited this conversation is to a certain elite sector of worker. If white collar workers get to work from home, that may help them with their child care needs, but it does nothing for everybody else.

I would argue that working from home doesn’t help white collar workers with their child care needs because working from home means that you have to work and do child care and—in the last year—homeschooling. That’s just unworkable. But I think you raise a really important point that we need to see work as part of this bigger picture. And work only works when it has all of the supporting infrastructure that actually makes it work. That means care for children, for schools, for aftercare. It means care for disabled family members and the elderly. And we have no care infrastructure in this country. It’s abominable.

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We are the only country that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. We’re one of six advanced countries that doesn’t have paid paternity leave. We have no investment in a child care infrastructure in the way that our advanced peer economies do. And so if we’re really going to talk about how to make work work, then we need to talk about how to make all those systems around it work.

If white collar workers are able to claw back some of their leisure time and flexibility through advocating for hybrid work, that gives them more time to do the things they want to do. How do we extend those gains to be societywide and not just to workers who have the privilege of being able to not go into the office every day?

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Yeah, that’s critical. Let’s remember—I’m saying this with clenched teeth, and I’m trying not to swear—that the latest data shows that about 20,000 child care centers still are closed. We’ve lost one in nine child care workers. We do not have the system that people can actually go back to work yet. We haven’t invested in figuring out how to build that system.

All of this talk about going back to the office is so disingenuous in some ways, because, yes we have roads and bridges and public transportation, but we don’t have the care infrastructure that would enable everybody who can and wants to come back to work. And that’s not just for the office workers. Work may not change dramatically in the next six months to a year, but it’s going to in the next 10 to 20 years. And so why not begin having these larger, harder conversations right now?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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