Weekly unemployment claims in the USA from 1980 through 2020

Please Don’t Make Me Go Back to the Office

I think I forgot how to tie a tie.

In 2020, WFH joined lol and omg on the short list of three letter abbreviations common enough to have its own entry on Dictionary.com. As workplaces of all types closed down to slow the spread of COVID-19, any job that could be performed from home traded in water cooler gossip and print quotas for pajamas and Zoom calls.

Major companies, from Twitter to Facebook to Deutsche Bank to Zillow, announced plans to allow employees to work from home on a permanent basis. Corporate landlords in areas like Midtown Manhattan, home to the most expensive real estate in the world, are slowly panicking.

The graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 face a job market unparalleled in modern history in its brutality. The only other graduates that found a similar environment after receiving their diplomas were the classes of 2008 and 2009, who were thrust unwittingly into the throes of the Great Recession. But in 2021, not only are seniors and recent graduates job hunting in the midst of historic unemployment levels, they are weighing the risks to their safety imposed by any potential new job as the vaccine rollout continues at snail’s pace.

Weekly unemployment claims in the USA from 1980 to 2020
Historic unemployment claims, courtesy of the federal government

However, there has been a silver lining – the forced embrace by companies around the world of the option to work from home. For those privileged enough (it is without a doubt a privilege to be able to minimize your risk of exposure while retaining your job) to hold a job whose responsibilities translate to work from home, the new approach to work has been a revelation.

Millions of people haven’t commuted in almost a year. Office dress codes are as flexible as your webcam. Instead of shoveling a Chipotle bowl down your throat while alt-tabbing between spreadsheets, lunch breaks are spent on walks around the block, checking in on your children, or watching an episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix from your bed.

In the ten months since COVID-19 became a national emergency, I experienced nearly all of the ways the pandemic can impact one’s professional life.

In the spring, my two on-campus jobs were abruptly terminated and I lost out on the minimum wage I relied on for spending money. You may also notice “adult dependents”, which includes the vast majority of college students, were excluded from either stimulus bill.

Then, while living with my parents over the summer, I worked at a grocery store and drove for Instacart to save up money to move out. Both delivery and groceries are two industries whose duties obviously cannot be performed from home, and I encountered all manner of COVID-denying anti-maskers while listening to the In Store Audio Network thank me for my “service” every 20 minutes.

After moving to California, I arrived during the brief late-summer dip in COVID-19 cases, when some employers were opening their workplaces back up. I spent the first two months of my new full-time office job in-person, although few of my coworkers were attending in-person as well.

Finally, in the late fall, California ordered all non-essential offices to close again and I transitioned to work from home for the first time.

I never want to go back. 

I haven’t ironed a shirt in months. I gained an hour of my day back by cutting out my commute. I listen to my music loudly as I edit Excel documents, which boosts my morale and energy levels. Instead of trying to squeeze all of my errands into my Saturday afternoons, I take care of quick tasks during my lunch break. I cook my lunch fresh most days, which has improved the health of both my body and my wallet. Perhaps most importantly, I work as efficiently as I did in our office, if not more so.

Of course, there have been hiccups. Occasionally my apartment’s WiFi will fight with my office’s VPN for a few minutes, kicking me off our intranet. By the time I moved to WFH, my employer had given out all of its extra monitors and I went from three screens to one. One time my roommate set off our fire alarm right as I was supposed to join a conference call. But these challenges have paled in comparison to gains in time and comfort afforded by working from home.

As states prepare to offer the vaccine to more and more people, it is finally time to be hopeful. I am hopeful that the daily death tolls will decrease, that the new leaders of our government will prove more competent in their management of this crisis, and that hotels, bars, restaurants, sporting events, and concerts will once again be places we can safely visit with our loved ones. 

I am also hopeful that employers will learn some less serious lessons from the pandemic. For one, discouraging employees from staying home when they are feeling ill, or requiring a doctor’s note for short-term absences, are practices that should end entirely. Not everyone has same-day access to a medical provider, and whether the employee’s illness is as serious as COVID-19 or as mild as a stomach bug should hardly matter in how we as a country treat disease prevention. 

Employers should also take note of the savings that are available by offering working from home. The most obvious area to cut costs is in real estate. Rent or mortgage payments on fancy tech campuses look foolish when every company in Silicon Valley has successfully worked from home for almost a year. 

Obviously, there will always be meetings, trainings, or even entire job functions that are best performed in an office setting. Instead of abandoning the workplace entirely, companies should downsize their real estate portfolios. For years now, consulting firms have operated on a model that allows employees to work at any of their firm’s offices around the world by simply reserving their desk for the time they expect to need it.

Other industries should follow suit so that employees whose neighbors are having loud construction or whose Internet is down for a day can come into the office as needed. But rather than engaging in an exorbitantly expensive office amenities arms race, companies should start shedding real estate holdings, stopping at the minimum amount of space required to accommodate the anticipated number of employees who will opt to return to the office regularly.

Employers will also save on relocation costs. For most industries, with WFH, as long as an employee is located anywhere within their employer’s time zone, they will be able to easily coordinate with their coworkers. This flexibility benefits companies, as they will no longer have to cover moving costs for new employees already in their time zone, and frees workers from having to devote 50% of their salary to expensive San Francisco or Seattle or D.C. rents.

After the pandemic ends and travel once again becomes a reasonable option, adventurous employees will also have the option to work full-time while exploring the world. If your employer is on Pacific Time, for example, you could spend a month working from a beach in SoCal, a month working in the mountains of Appalachia, and a month working with polar bears in Alaska, all without having to use a day of vacation time. 

I am trying to be conscientious of those with small children, slow or nonexistent Internet connections, or cramped apartments, for whom work from home has been a nightmare rather than a dream. This is why I feel strongly that the best move for employers of all types would be to permanently offer work from home to all, rather than require everyone to WFH or eliminate it entirely. Those who thrive at home will continue to thrive, and those who thrived in the office environment will quickly get back to thriving. 

I am also trying to be aware of the more legitimate downsides of working from home, even for those to whom it has not otherwise been a burden. The isolating nature of working alone has contributed to unprecedented damage done to the already strained mental health of young people, with 25% of all Americans aged 18-24 having considered suicide this summer according to the Center for Disease Control. Once social restrictions end and workers can go back to happy hours and baseball games after their shift, I am confident the mental health burden of working from home will likely decline, but it is still a concerning trend. 

Furthermore, pre-pandemic research from the University of California Santa Barbara indicated that working from home may negatively impact an employee’s chance at advancement within their workplace, a negative effect that may be heightened for women and people of color. More studies on this downside are certainly coming, but for young people entering the professional world for the first time this is a trend to watch.

Keeping these challenges in mind, I still lean firmly in favor of working from home. The positives, especially the time saved in my day, significantly outweigh the negatives. It will be fascinating to watch how recent graduates, many of whom have only worked from home in their brief stint as full-time professionals, respond as some employers inevitably recall all of their staff back to the office after the vaccine achieves widespread adoption. 

One prediction I have is that work from home will become a perk employers offer in job listings, with firms that allow work from home attempting to recruit employees from companies that require all work be conducted face to face. 

Another prediction of mine is that business travel will be permanently reduced. For example, most of the staff at the consulting firm I interned at traveled to the client four days a week, every week. Flights and hotels were an enormous expense, which was passed on to the firm’s clients. These same clients surely took note over the last year as no consultants visited their offices yet the same work was completed.

If business travel does return at any serious volume, I think it will be seen as a perk for which to pay extra rather than a standard cost of doing business. The most elite law and consulting firms might continue to send their staff to client sites, solely so that these same clients can broadcast that they are paying a premium for in-person legal or consulting services. 

When I enrolled in college in the fall of 2016, I never imagined that my first full-time job would take place virtually. Yet now that this is my reality, doing office work from home feels like one of those options so obvious in hindsight as to make you laugh. Yes, I miss the camaraderie formed by working late nights on a deadline and the friendships that emerge over hastily packed lunches and office potlucks.

But you can pry my sweatpants from my cold, dead legs.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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