And the business world seems to welcome this changing work environment. What does this fluidity mean for our nation’s future?
I am talking about the many employees who now simply decide to “work from home,” can live 1,000 or 3,000 miles from their corporate offices, and can seemingly feel free of what used to be a demanding workplace. As one Silicon Valley CEO told his 500 employees, “Well we like our people to limit their vacations to three week a year,” Really, only three? hires responded.
Before the pandemic, most of us went to the office to work, four or five days a week, were allotted two, or three, weeks’ vacation, depending upon longevity with their company. That all is changing. It’s a new, new work world.
I think work-from-homers have a great deal, but how does this affect our nation? The changes are already apparent. Yet the undercurrents I hear are a bit alarming.
How do employers manage? I have a friend whose son works “from home” for a tech company in Seattle, and when I ask her how he is doing, she says, well, he’s going to France for a two-week chess competition, which he has been practicing for, and then he will take some time to go skiing in the Alps. When he returns, he’ll do more skiing, but also, he has a bike tour planned.
When does he work? I asked her. She laughed. “Well, he tells me he works into the night and some weekends and his boss thinks he is doing great!”
Another young man, working for an international conglomerate, lives in South Lake Tahoe, and spends his winters mostly skiing – “and working too,” he tells me. His boss tells him he is doing a great job.
Yes, their bosses like these flexible hours also -- I guess. And that, I suggest, is today’s new work culture.
This freedom in the workplace is amazing, and working in an office is no longer an obligation. Yet, in many ways, this is affecting American life more than we ever imagined.
In Palo Alto, our local downtown and other shopping centers have many empty offices now, consultant Larisa Ortis, CEO of Streetsense, told the Palo Alto City Council. This is a national, not just a local problem. Some 87 percent of offices all over the country have decided to allow hybrid work for their employees. Before the pandemic, only 5 percent were working from home, she said. The downtown is now plagued with empty retail spaces because of people working are no longer in their downtown offices, and the city has too much space to serve only Palo Altans, the Palo Alto Daily Post reported. In fact, it has 39 sq. ft. of retail per resident – 73 Percent higher than the national average of 23.5 sq. ft. per resident. No wonder we are rattling around our emptier downtowns, she added.
The problems of work-at-home also affects restaurants and luncheon spots. It was a temporary problem during the pandemic, which we could understand, but now it’s become “a problem” for Palo Alto.
Vacant buildings say to downtown visitors and some local residents, this town looks like it’s dying. That is my fear – that what they are saying could become a reality. The city needs to be alert to this – not only in terms of sales tax revenues. We are losing our downtown in the lively all-day activity it had, the vitality, the special quality of Palo Alto. Money cannot buy these attributes.
When mployees work at home, other issues arise. The Mercury News reported Sunday that transit systems around the Bay Area are suffering because of lack of riders (“Transit could face death spiral”) and because new employees are hard to find. The transit agencies are out of money – “the systems are so close to collapse,” the story said.
Caltrain is reducing some train scheduless to one per hour; while some Bay Area bus lines have eliminated some routes. Public transit used to be our dream goal – people would take it to and from work, there would be fewer cars on the road and less carbon emissions. But if people are not using public transportation because they stay home, what does that mean for our public transit in this area? Will it get worse?
I am not negating work from home at all. Those who do say they love it and claim they are more productive than ever.
Yet there are great advantages in working at an office. Camaraderie is one – gathering at the proverbial water cooler to chat and gossip, the ability to run to the next office or lean over a cubicle and say, “Hey Bill, what do you think of this idea?” Those kinds of human exchanges don’t happen much when one is working alone at home.
Yes, a societal change is happening – more than we may have ever anticipated. We can never go back to the workplace of the past, but how do we move forward? And will this work-at-home pattern be beneficial for our society in the future?
I don’t know. Do you?
NOTE: Reader Catherine Mcneil offered this information, which provides some additional data. Thank you, Catherine.