Where Is Work Going?

In between debates over the best post-COVID diet and summer vacation rentals, Backyard Barbeque Chatter (BBC) is all about work. What’s the plan for the fall? Who is going back? Who is staying home? Who is hybrid? Who is happy and who is miserable? 

A month ago, CEOs in finance and tech insisted that it was time for workers to get their asses back behind the desks. But not all banks are onboard. Some banks, like Citigroup, are planning on a hybrid model — some days in the office, some days at home — because they fear that the best employees will jump ship from companies that are hardline about being in-person. Middle aged, mid-level employees have souped up their homes this year, relocated to the country, and are spending more time with their children. Most (but not all) don’t want to go back. 

Hybrid and hotelling are the new buzz words. Workers will go into the office part time — five days per month or maybe even once a quarter — with a lot of variation between industries. Expect shared workspaces, where people plug in their laptops at any available cubicle or desk. 

Will hybrid work be permanent? I’m not sure. I’ll believe it when business actually reduces its footprint. If people who spend more time in the office get bigger bonuses and raises, this won’t last. 

I’m also hearing that this is a really good time to be a mid-level, experienced worker, because companies want to expand rapidly this year. One HR director told me that companies are “flush with cash” right now. They are going to spend it to retain the best workers and to grow the companies. It’s a good time to negotiate for a raise or better perks. One segment of the country is about to get much richer and much happier soon. Like Jeff Bezos blowing his cash to fly in a tin can in the sky, some are conducting staff meetings (cameras are now off) from hot tubs in their backyard. 

Who is not going to benefit from flexible work environments and higher salaries? Younger workers. It seriously sucks to start a new job from a laptop in your parents’ house. 20-somethings want to be around other young people in dynamic creative workplaces. They don’t have homes and hot tubs. They aren’t taking children to soccer matches. After a year and a half of sucky remote college education, they are starting their first jobs from their bedrooms. Quell depressing! 

Also, it’s not clear that newer workers are going to get all the perks of experienced workers. Newer workers might be in gig-economy hell. 

Some personalities will never adapt to remote work. Connecting with others through a computer is a huge bummer for ADHD, creative, social, interactive people. You can’t bounce ideas off co-workers spontaneously, when you need a google invite for a Zoom meeting. A google invite is death to creativity. 

Some jobs cannot be done remotely. It’s clear that children cannot be educated remotely, for example. Teachers and college professors will have to return to the classroom; many are not pleased about that fact. Remote work envy is going to be real. 

And teachers, along with other government employees with locked-in union salaries, are also going to be pissed, if those in the private sector get huge raises this year, while their salaries stay constant. 

Income inequality is real and growing more extreme. Many families are currently benefiting from unemployment and child tax credits; those cash subsidies must be made permanent to prevent disaster. Public education, which offers some protection (never big enough) against the worst of income inequality, has been seriously rocked this year. I’m hoping for a big bounce next year, but I’m not putting all my chips in that pile. I am worried about permanent, generational damage to kids in urban areas from school closures. 

Here, we’re doing fine. We’re putting new siding on the house and planning to build a party patio next year. I am lobbying for a hot tub. My kids are still in educational limbo, but we’re inching our way to an improved situation. Jonah is getting $18 an hour as a busboy at a fancy pizza place, and buying his own tickets to visit friends in Alaska and Michigan. Steve’s here full time until September. 

Steve and I ditched the kids on Sunday for a spontaneous brunch in NYC. When we crossed the George Washington Bridge, and pulled onto 190th Street and Fort Washington, a young woman held a “Homeless, Please Help” sign with one limp finger. Bent over, she was two seconds away from passing out in the middle of the street. Cars slowly drove around her. 

As we rebuild work and society in those post-COVID world (hello, hot tub!), we can’t forget the growing equity problem.