Balance or bounce? The great out-of-office debate 


One CEO of a major financial institution was recently quoted as saying, “If you can go out to eat dinner with others, you can come back into the office.” As the U.S. hits 150 million fully vaccinated citizens, employers are recalling employees back to base. However, for many employees, their new base of operations (home) is hundreds of miles away. This is not just physical distance, but also a newly formed bond to a “life and work” balance that includes working remotely. 

As COVID hit and economies went into lockdown last year, many cooped up in urban apartments took flight for healthier pastures. One cohort that took advantage of working at a distance was the powerful economic engine often referred to as born digital employees: millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born post 1997). They entered the workforce with technologies like Slack and WhatsApp, which have helped to disrupt the traditional work environment.  

During the past year, many worked productively off the grid while Airbnb hopping, trekking across the country in renovated vans, or taking care of elderly parents, while a few capitalized on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (and low interest rates) to purchase their first home. And they did so while starting new companies, launching IPOs, and helping the U.S. economy come back to life. 

Recent data shows our younger generation of workers are focused on two mutually inclusive traits: career security and work-life balance. As a result, 90 percent do not want to return to full-time office work post-pandemic. Despite misleading headlines, this group is not working on (or from) Mars, and does value human interaction, teams, and mentorship. But they are serious about a hybrid model, as polling shows 49 percent would consider quitting if their employers were not flexible about remote work. 

Meanwhile, 28 percent of U.S. office workers are back at headquarters, according to an index of 10 metro areas. For some industries, there is a business need to prevent siloed thinking and encourage rapid communication, especially on trading floors, where performance is maximized through teamwork. At the same time, many senior leaders worry about missed opportunities to train and mentor young employees as they onboard and begin their decades-long ascents, which is hard to replicate solely over Zoom. 

There are many studies that suggest a hybrid of in-person and remote work delivers the elusive balance, as 40 percent of workers felt they could be healthy and effective regardless of location. And several studies (before and after the start of the pandemic) showed that employees who work remotely are as productive, if not more so, than they are in the office.  

The hybrid model may also help reconstruct some of the pandemic’s damage to women who were shoved out of the workforce to care for children and senior relatives. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who in addition to her job provides 20 hours per week of unpaid care to her mother. Women over-index on not only high-risk sectors but those most impacted by shutdowns — hospitality, leisure, healthcare services, and education. As a result, roughly 4.5 million fewer women are employed now than at the start of the pandemic. Collectively, women who left the workforce in the pandemic could take a financial hit of $885 billion (12 to 24 months out of work), calculations show. 

Childcare was a challenge pre-pandemic, but recent figures show 1 million left a job last year in order to care for children, and nearly half a million lost a job because of time away to care for children. It is fair to say that those hit hardest by the pandemic also need an on ramp back into a healthy and durable work environment.

There will be some segments of the labor market that are not conducive to remote work (areas in high-contact services industries, in particular) but there are many service industries where 30 hours a week could be in person and 10 hours (or likely more) could be remote. 

If employees and employers are open to meeting scarce talent and business goals at the production-maximizing curve, there are plenty of solutions and technology to make it happen.

Meghan Fitzgerald, Dr.PH., is an adjunct healthcare policy professor at both the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and City University of New York, and author of “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.”