Aug 12, 2022·edited Aug 12, 2022

An interesting take that captures the sentiment of most of my older coworkers and leaves me cold. I’m a 26 year old white-collar worker at a big financial services company. Work from work is optional and it seems like it’s just me, the call center people, the divorced people, and leadership there. All the people with a sufficient amount of social capital such as yourself work from home and are trying their hardest to keep it that way. These people had formative experience of working in close proximity for years. Many met their spouses, closest friends, or just a bunch of golf buddies. Now they have those friends and connections, and working from home affords them an autonomy they’ve never had before. I get why they like it. Their castle is full so they can pull up the drawbridge.

For young professionals, a work from home regime is catastrophic in the long-term. It makes it very hard to accumulate the social capital and the organizational know-how the 30+ crowd take for granted. Zoom is for communication, but it really has no room for communion (Yuval Levin makes this point). Most of my peers work from (their parent’s) home. It’s stultifying, drives the very atomization decried in this article, and will lead to the rising generation of knowledge economy workers being worse equipped than the ones who came before to take on life and work.

One more thing: if it weren’t for the office I wouldn’t be here commenting. My parents met at their first job out of college. So you’d be down at least one subscriber Ethan!

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Some great responses here. Appreciate all the thoughtful comments on what is to be a massive change that impacts people in different ways.

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Some good thoughts here. I’m a successful freelance writer who’s been WFH since 1992. I love it. But this leaves out a huge segment of the work force: the service people. People can WFH because of the overworked and underpaid service industry. I worked those jobs in my youth. Often demoralizing. Getting called “pizza guy” or “sandwich guy” like it was a racial epithet. Getting robbed. Getting abused by bosses. Washing banquet hall dishes until my fingernails fell off. The only consistently good thing about those jobs were my co-workers. The only good thing was my blue collar comrades. WFH is also an abbreviation for White Collar from Home.

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I disagree with Gladwell simply because I find the idea that WFH is either horrible or incredible for everyone (or the vast majority of people) a ridiculous premise. But I do think there are kernels of truth in it. The main one being that jobs where new classes of employees start annually are disproportionately impacted. In public accounting, the new associates come in knowing virtually nothing of relevance and just learn on the job. The good staff get along fine, but the average staff don’t get up to speed nearly as fast, and there are a lot of average staff. Nearly all the new staff prefer WFH, but their work is also objectively not as good which ultimately just makes everyone else’s life harder. I don’t think that’s enough to just blanket declare WFH bad, but I do think there’s a reluctance to admit that in some cases it does result in a worse work product.

Selfishly, I agree with your premise and the life you outlined sounds like my ideal. But my WFH reality doesn’t live up to that. I live alone in a condo outside the city and used to commute in. I experienced (and still experience) many of the WFH benefits you touch on and certainly have no desire to return to the office every day. It’s been a net positive for me without a doubt. But work is where I get a lot of my social interaction during the week, and I started to miss that the longer WFH went on. I felt more isolated rather than less with fully working from home. Landing in a 3/2 split either way is probably where I’ll end up in the long run, though that would almost certainly shift to a heavily WFH preference if I were married.

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Gladwell has a point, that office workers lose a sense of connectivity when working from home.

But I think Gladwell (and other media members and societal thinkers) overestimate how passionate office workers are about their jobs. Many people just wanna do their job, get paid, and go home -- or stay home. They may enjoy their job, but it's not something that brings them fulfillment. That comes from family, friends, and personal hobbies and projects, something a WFH lifestyle affords them.

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I realize that many people (who had the option) love WFH, and I certainly acknowledge that it will permanently change society, but I hated it, and I'm so glad to be back in the office. I'm very distractable, and the best way for me to focus on something is to be surrounded by a bunch of people -- in real life, not in a chat room -- working on a common goal. I like the structure that commuting puts in my day, although I admit that I rarely have to drive to work, and if I had a driving commute in daily traffic I'd hate it.

Josh Barro's most recent podcast was on this topic, and it was, as usual, very smart.


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Great piece, Ethan. I’m enjoying reading all of the different (and insightful) perspectives in the comments. I’m in the commercial office business and I understand why some jobs & functions want to work remotely. I enjoy it one day a week especially to work on tasks where I need uninterrupted time to focus.

However, I do need to be in the office as so much information sharing occurs when you bump into someone else in the hall/getting coffee and start talking about a project or event where you learn something new. Those forced unscheduled interactions are the lifeblood of the commercial real estate industry because you find out things that you didn’t know about and that new information helps you do your job better. Earlier in my career, I learned so much being in a conference room with a group of people after a meeting or call ended and another discussion would happen where I could listen or ask questions or gain additional insight from more experienced coworkers in an informal setting. You can’t get that working from home because that can’t be planned or scheduled.

Given the technology improvements, we were already seeing the work environment change occur before Covid especially in downtown offices where people would either WFH or at a suburban location closer to their home on Fridays. We have since seen many companies adopt the 3/2 model where Tues-Thurs are in the office while Mon and Fri are remote days which seems to work well. I know companies that are also seriously looking to adopt a four day workweek with all or a majority of the work time spent in the office which seems to me to be a fantastic benefit from a work/life balance perspective.

This moment in time is going to be a dramatic sea change in how humans effectively work going forward. I’m fascinated to see where it all goes.

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WFH might be one of those things with highly visible short term benefits, but less obvious long-term costs

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Young Professional hear. Love WFH. Preference would be for that to never change. My wife and I can spend more time together because I’m not in the car for the extra 45 minutes - 2 hours a day. Metro traffic can be brutal. Plus we can have lunch together or go for walks on breaks. It will help with childcare in the coming years or caring for a pet. I’ve had the opportunity since WFH was implemented to work from various locations around the US without having to burn as many vacation days. My wife will have a place dependent job in healthcare when she finishes grad school— we no longer have to stress about her getting a particular job or in a certain area. Wherever she gets a job we can pickup and go because I WFH. It’d take a number of years for us to be able to afford a halfway decent house that’s too small and cost too much in the area we live in now but with WFH for at least one of us it’s much easier to move on to an area where we can get a house and start a family and not be pinching pennies to do so.

There have been valid points in the comments about finding community or making work friends and such being much more difficult and that’s understandable. Maybe my own perspective is overly shading the situation but I’ve found work friends and mentors and career developers in WFH pretty similarly to prior in person white collar jobs I had. I don’t see many of them in person but we still have bonds, banter, and relationship. Another aspect pointed out was the level of work for young people coming in— in person training I would say is most effective but for companies with the structure and virtual capabilities to share screens in meetings and such— you can still get pretty close to what standard training is like. I’ve been on both sides of it at this point. In an ideal world companies could pay to have new hires (if cycle based) all come up to whatever office or HQ for a week or two to meet each other and do some training which would help make some of those initial connections.

For in person community— that can still be found in ways it always has: through civic or serving organizations, churches if you’re so inclined, going out to bars and getting after it, public sports leagues, other local special interests setups, stuff involving your kids if you have them, etc etc.

At the end of the day- as with most things there are pros and cons. Maybe societally it’ll bear out that WFH was bad in the aggregate. I’m open to being wrong on the societal level. But on the individual level—for me personally and most of the friends I have inside and outside of my job— it’s not close they’re happier with the freedom WFH, their work efficiency is much improved, their satisfaction with their work-life balance is much improved, their social life has actually improved due to commute times and having the desire to get out of their home and do something or see people after working at home all day.

Lots of other thoughts, points, counterpoints but this comment is already too long and I’ve annoyed myself with the ramblings of a madman.

With that being said— good article, great comments even if I disagree on specific points or which ‘team’ someone lands on in the discussion. Respectful thoughtful group here at HoS. Not common online.

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Great column, Ethan, and I agree that fostering a more village-like atmosphere is desirable. One thing I'd note though is that I'm not sure your experience in a more affluent area in the East Bay is necessarily representative of most other places in the country (both for cultural and economic reasons). I used to live in Pleasanton, and I think I experienced something of what you are experiencing now (especially during the pandemic), but I also found that many of our friends moved to live in less expensive areas or closer to family, which really interfered with village building. We recently moved to a suburb outside of Houston, and while working from home is still a thing in South Texas, it isn't nearly as dominant as it was in Northern California, so even when I do work from home, I don't necessarily feel the sort of communal vibe you describe (that may also just be be because it's 100 degrees and miserable outside everyday). This is a long comment, but I guess my take home point is that it's hard for any of us to generalize from our one very local experience whether this has actually been a community-building development in other locales. And I do agree with Gladwell that something in the workplace has been lost. So it's complicated.

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As a someone who has to “show up to work” (teacher) I envy people who have the flexibility to work where they where they want, but definitely think that this WFH movement will widen the chasm between the laptop class and working class.

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Really glad you wrote a piece on this. I've personally felt a weird sense of guilt from being WFH, as media is constantly telling me it'll hurt my career, relationships, etc. But I've just been...happier doing it, and see no reason to go back, due to a bunch of the reasons you outlined. Would love to see real neighborhood communities come back ignited by WFHers.

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Great perspective, Ethan. I consume a lot of Gladwell’s work, and I have a hunch he would be happy that his pseudo-hyperbolic statements inspired a thoughtful response. He has a way of arguing 150% of the way for something he really feels 90% for, just to draw out the opinions of those who would disagree.

For my two cents, I get one day a week to electively WFH and that is the perfect balance for me. I live by myself in a suburban studio apartment. It’s a fine place, but one that I find myself liking in inverse proportion to how much time I spend in it. I was confined to it for 2 weeks with Omicron COVID and found myself restless after about 5 days. If I had a family co-habituating and/or more to do to upkeep my residence, I’m sure my feelings would change. I completely agree that the flexibility to do so is a more black-and-white boon than the practice itself.

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I think work from home is a very healthy thing for certain kinds of people. I do worry about younger people just entering the job market, without being forced to socialize with coworkers and make these relationships, I'm not sure if many will. Yes, they might work together on projects through emails and Zoom calls, but there is something about being locked in a building for eight hours that forces you to get to know the people around you. Same for people less extroverted and outgoing, I worry that permanent work from home will cause them to be isolated.

We all talked a lot about how virtual schooling was bad for kids because of things like this, and I think the same is true to a lesser extent with adults.

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I appreciate the flexibility afforded me to work from home and I will periodically take advantage to help with family logistics. As a manager this issue has constant implications and yet I've got no flaming hot takes - I'm simply curious how it's all going to settle out. A few stray thoughts I had while reading this article and reading the comments:

-WFH + homeschooling is the ultimate in middle-age family life deliberateness and flexibility.

-MS teams and all the tools for remote coms and team productivity work well enough. Software collaboration tools got jump started a decade ago so software developers were always prepared for this moment.

-Interacting in the flesh is a cooling balm for burns wrought by our modern partisan religions.

-The office remained a place people congregated as churches, bridge clubs, service clubs, lodges, etc are hemorrhaging members.

-Ethan's anecdote about the neighborhood read like a movie about Brooklyn in the 40s, only kids replaced by dogs. Everywhere I've lived people were much less active than that (friendly enough, though).

-I appreciate that people I work with are humans and have lives/families/concerns etc. I like to know how people are doing and many times you tease that stuff out in person. Lots of companies are going to find it very easy to fire remote workers because there will be no human connection which often predisposes managers and leadership to find ways to keep people employed during lean times. Imagine getting fired over a teams chat.

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I’ve worked from home since 2012. Back then I rarely would come across anyone else who worked at home. My wife would commute 45 minutes to/from work every day in rush hour traffic, and my quality of life was just incredibly higher.

Once Covid hit and she changed to something that was also WFH, we were able to buy a bigger house, deep in the suburbs, because we didn’t need to be close to the city center.

We are both incredibly busy and productive, but like you Ethan, have time to do things like walk the dog during “business hours”.

A couple times a year, my colleagues get together somewhere for a few days and it’s really special. If we saw each other 40 hours a week, the truth is that many of us would be getting on each other’s nerves. Instead it’s like a celebration when we are together.

Count me in the camp that says every single aspect about WFH is better.

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