A debate over working from home versus at the office

Many people have been working from home for more than two months now. Tech giants Twitter and Square, both run by Jack Dorsey, say their employees can telecommute forever if they want to. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last week that he expects half the company’s employees will work from home in five to 10 years.

Writer Olga Khazan’s recent piece in the Atlantic is called “ Work From Home is Here to Stay .” She says that for her personally, the office isn’t conducive for getting things done. 

“I really need a lot of quiet. I'm either on the phone interviewing people or am quietly writing. So I don't really need people stopping by unannounced to say things to me. ... I can make friends in other ways, even though I'm friends with my colleagues. A lot of our kind of communication happens online anyway,” she says. 

On the flipside, New York Times op-ed columnist Jennifer Senior says offices are reliably social environments, where people can have serendipitous encounters that fuel creativity, learn to become a professional, and even find their future spouse.

Senior’s recent piece is titled “ Farewell, Office. You Were the Last Boundary Between Work and Home .”

Khazan counters, “I don't know about finding your spouse at your company. In the age of MeToo … I could just see a million ways [of] that going badly. And as far as climbing the ladder, I mean, in journalism at least, all of our kind of performance is based on your output, which for me, my output is better when I'm not being distracted by a million people all day.”

However, Khazan acknowledges that someone who might be more extroverted might miss the office. 

Senior says most people would probably prefer is a combination of working from home and at the office. 

One KCRW staffer’s home office features a color-coordinated bookshelf. Photo by Drew Tewksbury. 

Mentally separating home and office

Senior points out that without offices, people risk working all the time. 

“There is something about having a physical membrane between your house and your work that can be kind of great. It's kind of a … psychological cue to stop, to cut it out,” she says.  

Senior recalls that when she was a book critic, she worked in her bedroom, reading books there. “There's some kind of cognitive bouillabaisse eventually, where just everything gets fuzed together, and you're not associating your house with the right things, which is leisure.”

Khazan notes that she used to go into the office, but then work some more when she got home. “Now I just work to the same time, except I don't ever change out of my comfy pants,” she says. 

One producer has created a makeshift standing desk at home. Photo by Sarah Sweeney. 

Do employees now have more power to decide how and where to work?

Khazan says, “I do think that there's going to be — at least until there's a vaccine available for coronavirus — a nudge to work remotely at least some of the time.”

She adds that employers might drop their office leases as they’re facing revenue shortages. “So there might not necessarily be a big office to go back to. They might give up some of that office space just because it's an easier thing to give up than doing a lot of layoffs.”

That might result in staggered shifts, she explains, where one person comes into the office on Monday and Wednesday, and their colleague comes in on Tuesday and Thursday. “That not only maintains the physical distancing, but it also helps reduce the amount of office space that's actually available.”

Khazan says these stay-at-home orders have shown employers that it’s possible to have everyone telecommuting. “People can be just as productive. … Some of the fears that we had about telecommuting weren't necessarily valid.”

Senior says people should withhold judgment about what’s possible and achievable through remote work — because this experiment has only lasted about two months. 

“Also it's been an unusual time to conduct an experiment. So some work is certainly better than no work. And I think everybody's impressed that we're working at all. Things are moving along,” she says. 

Senior adds that office layouts might have to be “more rationally organized.” For now, it might be safe to assume that this pandemic has ended the open-office plan for good. 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski