Workers should go back to the office when they get vaccinated

Workplace interactions are beneficial

By Greg Fournier, Collegian Columnist/Contributor

Last week, the United States reached a vaccination milestone that many assumed impossible a year ago: 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered. This is an unprecedented achievement, and it highlights the remarkable work that pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, governments and logistical operations have done over the past year. The more vaccines that people get, the closer the United States inches toward a full reopening.

Unfortunately, many American workers do not expect — or even want — to return to full, pre-COVID work life. Recent surveys have shown that only about three-quarters of office workers want to return to the office once the pandemic is over. This, moreover, does not mean that most office workers want to return to their normal day jobs. Only one-quarter of office workers actually want to return to work in person full-time; half want their employers to institute a “hybrid model,” which combines work from home with work at the office. The remaining quarter do not wish to return to in-person work at all and would rather arrange a permanent work-from-home scheme with their bosses.

This can be beneficial for many office workers. Silicon Valley workers, for instance, began working at home at the beginning of pandemic like everyone else, and this allowed them the freedom they otherwise would not have had in cramped San Francisco apartments. They could spread out, move to states with lower income taxes and escape the much-maligned conference room meetings thanks to Zoom. Working from home can also offer an escape from the office drama that results from any large gathering of stressed adults. Indeed, there are many downsides to working in offices, including noise, distraction, crowding and even poor lighting which can negatively impact the mental health of office workers.

On the other hand, the isolation that we have all experienced over the past year has been devastating to many people’s mental health. It is true that not all of this is likely a result of working from home as opposed to working in the office — much of that was just general isolation from not seeing friends or family for months at a time. But a full year of working at home could not have done much to benefit office workers, whose only interaction with coworkers now comes in the form of Zoom happy hours and conference calls. Managers and distracted coworkers often look down upon workplace socialization, but one researcher at MIT found that “water cooler chatter” actually increasesproductivity in the workplace. This might sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense: If you have time in between work to catch up with your coworkers, provided you don’t spend too much time at the proverbial water cooler, then these breaks can help refresh your mind and might make it easier to focus.

Working from home has other drawbacks. When you work at the office, you can naturally break up your day into specific sections. You commute in the morning and afternoon, work between those times, and stop working when you get home. When you constantly work from home, however, it is hard to break up the day in the same way. This means that you eat breakfast, sleep and work in the same building. This makes it hard for you to mentally divide your workspace from your home space. When people work from home, they spend more time working because they have instant access to devices that can connect them to their work. Of course, it is possible to close your laptop at 5 p.m., take a walk at lunch time and stop responding to emails at a certain time but when colleagues or clients know that you work from home, they can rationalize expecting work from you later in the day because you are, technically, available.

Therefore, working from home should not become a permanent aspect of our society. For some people, it is a godsend: They have already moved to another state or they have childcare duties to perform and working from home makes it slightly easier to do that. But workplaces should encourage their employees to come back to the office provided vaccination trends continue. We live in a world of increased atomization, where people feel more disconnected from each other than they ever have. Moreover, constant work disrupts the work-life balance and interferes with the ability to fully tune out from work. Coming back to the office — or to school — may not be a cure-all for these issues, but it is at least a first step.

Greg Fournier can be reached at [email protected]