Our nation’s most powerful policymakers—elected officials and the corporations that fund them—really, really want remote workers back in the office all of a sudden. In his State of the Union address on March 1, President Biden told Americans that he wants everyone back in our physical workplaces to fill the country’s “great downtowns,” which is easy to say for a guy who famously works in his own special house.
A week earlier, Mayor Eric Adams commanded New Yorkers to get back to the office and out of their pajamas. And two days after Biden’s speech, Mayor London Breed in San Francisco announced a similar push for a return to office life, with cosigns from tech giants like Google, which announced it will end its voluntary work-from-home policy in April, and Microsoft, which already opened up last month. The threat that has been looming over the heads of WFH-lovers for almost a year is finally here: We’re actually going back to the office.
Studies have shown remote workers have been more “productive” and happier while working from home. From a remote worker’s perspective, saying goodbye to all the midday showers, laundry flexibility, hour-long interludes where you go through all the different Roku screensavers with your roommate, elaborate lunches, quality time with your pandemic dog, privacy during Zoom therapy, and privacy in general that come with remote work is a hard pill to swallow.
It’s all happening so fast, and the major questions about the “return to work” are: Why now? Why ever? What the fuck is going on? I have a few theories about why we’re being dragged back into the office by our fingernails—and, OK, we read a few theories on Twitter and assimilated the good ones into our worldview. Here’s how close we think each one is to being the truth.
1. Extrovert supremacy
In a years-long period of pretty unrelenting existential confusion and upheaval, it’s hard not to feel like we’re being manipulated by forces outside of our control. But is one of those forces… extroversion? A few self-identified introverts seem to think so: “Let the extroverts go back to the office, and let us stay home, away from the corrosive forces of small talk and happy hours,” they beg. This is an argument destined to make its audience say, “Uh… OK? Maybe?” As someone who loves talking to strangers and seeing what other people are having for lunch, I’m definitely biased—but I have an extremely hard time believing that our policymakers are urging a return to the office because they are socially outgoing.
2. Remote workers will ditch the U.S.
Maybe ending remote work isn’t about ostracizing introverts. Maybe it’s about pinning down anyone who’s so fed up with life in the U.S. that they want to leave. After Miami supposedly “seduced Silicon Valley,” why not somewhere else warm and sexy, like Lisbon or Mexico City? Any population dip would be bad for an already touchy economy, so tying down potential digital nomads and ex-pats makes sense on a policy level. I’m curious as to whether this sentiment has risen to the level of “existential threat” to the powers that be—I could believe that it’s a factor, but honestly, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens can speak another language (I can’t!).
3. COVID denialism
A key part of the rhetoric around returning to work relies on the fact that it’s finally “safe” to go back to the office. But epidemiologists remain divided about whether or not now is the right time to lift COVID restrictions around remote work and mask requirements. Omicron’s grip seems to have ebbed—except that a subvariant of it is apparently flaring up in New York City right now? It doesn’t feel like life is at a standstill anymore—but even just since January, almost 2,000 people in the U.S. were dying every day.
On top of that, millions more people have previously contracted COVID, and those cases may have created or exacerbated permanent health problems that make in-office work unhealthy or even dangerous compared to a remote option, ongoing pandemic aside. It all feels pretty in line with the “let’s plug our ears and pretend this isn’t happening” attitude a lot of people—White House officials included—have adopted. So, yeah, this is probably some of it.
4. The powerful grip of Big Fast Casual
I haven’t had a Sweetgreen salad in so long that I forget what their spicy cashew dressing tastes like—a state of being that I could never have achieved while working from an office. That’s because I no longer live near a glittery array of the fast-casual eateries that Jia Tolentino once described as “a marvel of optimization,” located near big offices and not the residential areas where many workers shifted in March 2020.
The pandemic, and specifically working from home, has truly fucked with the restaurant industry. Michael Maloof, data analytics director at Earnest Research, told Quartz that “folks now leave the house less between Monday and Friday than before the pandemic, putting pressure on the traditional morning commute and lunch food trips”—the meal slots that fast casual (and fast food) chains previously dominated. That’s gotta be hard for the chains to let go of, which is why maybe, just maybe, someone with a vested interest in people like me eating Chipotle for lunch a few times a month has Biden’s ear. Probably not, but wouldn’t that be wild?
5. Real estate interests
Who really stands to gain the most from bringing remote workers back to their offices? The people who own the office buildings, of course! Commercial real estate executives admitted to getting a little nervous about the popularity of remote work in a New York Times report from April 2021: It follows that, a year and no mass return to those “great downtowns” later, the movers and shakers in commercial real estate must be truly losing their shit. How much might our elected officials care? For a little perspective: In 2018, the commercial real estate market was valued at around $18 trillion dollars. So, yeah, they do care, and even the guy who’s never seen two pretty best friends knows it.
Which actually leads us to…
6. Uhhhh… capitalism???
Let me climb on my soapbox for a minute: If you listen carefully to Biden and Adams, you can hear a kind of nationalistic disdain for the remote worker, like it’s un-American for people to be comfortable while they’re on the clock. How can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you’re wearing fuzzy socks? But they also sound a little bit… desperate.
That’s because, as the heads of a functionally capitalist state, they don’t want us to be comfortable. They don’t want us to have a greater degree of autonomy over our lives, because when we have free time—countless hours saved by not commuting, the personal lulls of a workday at home, or the post-quitting high of a worker with options—workers will use it to do productive things for themselves, even as they reach new heights of workplace productivity. Just like calling in-person workers “essential” or “heroes” without conferring any actual protection or benefits on them, the "remote workers are spoiled and lazy" line is an exercise in political branding.
The worker with free time might finally have the energy to cook all of their meals instead of shelling out for delivery every weeknight; they might devote more time to their hobbies and less time to going out and racking up a bar tab after work to manage stress and feel free. They might even, I don’t know, start to interrogate a system that makes work the lodestar of their adult lives in order to enrich their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. IDK though haha it’s kind of cliché to blame capitalism, right? Unless…