healthcare

How Long Are We Really Going to Be Working From Home?

With the future still wildly uncertain, employers' plans for returning to the office are constantly changing. We asked readers what they've heard about when they will supposedly be back.
23 July 2020, 2:04pm
How Long Are We Really Going to Be Working From Home?
Designecologist via Unsplash

When offices closed and sent nonessential employees home back in mid-March, remote work felt like a temporary arrangement, necessary to flatten the curve and stop the novel coronavirus from taking hold in the United States.

Four months later, the timeline for returning to the office feels further away and more fraught than ever. Thanks to a lack of central leadership and absence of national public health mandates, the United States is riding a continuously building wave of cases. The CDC gravely (but vaguely) warned last week that the upcoming fall and winter will be “one of the most difficult times that we've experienced in American public health.” Offices—with their open floor plans, communal kitchens, shared bathrooms, cramped meeting rooms, and elevators—are an amalgamation of all the things we’ve been repeatedly told to avoid.

Workers are looking to management for answers on when they should expect to be back, and managers are… well, it’s unclear. The reality is that no one knows when it will be safe to go back to offices again, just that it definitely shouldn’t be anytime soon. In the meantime, remote workers are stuck in a weird stasis, arranging their lives around tentative dates, and at the mercy of managers and CEOs who may or may not be acting in their employees’ best interest.

This week, more than 40 remote workers from more than 40 cities throughout the United States and the UK told VICE via Google form how their employers are handling the not-so-inevitable return to the office. No two answers were the same, even in cases where two people are in the same city. In total, they paint a picture of the patchwork, uncertain future of work.

Josh, 25, Washington, D.C.
Office size: 30 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

My company’s [plan is] a “soft reopening” anticipated for September 14. Employees “will be encouraged to return to a regular in-office work schedule,” but in-person gatherings of five-plus people will be prohibited, and social distancing protocols will remain in place. Tentatively, an “expanded operations” phase beginning on January 1 will open the office for all employees, plus in-person meetings of five-plus people. Our executive staff have stressed that no employee will be required to return to the office until a vaccine has been made available.

The remote working policies from COVID-19 have only strengthened the argument that remote work is not the great evil that management has labeled it as. Before this, remote working was a “privilege” and not offered as a regular work option—this exact language was pulled from an email I received from my HR department on March 2, only weeks before we shut down our entire office. While remote working does require adjustments, I suspect (and hope) that it will become a viable option following the pandemic.

Meg, 28, Cleveland, Ohio
Office size: 13 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

“August.” This has been pushed back each month, so I expect it will be pushed back a month each time for the ongoing future. We still go in once a week, on staggered days so not everyone is in the office.

Remote work is much better for my mental and physical health. It does not impact my work—if anything I feel much more productive.

Calvin, 24, Eugene, Oregon
Office size: 10 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

We’ve been told three separate times that we’d be returning to the office, only for them to delay it each time. First was supposed to be beginning of June, then July, and now our August date looks like it might be getting pushed back again due to the recent surge in cases both locally and nationwide.

I started this position in February; I’ve spent more time working from home than I have in the office. We’ve had to cancel and reschedule numerous events that would’ve brought in revenue for the company. That loss has resulted in our entire staff taking pay cuts or working reduced hours. I had to scrounge up money to order myself a desk and a chair because my office didn’t think to make sure any of us had those things at home in the first place. Working remotely has left me feeling burnt out because my routine is the exact same every day. I miss being in an office environment where I can chat with my co-workers face to face and have lunch, etc.

Govinda, 29, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
Office size: 40 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

Only when employees feel comfortable coming back to the office AND they can reach the office without using public transportation. There is no expectation that we will go back to the office in 2020 or until there's a vaccine that is widely available.

Anonymous, 30, Ventura, California
Office size: 20 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

Most of my coworkers have been pressured/forced to come back and are still working in the office, despite surging numbers in our county and the counties where we operate. I lucked out having the only director who actually advocates for us to keep working from home.

Your Boss May Be Watching You Work From Home

Our CEO is a smart and kind older man who unfortunately buys into the idea that we have to be in the office every day to be productive, and doesn’t really trust that people are actually working from home. Working from home—which would have never, ever been a possibility for me at this job before COVID, even though 100 percent of my job can be done at home—has lessened my anxiety disorder immensely. It’s helped so much that I’m considering trying to negotiate permanently working from home instead of getting a pay raise at my next review.

Samuel, 24, Columbus, Ohio
Office size: 20 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

We have been back in the office for two months now. My position can be done from home (more efficiently), but our executives have ordered us to return to office “while practicing guidelines,” but that’s not how it’s working in practice. This has created uncertainty and a loss of good faith between bosses and employees. Working from home gave me a sense of security for my safety and safety of others; being sent back into the office during the middle of the pandemic has increased my distrust in corporate America.

Chris, 21, San Antonio, Texas
Office size: 500 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

“Late September,” but that is the updated time, extended from “late July,” which was anticipated before the second spike in COVID cases. Before this, they said it was essential to be in the office (I work for a call center) but remote transition has been mostly seamless. I now believe in therapy dogs for stress; my dog chills with me all day and knows when I get stressed out from working.

Chloe, 23, London, United Kingdom
Office size: 50 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

Our office is now open again, but there isn't any expectation to go in. If we want to, we have to inform our manager and sign in on a dedicated app. We're expected to socially distance inside the office, lifts can only be used by one person, and we're not allowed to stay in the building past 6 p.m. There's also a one-way traffic-flow system throughout the building, which is a major inconvenience as there's only one gendered bathroom on each floor. It's a men’s on my floor, so due to not being a man, I'd have to go downstairs, use the women's loo on that floor, then back up the stairs on the other side [of the building]. This strikes me as less sanitary, because you have to breathe all over two separate floors on the way back to your desk rather than just potentially walking past someone going to the opposite way on the stairs.

I miss the social aspect of working in an office, as the only people I currently see are my housemate and her girlfriend, but that’s basically the only reason I’d like to go back. I’ve saved nearly £200 a month by not commuting to central London five days a week, so when we're eventually asked to go back full-time, I'm going to use that as an argument for why I should only have to only go in two or three days a week, tops.

Tristan, 29, Cleveland, Ohio
Office size: 35 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

I started this job on July 13; one of the first company-wide emails I received was about how they are foregoing office reopening, but didn’t say for how long. In onboarding calls, HR said they’re foregoing plans until at least next year. A couple people still go into the office a few times per week.

I really like being able to take breaks and play with the dog in the back yard or do a small chore. I don’t miss the commute. I don’t miss people bumbling into your office asking a yes/no question that could have been asked over chat. I do miss lunch conversations and socializing (we just moved to Cleveland and only people we know are my brother and his wife). I’m worried I’m not going to mesh with other people in the company, culturally, because it’s hard to get to know someone just by their voice or a tiny image of them from the shoulders up. I think the pandemic is going to last years, even if a vaccine is discovered, and I have no idea if I’ll ever meet anyone from the company in person.

Julie, 33, Cary, North Carolina
Office size: 80 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

August 3 is when everyone in my office is expected back. If we do not feel safe returning, we have been instructed to use our paid time off since they will not be creating any kind of work-from-home policy. It feels worth noting that in April, the company was telling everyone to use PTO to spend time with their families, so many have already used up a bunch of time.

Dan, 37, Charlotte, North Carolina
Office size: 500 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

I am in consulting; my company’s office is still closed (requiring approvals from the CEO’s direct report to use it). The “official word” has been that we won’t be in the office until Sept. 18; the unofficial word is that it will probably be into 2021. I would also normally be traveling for work, about four days per week. I probably won’t be expected to travel until 2021.

I’m very lucky. My wife has watched our kids since our oldest was born, and I have space in the house where I can work undisturbed. My kids are also young enough that the only thing we’re really worried about developmentally is that they haven’t played with other kids in such a long time as we’re fairly isolated.

Anonymous, 45, Greenwood Village, Colorado
Office size: 1,200 people
What is your company saying about coming back to the office?

We started returning at 25 percent capacity on July 6. They’ve done a decent job preparing the office, but it still feels pointless. Management is not being strict about the return, so most of us just aren’t going back full-time. I like the flexibility, but miss the social interactions. So many more distractions at home, and I feel very disconnected from work. Motivation’s taken a huge hit.

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