My last job wanted a return to work in the office—and I decided I didn't.
I was lucky—very lucky—to get a job at the beginning of the pandemic. I was hired in February, right when everyone was still unsure how long their work-from-home arrangements were really going to last, and waited seven weeks to start while the company figured out their new onboarding procedures. Like a lot of people at the time, I thought COVID might be handled within a few months and I'd be in an office by the summer.
And then… that didn't happen. I didn't mind. Every time someone asked me how I was "adjusting" to working from home, I had to remind them that I've been working from home since 2014. At first, I was as anxious as anyone to go into an office: I thought it might be nice to have a commute again, to ride my bike into work, to sit next to my colleagues. But as 2020 dragged on, I realized that not only do I love working from home, but I think offering permanent work from home is more ethical than forcing employees to come to and sit in an office.
Now, I know that I never want to go back into an office again.
In-office work puts people with disabilities at a disadvantage.
While I was working for this company, I started an employee resource group for people with disabilities, neurodiversity and invisible illnesses after realizing how badly I needed it to exist. I have severe and sometimes debilitating chronic conditions, and it was difficult for me to explain to my team why and how I was struggling without feeling like I was oversharing or making an excuse. We had ERGs for women, LGBTQ+ people, and for racial and ethnic minorities, and I figured that if I was uncomfortable talking about how my illnesses affected me at work, my colleagues probably were, too.
The group was an immediate success. I'd never worked in disability activism prior to founding the ERG, and I learned a lot in the process. At the same time as the C-suite started talking about mandatorily going back to the office early in 2021, the ERG was talking about what our experiences had been managing our conditions while working from home versus doing it while working in person. For the most part, the group agreed: Even though 2020 had been hard, the upside was that we were managing our conditions better.
It made sense. Some of my colleagues needed to refrigerate their daytime medications but didn't want to do it in a shared refrigerator in a break room, where their colleagues could basically take a peek into their medical history. Some of them had chronic migraines and couldn't exactly ask for the lighting fixtures in the office to be changed as an accommodation. Personally, I was managing my chronic pain with stretch breaks and a daily couple of micro-naps, and I knew that one of my mental conditions makes me work in short bursts with a lot of pacing around the house in between. I just didn't want to have to explain the professional idiosyncrasies I'd developed over years of working at home to coworkers and managers who could be less than conscientious about disability.
The pandemic isn't over.
Then there was the fact that not just the company where I worked, but many companies around the U.S. had started talking about a mandatory return to the office before their employees had even had the chance to get their vaccines. Some of the ERG members pointed out that they or their loved ones had high-risk conditions that they still had to take into account if they were vaccinated. They didn't want to return to the office because they were still susceptible to COVID, and the CEO had said that he likely wasn't going to require proof of vaccination.
In fact, some of my coworkers were openly hostile toward the idea of having to provide proof of vaccination to work in the office. It was hard to tell whether they were concerned about the ethics of an employer requiring employees to share medical information or they just weren't planning on getting vaccinated (or both). For me, this highlighted how risky it was to return to the office, and it was upsetting to know that the company was so anxious to get back to the "old normal" that their executives would ignore that risk.
Parents, mothers especially, benefit from flexible work.
I'm one of the 4% of mothers who have a partner who takes the lead on caregiving for children, and one of the 26% who are able to rely on daycare, according to Motherly's 2021 State of Motherhood survey. But many of my former coworkers weren't so fortunate, and had been working triple-time as an employee, a teacher, and a parent during the pandemic. It was hard for me to imagine returning to the office with a vaccination honor system and putting my son and his classmates and teachers at risk of COVID exposure. But for the mothers who had been unable to get daycare, returning to the office was an impossibility.
There are things that companies can do to help mothers. According to the State of Motherhood survey:
- 63% of mothers want longer, paid maternity leave
- 58% want more flexibility in their jobs
- 53% want employers to help with childcare, either by providing it onsite or by subsidizing the cost of childcare
But where are the corporations taking the bold stance that they're going to return to in-person work and open an onsite daycare? The needs of the parents who work for them just aren't being taken into account.
Mothers took on an incredible burden during the pandemic, with 2.7 million women forced into unemployment and many of them staying unemployed even as workplaces reopen because they don't have (or can't afford) other childcare options. But concern for women's, and especially mothers', employment has simply not been part of the conversation about reopening offices and mandating in-person work. Since children under 12 aren't going to have a vaccine available until at least September, employers who mandate in-office work are willfully ignoring the needs of the parents they employ and in effectively forcing women out of their jobs.
Remote work makes hiring diverse talent easier.
I had been neck-deep in the company's diversity and inclusion initiatives right from my first day. Like at a lot of tech companies, my colleagues were predominantly white, though not as male as the industry standard. After George Floyd's death, we started having fairly frank conversations with the CEO about the lack of diversity among salaried employees and how we could make the workplace, and particularly our hiring practices, more inclusive.
We were facing an uphill battle in this regard, because Austin has lost two-thirds of its Black population over the last few decades. The irony was that this had to do with gentrification on the east side of the city, and the company was headquartered in a shiny new building in east Austin. So when we started talking about a mandatory return to the office, it didn't make sense to me: If you care about diversity and you know that you're headquartered in a place that doesn't have a very diverse population, why wouldn't you keep your talent pool open to the whole country?
Remote work doesn't hurt—and often helps—business outcomes.
Maybe the biggest head-scratcher for me about returning to an office was that over the pandemic, the company had its best year. It was a startup, and we'd become profitable in 2020, which was much, much earlier than expected. Yet, like many CEOs, my former CEO claimed that in-person collaboration was so important to business outcomes that the benefits outweighed the risks despite clear evidence to the contrary.
We weren't the only company that had had a smooth transition to remote work. A Mercer study found that 94% of employers said they were at least as productive, if not more productive, after moving to work-from-home in 2020. And now that they've experienced remote work, a BCG study found that a whopping 89% of workers want at least a combination of remote and in-office work.
I'm never working in an office again.
I know that not everyone has the option to work remotely. My husband, for instance, works in clinical research and has to see patients in person. He spent all but a few weeks of the pandemic working in-office to work toward medical solutions for people with severe degenerative diseases. And, of course, there are the daycare employees who have taken care of and taught our son and his classmates over the past year so that we can work. Having worked in grocery stores for a good part of my adulthood, I also think the grocery retail employees who kept all of us afloat over the past year are downright saints—maybe especially here in Texas, where a lot of customers didn't respect mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.
What gets lost in debates about remote versus in-office work is the fact those of us who could work remotely saved potentially millions of lives by participating in lockdowns—by not taking the bus or train to work, by not sitting in close quarters with our colleagues for eight or more hours a day, by having remote happy hours. While it might be tempting to say, "Yeah, but we have a vaccine now," these facts remain:
- Hundreds of people are still dying from COVID-19 every day.
- Influenza outbreaks kill tens of thousands of Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- However, thanks to social distancing, the 2020-2021 flu season was practically nonexistent.
- Climate change is making Earth an ideal environment for viral and bacterial growth -- meaning that COVID-19 likely isn't the last major pandemic we'll see in our lifetimes (nor the last time we may have to shelter in place).
Work is the primary reason that people leave their homes and see other people, and we accomplished something nearly miraculous by moving work into our homes. Why any CEO would push for a move backward in the name of collaboration makes my head spin.
When it came time to look for a new job, knowing that I have always been able to do my job remotely, I decided that I would only look for fully remote roles. I'm thrilled to be at a point in my career that I can be picky in a job search, but given the personal and communal benefits of working from home, I don't think that remote work should be something you have to be picky to get.