WASHINGTON — One morning this summer, Washington, D.C., Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio was a few blocks from the White House to announce the opening of DC Sweet Potato Cake. In a downtown that had been drained of life for more than two years, the arrival of a new small business was no small victory.
But whether Sweet Potato Cake succeeds will largely depend on resolution of one of the most contentious debates in America today, one that pits the future of cities against the future of work, employers against employees. Remote work has become an entrenched practice in the last two years, but is it a truly sustainable one?
“We don't think all the people have to come back all the time,” Falcicchio said as sweet potato maven April Richardson greeted supporters. “But we do need most of the people back most of the time.”
He and others believe that President Biden, who has said he wants people back in offices, could spur the return by asking the federal government to end its practice of giving a wide latitude to remote workers — or at least to clarify when that practice will wind down.
And since there are thousands of federal employees in every American city, their return could indicate to businesses in the private sector that it is time to make work look like it did before the pandemic — cubicles, awkward happy hours and all.
“We need those office folks,” Falcicchio said, practically pleading.
He and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have brought those pleas directly to the White House, but nothing has come of their requests. U.S. senators who have asked when federal employees will return have also been met mostly with silence. And there are indications that some leaders in the federal bureaucracy want to continue remote work into perpetuity.
“We've got to live with the pandemic. We've got to get people back to work,” said a senior staffer for Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a legislator who has embraced the issue. "It's just not happening fast enough,” he added, charging Biden with an unwillingness to make “a tough decision.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Critics of remote work believe that the Biden administration has been coy about its plan because, despite what the president says, other officials want to maintain the practice at all costs.
“Agencies should leverage their experiences with expanded telework during the pandemic to institutionalize telework programs as a routine way of doing business,” one personnel guidance from the Biden administration says.
The resistance to RTO, as the return to office is known, is hardly confined to bureaucrats. Employees at Silicon Valley firms have resisted office work. Even the domineering executives of Manhattan’s biggest banks have had to concede that remote work is here to stay, at least partly, and that offices will never again be as full as they were in early February 2020, before lockdowns forced everyone who could work from home to do so.
“Hybrid is here to stay,” said Nicholas A. Bloom, a Stanford expert on workplace practices. He added that employers need to have concrete plans for how many days people need to be in the office and then “strictly enforce” those policies. But in the summer of 2022, that seems like a distant goal in both the private and public sectors.
The debate over remote work — for those fortunate enough to have the possibility to begin with — is likely to intensify even as the nation heads into its third autumn of the pandemic. In general, fears of the coronavirus have receded, leaving some business leaders to wonder why, if restaurants are full, they should continue to cater to a practice implemented at a time of crisis.
Earlier this month, writer Malcolm Gladwell infuriated work-from-home proponents by arguing, in an interview on the “Diary of a CEO” podcast, that the practice was a sign of low motivation.
“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,” Gladwell said, describing his experiences as the co-founder of the podcast company Pushkin Industries.
“It’s not in your best interest to work at home,” he advised.
Some economists think the moment is right for companies to insist on office work. “We believe post Labor Day will be a meaningful milestone,” real estate investment expert Jay Jiang of Dream Office told the Boston Globe earlier this week.
In his State of the Union address in February, Biden described returning to the office as almost a kind of patriotic duty. He reiterated that message several days later from the White House. “Because of the progress we’ve made fighting COVID, Americans can not only get back to work, but they can go to the office and safely fill our great downtown cities again,” he said.
That was in early March. Since then, highly transmissible coronavirus waves have continued to scramble return-to-office plans. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused gas prices to rise, though they have recently been coming back down. And fears of crime have kept commuters away from public transit, but some urbanists believe it is the lack of commuters that gives criminals license in the first place.
Then, in a May 31 email, Elon Musk told employees at Tesla they had to return to the office. Instead of offering perks, as other chief executives had tried to do, Musk said employees had to spend 40 hours a week at the company’s Fremont, Calif., headquarters “or depart Tesla.”
The following day, Politico reported that New York City Mayor Eric Adams was pushing for more city employees to return to their offices. "Please note, the Mayor has repeatedly emphasized, for the City to continue its comeback, we need employees from every sector to return to their offices,” mayoral chief of staff Frank Carone wrote. “The benefits of this return for the city are immeasurable and we, as City employees, must continue to lead by example.”
In a city where commercial real estate — and the financial and law firms that fill millions of square feet — constitute the tax base, a collective flight of workers and the corporations that employ them could lead to a mass economic collapse not witnessed since the 1970s. So it is not surprising that city leaders like Adams want laptop-bound workers back in cubicles.
Biden has gone curiously silent on the issue, but his views do not appear to have changed. While working from home — well, the White House residence — during his bout with COVID-19, the president held a summit on the economy with business leaders. During an exchange with Marriott chief executive Tony Capuano, Biden disparaged “everybody sitting and Zooming everything,” in a seeming reference to remote work.
But so far, his administration has not lived up to that goal. Last November, 42 senators asked the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration — the three agencies in the executive branch responsible for managing the federal workforce — to clarify return-to-office plans. They argued that not all constituents had adequate internet access, and that not all services could be rendered adequately over the internet.
The timing was inauspicious, since the Omicron variant was only weeks from arriving on U.S. shores in full force. “As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, it is a reminder of the challenges that face employers, including the Federal Government, as we implement reentry plans,” then-acting OMB director Shalanda Young wrote in early January to Sen. Wicker, who had been insistently pushing to have federal employees return to the workplace.
In February, Sens. Wicker, Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., filed legislation that would ask the Biden administration to codify return-to-office plans. The legislation went nowhere, so they wrote to OMB, GSA and OPM again in May, asking that the Biden administration bring federal employees back.
The senators argued that “widespread vaccines, testing, and safety measures have resulted in a dramatic decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths. As a result, the private sector and schools have reopened and it is time for the federal government to do the same.”
None of the three agencies responded.
“We’re frustrated,” the Wicker staffer told Yahoo News in a telephone conversation.
Proponents of remote work argue that the office has always been the domain of white men, and that women and people of color benefit from the ability to work remotely, as do people who can’t afford to live in Washington, San Francisco or New York. Remote work has also been shown to boost productivity while allowing workers more time for extracurricular pursuits.
But not everyone thinks the practice is fair, since only certain types of work can be done in front of a computer in the first place. People who work in meat processing plants never had a remote option. Neither did nurses or delivery workers.
“There are a lot of jobs that can’t be done remotely. And by and large, those tend to be service-sector jobs and jobs that pay less than work-from-home type of jobs,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News. “It’s something we have to think through, as an administration focused on equity.”
The senior administration official also pointed out that while wealthier, digital-first employees may have the luxury of escaping to “Zoomtowns” in the mountains of Colorado or the coast of California, it is service workers who are stuck in big cities with deteriorating public transit, rising crime and the hollowing out of small businesses starved for customers.
“How do you account for the fact that certain people may be avoiding the costs of commuting and may be able to live in less costly areas,” the senior administration official wondered, “and meanwhile, the folks who are making less money can’t avoid those costs? Is that going to have an inequality impact?”
The question is whether remote work was a temporary perk, like the ability to order to-go cocktails, or a new feature of the American workplace. If the latter is the case — as Stanford's Bloom and others maintain it is — then how should it be factored into an employee’s overall compensation package?
"Remote, in the private sector, is perceived as a new fringe benefit," says Kathy Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City. She says the Manhattan executives she regularly talks to are all offering remote work but are “doing it unhappily.” And she worries, like Gladwell, about the younger employees who continue to eagerly seize on the opportunity to stay out of the office without, she believes, thinking through the long-term consequences of that decision.
"Increasingly, I am starting to hear that young people are beginning to understand that their career potential is being jeopardized by not being in the office,” Wylde told Yahoo News. “Advancement comes from relationships, and you can't build relationships on Zoom. You can’t become a leader.”
Some companies in the private sector now calculate salaries based on geography, since a dollar goes a lot further in Boise than it does in Brooklyn. The differential can be seen as a kind of tax on remote work, a tax that many younger employees are seemingly willing to pay.
Public sector employees, and federal employees in particular, tend to belong to unions, and Wylde believes that if they want to continue working from home, they should seek that privilege through contract negotiations.
"New fringe benefits should be negotiated. There should be some reciprocity, in terms of what taxpayers are getting in return,” she says, dismissing any public health arguments for maintaining remote work. "If people can go to restaurants, go to theaters, ride on airplanes, etc., it's not a health issue."
Ventilation upgrades, which many office buildings needed even before the pandemic, could help, to a degree, to convince workers that commercial buildings are safe. And those upgrades will be far more effective in stopping an airborne virus than hand sanitizer dispensers and social distancing stickers.
But there are some workers who can't be coaxed back into the office, either because of lingering health concerns or because they moved to Jackson Hole in 2020 and have no interest in returning to midtown Manhattan in 2022.
Wylde believes that the “federal government owes the taxpayer to bring people back." But so far, the Biden administration has not made that a priority and does not, for now, appear to be intent on doing so. Corporations are struggling too. Office towers in midtown Manhattan remain empty, as do the federal offices of downtown D.C. When they will be full again, nobody knows.