Our Species Can’t Afford A Pointless Return To The Office

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A piece from Bloomberg a few weeks ago tells us that it’s time for everyone to return to the office. Why? Because it’s good for us!

How does the author, who admits to having worked remotely for most of her career, justify this? Well, she’s talked to older workers and they think going to the office is better for younger workers. Younger people reading this are rolling their eyes like I am, as many things older people offer in debate is just a defense of tradition and not a rational argument, but this one was a bit of a hybrid. The argument they made is that forging professional relationships is what made them successful in their careers, and that it took a lot of in-person interaction to get to know people.

Another argument the olds made is that they learned a lot early in their careers by seeing more experienced workers in the office frequently and being able to get advice from them. Then, as older workers saw them as valuable, they advocated for them as they climbed the corporate ladder, giving them references and recommending them for better assignments and then higher and better paying positions in the company.

But on the other hand, older workers who’ve put their time in fighting in the trenches don’t feel that it’s necessary for them to go back to work. For many of them, going in to the office is a health risk, too. So, while they argue that forging relationships with higher-ups in a company is important, they’re not actually going to be there for the younger employees to forge relationships with in person.

The piece goes on to talk about expert opinions on team building and the effect on commercial real estate, but I’ll let you finish reading all of that yourself. My thought on this? People and careers can adapt. We don’t have to force people to get together in person for work.

Some People Have Money & Political Futures Tied Up In This

It’s easy to dismiss this idea that people must return to the office 5 days a week as the ramblings of traditionalists who want their version of “normal” back, but it’s important to keep in mind that some people are desperate for workers to start pouring into cities again.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams met with 100 business executives in February trying to get them to force workers back into New York’s empty commercial buildings. His argument? New York’s economy is hurting because people aren’t coming into the city and leaving again every day. With the sky-high cost of living in places like New York City and San Francisco, only the wealthiest people can afford to live near where they work. Everyone else has to get up hours early to ride transit into these cities and work in jobs that can’t pay for an apartment in the next building, or even on most of the same island or peninsula.

“That accountant from a bank that sits in an office, it’s not only him. It feeds our financial ecosystem. He goes to the cleaners to get his suits cleaned. He goes to the restaurant. He brings in a business traveler, which is 70% of our hotel occupancy. He buys a hot dog on our streets — I hope a vegan hot dog — but he participates in the economy.”

Other people in big cities are worried, too. Businesses catering to people who spend time in the city but can’t afford to actually live there are closed up and going out of business. Commercial real estate isn’t selling. Both the unsustainable big cities and their economies are suffering because workers would rather live somewhere else with cheaper real estate, cleaner air, open spaces, and lower taxes, but now the cities aren’t getting that revenue or providing some of those services.

Let’s Not Forget The Workers

People like Eric Adams want us to feel sorry for wealthy businessmen, politicians, and other people who can afford to live in the city, but they don’t want us to think too hard about why workers don’t want to cooperate.

Before the pandemic, some people would have a commute over an hour long. Whether by car or by transit, it’s time you have to spend away from family and the office both. If you’re driving, you can’t work (at least not until autonomous vehicles improve or even become a thing). If you’re standing on a subway, you can’t break out a laptop and start your workday. So it’s all personal time that you’re spending to get to work but which you aren’t getting any compensation for.

That’s 10 or more hours per week, down the drain. That’s needing to spend money on gas or fares. That’s needing to buy food away from home, or eating a cold meal to save money. Childcare and other family needs also must be paid for, and not by your employer. Plus, some cities just don’t have room within reasonable commuting distance for workers to even afford to live there, and this forces many workers to do things like live in a van or RV in their employee’s parking lots while others just live on the streets because housing is unaffordable whether you have a job or not.

For some jobs, remote work isn’t an option. Manufacturers, construction jobs, and other hands-on services need someone to be there to actually do the job. But, for somewhere around 40% of workers, coming into an office or other workplace just isn’t a physical necessity. For that 40%, remote work is a big improvement to life quality and monthly household budgets that big city politicians and rent-seeking businessmen don’t want us to realize they’re vacuuming up and stealing from workers to get wealthier if people are forced back into the office without a compelling reason.

This attitude that “you need to come into the city so I can make more money” is literally robbing some people of a chance to have a place to live at all. That’s not something we should be OK with.

More Importantly, We Need To Get Greenhouse Gases Under Control

Another cost these businessmen and politicians don’t want us to think about is our children’s future. Commuting in a car is never pollution or carbon-free. The cost of driving a gas-powered car is obvious, as it comes straight out of the tailpipe and into the atmosphere, but even if everyone went electric, that energy still has to come from somewhere and for the near future, it’s not going to come from renewable energy as much as it really needs to. Transit isn’t carbon-free, either, and loading people onto buses and trains who really don’t need to be on them is 100% useless pollution and carbon.

Even if we just delay a return to offices for a few more years, we’d give grids and homeowners that much more time to make the electric grid greener, and that much more time for commuters to switch to an electric vehicle. It gives transit systems time to become greener. But if we keep avoiding making people drive into the city going forward, cities can enjoy less congestion, permanently. People’s cars can last longer, reducing pollution from their manufacture.

Big business and big government in big cities would love to externalize all of these costs onto the rest of us so they can buy another vacation home or another yacht or so somebody can run for president (or both), but we really can’t afford to let them do this. The human and environmental costs of pointlessly moving people into the city and back out every day isn’t something we can afford to keep paying because they were shortsighted and addicted themselves to unsustainable practices.

We need to tell these people NO.

Featured image by Fred Hsu, CC-BY-SA 4.0 License.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba