One of the reasons it’s so difficult to raise children is the disconnect between their maturity and curiosity, often leading parents to ask their kids to do things and being questioned incessantly for their requests. Asking your child to put their seatbelt on can be the catalyst for a long debate about car safety and why it’s worthwhile to take such a simple step to protect yourself in a moving vehicle. Instead of scaring your kids with anecdotal horror stories or feeding them statistics they don’t care about, it’s easier to defer to a common refrain when asked why a child should do what you ask: “Because I said so.”
Fast forward to adulthood, and that same phrase continues to rule our daily lives despite our brains being much more capable of logical thinking and evaluating risk/reward. Even with ample evidence that the way we do most things is inefficient, unhealthy, and damaging, we continue along the path because breaking tradition carries a stigma, and any underling that dares question such tradition is sooner ostracized than given the time of day. There’s no better example of this than a continued insistence on denying employees permission to work from home, a stalwart policy that is returning as Covid-19 measures ease around the world (for now.) One of the silver linings of this past year has been the massive, sudden flood of workers going from working in an office every day to staying home and working in their pajamas, a trend that workers have enjoyed so much, many are quitting the jobs that have asked them to return to an office after a long period of working from home.
Looking at the data, it’s easy to understand why workers are so in favor of WFH, and equally as difficult to understand why some companies are so insistent on their employees coming in to the office every day. A Stanford study estimates that productivity went up 13% for WFH employees compared to working in the office, while attrition was cut in half. Over three quarters of employees see increased productivity overall after moving to WFH, while Great Place To Work’s study showed that productivity was steady or increased across the board for WFH employees. The average office worker spends about 408 hours commuting to and from work per year, a total of seventeen(!) days. That time is not necessarily lost, but it’s safe to say the general public would prefer to spend that time more usefully.
The larger societal impacts loom large as well, with transportation emissions plummeting during the Covid-19 lockdown, unlocking images of a world not using cars nearly as often and seeing the environmental benefits of such a change. In America, highways and major roads were largely and intentionally built through neighborhoods of color, and the packed streets create pollution in those neighborhoods that leads to higher rates of disease and illness throughout these populations. There’s also the daunting, ongoing battle against climate change, which requires near-extreme measures to slow down as extreme heat continues to rage on through the summer with fire season right around the corner for the American West. Taking as many cars off the road as possible is a massive net positive, and as technology continues to progress, making working from home something close to carbon-neutral will only see the benefits of skipping your commute continue to grow.
The physical and mental health of the average worker is also boosted when not having to go to the office. Consider the process of going in to work every day: you must wake up much earlier, groom yourself, dress yourself, grab all necessary items, do whatever morning chores there may be, drive an average of thirty minutes to work, engage in office chatter and politics in an effort to appear happy to be at work, and drive home another thirty minutes. That’s all without touching on the work itself or run-ins with management. The WFH employee can theoretically roll out of bed and get going, and when their day is done, they close the laptop with no need to make it anywhere before they can enjoy the evening. Work conversations become less frequent and more focused and necessary, and employees are much less concerned with their appearance or level of perceived happiness that management cares so much about. Studies show WFH employees get more exercise and are able to take better care of their mental health with less to worry about and fewer impediments to taking breaks when needed. In a nation that is facing several health crises, it would behoove the powers that be to take whatever steps are necessary to ease the physical and mental burden of everyday life.
At this point, most people understand the benefits of working from home, and in many cases the overarching reason that working from home is not implemented in every possible instance is due to a desire for control from management. There is very little to back up the assertion that working in an office does anything for the worker, but managers continually insist that the good of the company hinges on employees getting back in the office. Why? “Because I said so.” How do we remedy this problem? When it’s this clear that working from home likely increases productivity, is great for the environment, and has been a boon for the health of WFH employees, how can we ensure that workers who can work from home are indeed allowed to do so? By making it the law. Make employers provide solid reasoning for having their employees come into the office, and for those who cannot, mandate that they allow their employees to stay home. Employees are otherwise subject to the whims of their employers, with no choice but to obey or leave the company. Workers need protection, and we shouldn’t allow our ongoing climate and health crises to worsen due to the brittle egos of corporate management. Make it illegal to ask if an employee plans on working from home, and disallow termination for an employee based on their refusal to come to the office for remote-possible jobs. Any employee that can work from home should have the option to, which I suspect would lead many companies to getting rid of most of, if not all, of their office space entirely. And while productivity, general health, and societal equity go up, pollution, office politics, and wasted time plummet overnight. This is a no-brainer policy change with support from voters on both sides, an obvious upgrade to the greater good that the vast majority of folks can get behind.
One ongoing question with the WFH requirement would be what to do with the suddenly unused office space, which brings me to another crisis: housing. There are dozens of reasons why housing is becoming more expensive and less attainable, especially in major cities, but the top reason is the lack of space to build affordable housing in dense areas. Converting unused office space into housing would be a boon for housing shortages, and also give employees that need to physically go to work more options to live closer to their jobs. With greater supply goes shrinking demand, which makes for a less bloated market where citizens are spending less on housing while creating a greater sense of community and fighting gentrification and those displaced by it.
Enacting such a policy would be difficult given corporate meddling in legislature, but as support for such an idea grows, it becomes difficult for politicians to go against the will of their constituents to bring into law something that benefit everyone greatly. Making a WFH option mandatory when possible would be a step in the right direction in solving several issues plaguing our society, and it’s to time to make it happen.