OPINION: Why no one wants to go back to the office

Emily Weddington is pictured at her home in Brentwood, Tenn., a suburban city outside of Nashville, on Friday, April 30, 2021. She and her husband decided to move from Atlanta to be closer to family and have a larger yard for their dogs. Because of relaxed work-from-home policies during the pandemic, some workforces now are able to live much farther from where their jobs are based. (John Amis for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Emily Weddington is pictured at her home in Brentwood, Tenn., a suburban city outside of Nashville, on Friday, April 30, 2021. She and her husband decided to move from Atlanta to be closer to family and have a larger yard for their dogs. Because of relaxed work-from-home policies during the pandemic, some workforces now are able to live much farther from where their jobs are based. (John Amis for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

For nearly a decade, Zeena Regis has worked as a hospice chaplain.

She loved her work, but during the pandemic, she felt completely burned out.

“It was the relationship building and in-person nature of my work that I loved, and when that was taken away and it was mostly administrative and over the phone, that is when I decided to split away and do consulting on my own,” she said.

As with many employees who once worked in offices, the shift introduced Regis, 41, of Decatur to the kind of workplace flexibility that she had never known. It also offered the kind of positive changes in her career she hadn’t realized were possible.

“I love this flexibility. I love not being wedded to one way of doing my job or living my calling. That has been really attractive to me — just being able to embrace things as they come,” Regis said.

The pandemic forced many companies to put employees on the fast track to remote work, and some employees have enjoyed it so much, they don’t want to get off — even if companies threaten to fire them. Some companies, such as Bank of America, have announced return dates this month for most employees with a requirement that any returning employee be vaccinated. The Washington Post now explicitly requires proof of vaccination as a condition of employment.

Before the pandemic, almost half of workers in metro Atlanta (44%) had never worked remotely, according to data from a series of surveys taken by the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Georgia Commute Options. But during the pandemic, a full 70% of workers in the region had transitioned to teleworking five days a week.

The percentage of employers who expected employees to continue working full time from home nearly doubled from April 2020 to January 2021, but some employers haven’t been swayed by the pandemic-fueled work reset.

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A recent survey from digital.com found that 4 in 10 employers said they would fire workers who don’t return to on-site jobs. Among the other findings: Only 10% of employers surveyed said they would make remote work mandatory while 17% said they would follow a hybrid schedule.

In contrast, an April survey from FlexJobs found that 60% of women and 52% of men said they would quit if they couldn’t continue remote work at least part of the time.

Some pretty basic math reveals a big gap between employer plans and worker preferences so maybe it’s a good time to rethink the way we work.

“We have watched this workism identity increase, especially among higher educated classes where their identity develops around work,” said Jenet Erickson, a fellow for the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. “COVID disrupted that. What people are saying is they don’t want that. We know from all the data that the strength and quality of relations is the greatest predictor of well-being and success across one’s life.”

While some workers worried about returning to work for health-related reasons, many, like Regis, simply found that working from home allowed them to structure their lives in new and more sustainable ways.

By moving into consulting, Regis was able to work with people who wanted her services rather than clients to whom she was assigned. She was able to take advantage of resources and opportunities that she may not have used had she continued working in an office.

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Previously when she needed to meet with multiple family members, those meetings sometimes had to take place during holidays when the family was physically in the same place. Not everyone was excited about talking about end-of-life care during Thanksgiving. With virtual meetings, Regis could meet with family members across the country at any time, making a more efficient use of her own time.

Working remotely also gave her the time to pursue other interests she had long wanted to explore but didn’t have the time to attend in person. She took a playwriting course, wrote a play and recently applied for a fellowship to develop a complete production. “There is something about this place that we are in that has made me a lot more open to possibilities,” she said.

During the pandemic, some parents discovered a system of child care that worked better for their families. Working mothers, especially those that work full time, were the group most likely to prefer a flexible work model that allows parents to work from home and share in child care duties with another parent.

Parents of children under 18 in particular are more likely to prefer working from home, with 53% each of moms and dads preferring to work from home at least half of the time, according to a recent IFS study co-authored by Erickson.

Regis’ husband, who works in the cybersecurity industry, had also gone fully remote during the pandemic while her son completed his final year of high school. This year, they were able to spend time in Northern California, where her son has joined AmeriCorps. When Regis and I spoke by phone, she and her husband were at Callaway Gardens, working remotely while also getting in a bit of resort time.

Some companies have surveyed employees to help make decisions about remote work. Regis said at her husband’s company, 20% of employees wanted to return to the office. The company didn’t renew their lease on office space.

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Erickson said more of those exchanges of information need to happen to bridge the gap between employer and employee desires. “Workplaces and employers are going to have to listen to employees about this,” Erickson said. “If this is about the facilitation of more effective work, there is probably a little different balance that we can do here.”

While Regis looks forward to meeting with people in person again, she also recognizes that the new way of doing things has allowed her to be more innovative and work in a way that feels more meaningful to her.

“I definitely am more productive now. I just had this one model of productivity,” Regis said. “Of course, it will take some balancing. What do I want to leave in the pandemic and what do I want to embrace, have been helpful (questions) for me to reflect on.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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