I’m jealous—perhaps a little jealous—of all the high-tech employees today who can decide when and where they work, and how much vacation time they’d like, and feel entitled to make such demands of their employees. The business world seems to be welcoming this changing business environment. What does this liquidity mean for the future of our nation?
I’m talking about the many employees who have now decided to simply “work from home,” can live 1,000 or 3,000 miles away from corporate offices, and can apparently feel free from what was once a demanding workplace. As one Silicon Valley CEO told his 500 employees, “Well, we’d like our employees to limit their vacations to three weeks a year” Really, just three? And the staff responded.
Before the pandemic, most of us went to the office to work, four or five days a week, and were allotted two or three weeks off, depending on longevity with their company. All this is changing. It’s a new, new world of work.
I think working from home has a lot going for it, but how is it affecting our nation? The changes are already visible. However, the undercurrents I hear are a little unsettling.
How do employers manage? I have a friend whose son works “from home” at a tech company in Seattle, and when I asked her how he was, she said, well, he’s going to France for a two-week chess tournament, which he’s been practicing for, and then he’ll take some time to go skiing in the mountains. Alps. When he comes back, he’ll do more skiing, but also have a bike ride planned.
How long will it run? I asked her. I laughed. “Well, he told me he works nights and some weekends and his boss thinks he’s doing a great job!”
Another guy, who works for an international group, lives in South Lake Tahoe, and spends most of his winters skiing—”and works too,” he told me. His boss tells him he’s doing a great job.
Yes, their bosses like these flexible hours too – I think. And I suggest that this is the new work culture today.
This workplace freedom is amazing, and working in an office is no longer an obligation. In many ways, however, this affects American life more than we could ever imagine.
In Palo Alto, the local downtown and other shopping centers have many offices now vacant, councilor Larissa Ortis, CEO of Streetsense, told Palo Alto City Council. This is a national problem, not just a local one. About 87 percent of offices across the country have decided to allow mixed working for their employees. She added that before the pandemic, only 5 percent were working from home. The Palo Alto Daily Post reports that downtown is now plagued with empty retail space because working people are no longer in their downtown offices, and the city has too much space to just serve Palo Altans. In fact, it has 39 square feet of retail per resident—73% above the national average of 23.5 square feet per resident. It’s no wonder, she added, that we’re wandering downtown, which has become empty.
Work-at-home issues also affect restaurants and lunch spots. It was a temporary problem during the pandemic, which we can understand, but it has now become an “issue” for Palo Alto.
Vacant buildings tell downtown visitors and some locals, that this city seems to be dying. This is my fear – that what they say could become true. The city should be vigilant about this — not just in terms of sales tax revenue. We lose downtown in the lively activity throughout the day, the vibe and the special quality of Palo Alto. Money can’t buy these traits.
When employees work from home, other problems arise. The Mercury News reported Sunday that transportation systems around the Bay Area are suffering due to a shortage of riders (“Transit may face a death spiral”) and because of the difficulty in finding new staff. Transportation agencies are out of money — “the systems are on the brink of collapse,” the story said.
Caltrain is reducing some train times to one per hour; While some Bay Area bus lines have canceled some routes. Public transit was our dream goal – people would take it to and from work, there would be fewer cars on the road and fewer carbon emissions. But if people are not using public transportation because they are staying at home, what does that mean for our public transportation in this region? Will it get worse?
I don’t deny working from home at all. Those who say they love it claim to be more productive than ever.
However, there are significant advantages to working in an office. The camaraderie is one—gathering at the proverbial water cooler to chat and gossip, being able to run to the next desk or lean against a cubicle and say, “Hey Bill, what do you think of this idea?” These kinds of human exchanges don’t happen as often when one is working alone at home.
Yes, societal change is happening – more than we ever expected. We can never go back to the workplace of the past, but how can we move forward? And will this work-at-home pattern benefit our society in the future?
I don’t know. Are you?
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