Will we or won’t we? When do we or don’t we?

Return to the office, that is.

Barrels of feckless virtual ink have been spilled on this topic for nearly two years, starting, say, late the week national lockdown became a real and not fantastical thing.  Approaching the two-year anniversary of The Official Global Pandemic, few stories are more reliable hobbyhorses than the blow by blow of the tergiversations of every major tech company, bank, and big corporation announcing and then  un-announcing its starting date of all hands on deck.

An article in The New York Times earlier this week says it all:  “The R.T.O. date is gone. It’s been replaced with ‘we’ll get back to you.'”  Even Chief Human Resource Officers, who tend to announce these things, can’t remember every edict they’ve issued and then rescinded.

We have news for you, gentle reader:  There will be no checkered flag here, no runner breaking the tape and ending the race, and no expiring clock. We have passed through to the other side of endless, perpetual overtime.

Really, the evidence is all around us, and if anything it continues to build.  In a way, we’re living through the flip-side of the first months of the Covid Tunnel; remember when it was always going to be over “in a few weeks” or “in a couple of months?”  Perhaps it was merciful, or perhaps it was cruel (I’m inclined towards Answer A), but with no actual data, it was simple for gurus to tell us that we weren’t going to be living this way for a couple of years.

Which brings us to the main point, and it has almost nothing to do with people being understandably guarded about going back into a congregate environment for hours and hours every day:  It’s not about HEPA filters, UV light sanitizing robots, vaxxed/boosted cards, fast-read antigen tests, triple masks or no masks, hot and cold running hand sanitizer, or any of the rest of it.  No: The simple reality driving the RTO-date opacity is that remote working works.    It’s a more or less simultaneous discovery worldwide and it gives employees freedom and autonomy they  never used to have, which they love.  This seemingly unlikely genie is out of the bottle never to return.

So what does our RTO future hold?

Set aside the trivial antipodal cases of:

  • jobs that absolutely positively require physical presence to be performed–everything from hair salons and barbers to restaurants and bars, to warehouse workers to front-line retail, driving and delivering, and so on;
  • as well as the opposite, but relatively minute, extreme of firms that have always been remote and have never had an office.

We’re addressing the Adam Smith, Esq. audience, which–we assume–universally has options on the in-office/remote decision.

Let’s go back to what we do know about RTO for our audience.

It’s going to require a lot of trial and error.  This is to be celebrated.  Look forward to a long period of experimentation (think years, not months) while every individual firm and organization will be figuring out what works for their tasks at hand and sociocultural expectations of one another, as well as such non-negotiable activities such as client communications, professional development and training, intense bouts of collaboration, ramping up and winding down major projects, and much more.  We will see midcourse corrections which themselves will be subject to midcourse corrections.  Perhaps (almost certainly) people at different stages and phases of their careers will want and need to migrate along the in-office/remote continuum.  Let them do it!

I mentioned the never-to-be-forgotten appeal of greater autonomy and freedom.  Unfortunately that is not all that Zoom, “Teams,” multiple monitors and high-speed broadband have exposed.  As if we needed reminding, it has focused the klieg lights on the almost complete breakdown of available and desirable (read: high quality and affordable) child care in the US.  The “workplace” consequence of this falls 99.9% on the shoulders of women.  [This is of course a topic for another day but solving it once and for all in a way that is emotionally, educationally/developmentally, and economically sustainable fashion can no longer be seen by even the most obstructionist as optional or “eventually.”]

There’s another potent economic reality at work here, and understanding it starts with recognizing that within any given firm, the relationship of the firm to its professionals and staff is a classic example of bilateral monopoly, or more strictly speaking, “monopoly meets monopsony.”  (“Monopoly” short-handed means a market with only one seller, “monopsony” the same but with one buyer.)

What do we mean here?  Short of the nuclear options of the firm firing someone (on the firm side) or quitting (on the professional/staff side), the relationship is just that of bilateral single opposite parties locked in an embrace.  Economic theory tells us that the market equilibrium for these situations is indeterminate.  In other words, every equilibrium will differ depending on circumstances, history, and the relative strength of each party.  Practically speaking, this means that firm “dictates” that the RTO date will be Jan 1 or (say) July 4 or Dec 25 are so much smoke and mirrors. People will — and have been already — just ignoring them if it suits them. They’re calling the firms’ bluffs, in other words. And the firms are indeed bluffing, because valuable employees hold the trump card–many have already played it in public: “You want me in the office five [or four or three] days/week?  Great; I quit!”  If the employee is good, another more accommodating firm across the street will welcome them.

We need not go into how much people have realized they hate commuting, the flexibility of working when you want as a night owl or an early bird and not during an arbitrary window, the invaluable freedom of taking the dog for a walk or giving the kids an after-school snack.  The only surprise here is that anyone was surprised.

So sally forth into your long-running experiment in trial and error.  Set expectations but not mandates.  Be as transparent as you possibly can be about what is going on: Tell people, and tell them again.  Ask them what they think, and ask them again.  Just be sure of one thing.   You can forget “RTO.”  It will never happen.

And we’ll all be better for it.


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