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The genie, the bottle and the leverage

Home officers have become efficient and, God help us, fashionable.

COVID turned the world upside down.

It changed how we looked at each other, how we weighed risk, and how we evaluated what was important.

COVID made simple things difficult and made difficult things impossible.

And now, almost four years removed from the initial outbreak of the disease, we are seeing how the workplace is once again the subject of a quiet debate over the importance of people being in the office vs. those who have grown accustomed to working from home.

It’s a classic conundrum. Employees have grown used to skipping the commute. Routines have been built. Convenience has not only become a watch word, it has become the center of the day. Home offices have become efficient and, god help us, fashionable.

In the meantime, traditionalists, middle-management folk and eaters of much data say that it’s time to return to the office, brave the lunchroom, do battle with the printer and renew old ties to comrades in arms.

While new strains of COVID keep morphing, outbreaks have been kept to a minimum, vaccine development has become almost second nature and health risks appear reasonable. Or at least reasonable enough so that management suggesting or insisting that folks make at least cameo appearances in the office can’t be shouted down as uncaring.

Studies are all over the map. A much celebrated report of 60,000 Microsoft employees showed that those working from home were 10% more productive than their colleagues in the office. On the other hand, a study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy and Research showed those at home were 10-20% less productive.

I’ll cop to this up front. I haven’t been a regular inhabitant of a workplace for some time. I used to commute to Petaluma from San Rafael each day. Then the company decided it wanted a San Francisco office because it would be easier to recruit editorial talent to Bagdad by the Bay. That was the cover story anyway, the company was really being set up to sell. After the company learned that it would cost those of us in the North Bay about $8,000 a year in new costs between parking, bridge tolls or ferry tickets (and raises to cover those costs were not in the cards), it was suggested a couple guest appearances a week would work. That soon became the occasional cameo.

The company was sold to a big European media company, and then COVID hit. Offices were shut down and Microsoft Teams became the weapon of choice for meetings. We were told the company didn’t care where we worked from as long as we made deadlines. We worked half day Fridays as my London-based company said balance in work life and family were important.

God bless the Brits and God save the queen.

Then we were sold again, to a private equity firm based in London. And now the staff in New York needs to show up every Thursday. And Fridays are back to eight hours.

The tug of war between management and staff is back on. But a couple things have changed since all of us were wearing masks and investing in Purell sanitizer. People have embraced the home office, and the traditional leverage that companies have always enjoyed over employees has shifted a bit.

The trouble is that employees were at home and the work got done. The concept that the office is the only place from which productivity flows is an open question. And the leverage companies have always enjoyed may be in flux.

Marin has always had a lower unemployment rate than the rest of California. In August, the last month available as I write this, the rate was 3.7% according to the good folks at the California Employment Development Department. That compares to 5.1% for California and 3.9% on a national basis.

Our county has unique challenges in that its driven by small businesses, which simply by its scale means that there are fewer jobs and that those jobs are not at the top of the pay scale. Add to that a commute that in the past has been brutal and housing that is decidedly expensive. The recruiting and hiring of quality employees can be difficult under the best circumstances.

Moreover, Marin is an expensive place to do business in and growth can be challenging. Companies have always chafed at the amount of regulation and red tape that guards the local city halls.

How the work from home concept will fair in the long run is clearly an open question. But the one-sided business model that calls for companies to call all the shots and for staff to nod their heads in agreement is clearly shifting.

The old saw goes “change is good.”

Yeah. You go first.

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