The Benefits of Going Into the Office: Chat at the Coffee Maker, Listen at the Lunch Table

From a Washington Post column by Megan McArdle headlined “New graduates, you should actually go into the office”:

Twenty-one years ago this month, I graduated from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Last week, I was back there, talking to fellow alumni, and to students.

This has me thinking about the world those students are graduating into. My class experienced some heavy shocks, first the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and then 9/11. But that seems almost tame compared to what these students are facing.

Many had to go through a full year of pandemic schooling, which denied them a lot of my fondest memories of the place — the fun of being thrown together with hundreds of really smart young people from all over the world. And now they, like millions of other students, are heading into workplaces that may or may not even be places. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 33 percent of employers expanded remote work during the pandemic, and 60 percentof them intend to keep some or all of those remote options in the future. Kastle, which provides security badge systems to companies, says that as of the last week of April, occupancy in the offices they service was about 45 percent of its pre-pandemic level.

I don’t have to run through the benefits of remote work for anyone. But there are dangers, too. And those dangers are apt to be most dangerous for young people, who need to be building up their human capital right now: acquiring skills, learning about their industries, making professional contacts who can help them find their next job, or the job after that. All of that stuff is harder to do over email or Zoom.

Humans are a social species, evolved for face-to-face interaction. Anyone who worked or schooled remotely during the pandemic knows the drawbacks of moving to videoconference. The jerky, unnatural pace of conversation stifles spontaneity, and the distractions of home make it easy for people to check out, even when they want to pay attention. You never bump into someone before the meeting and remember a quick question you wanted to ask, nor catch up afterward on kids and pets and recent vacations.

Over time, those deficits accumulate. You haven’t made friends or built up a reservoir of goodwill with managers and peers that will carry you through rough patches. You didn’t hear the gossip about competitors that might alert you to opportunities — or warn you off similar mistakes. You haven’t listened to the war stories that teach you how to handle tricky situations, or get roped into an interesting project because you were chatting to the right person at the coffee maker. When you depart, you aren’t a fond memory, but just one less box on the Zoom screen.

And while you are there, you are more vulnerable. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, bosses are generally very reluctant to fire their workers, because managers are people, and most people don’t like hurting other people. It’s much easier to fire a box on the screen than the nice kid you ate lunch with last week. And as an entrepreneur of my acquaintance likes to point out, if your job can be done from the beach, it can probably also be done from Bangladesh, by someone who makes a lot less money than you do. So working in the kind of job, or company, that supports fully remote work probably makes you more vulnerable to layoffs over the long term.

How big an issue will this be for new graduates? That very much depends on whether the current situation persists. At the moment, labor markets are tight, and workers have a lot of bargaining power, which they are using to press for more remote options. But if we end up in a recession soon (as we may), employers will get some of that power back, and given the benefits to firms of having workers in proximity to one another, they might corral workers back into offices. The future might end up looking more like the pre-pandemic past.

So the wise graduate will have at least a contingency plan against the possibility that corporate offices continue to spin employees out into exurban home offices or far-flung cities. And while I understand the peril of we old fogies offering advice I’ll take the risk and offer some anyway: Be there.

Don’t take the job that lets you work from the beach, or your apartment. Pick a company with a headquarters, and move to the city where it is located. Come into the office multiple days a week, even if the space is two-thirds empty. Chat at the coffee maker. Listen over the lunch table.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”

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