IDEAS: Will we ever ‘work in the office” again?


“Maybe we have reached a point of no return, pun intended,” writer says.

This commentary will run on the Dayton Daily News’ Ideas and Voices page Tuesday, July 6.  

Beavercreek resident David Shumway is a regular community contributors.

During this pandemic many of us are, or were, totally out of work: laid off or dismissed due to enforced closures or business failures.

But a fortunate large segment is able to work from home. And I started wondering what will happen when we have a proven vaccine and things reopen.

It’s not that we opened too early, the problem is that too many of us are unwilling to temporarily follow two simple societal rules for the benefit of others.

There are varied reasons for this (denial, carelessness, selfishness, ego, lack of leadership, strangely even politics), but the result is a continuing and even deepening crisis while the rest of the world watches.

After all, many businesses have required shirts and shoes for less reason for years and no one objected.

(Brief aside: Came up with a helpful motto, “Masks! And Get Apart!” Thought it would make a great acronym.)

But back to working at home. Many are enjoying the experience, not having to dress for work as much, no long commuting with accompanying traffic problems, substantial gas and car-wear savings, no daycare expenses and hassle, more convenient breaks and lunches, etc. So if it’s successful why would anyone want to return to the office? (Statistics from CNBC: 24 percent would like to stay at home after the pandemic, 55 percent plan to return to the office, and the rest are not sure.)

Before the pandemic, 9 percent of workers worked from home. Now 42 percent work at least some time at home. It’s tied to income, rising from 24 percent to 46 percent with rising income.

Maybe we have reached a point of no return, pun intended.

The technology for office and client communications will continually improve, and, in the long term, office space and office infrastructure will be less required.

Of course we’re talking about a small segment of the workforce.

Most workers don’t have that option.

All of our great manufacturing people must go to the factories. And retail stores will always require on-site workers.

But wait!

This COVID thing has given even more impetus to already strong on-line buying, even for things like groceries, Walmart and Kohls. Even service industries (utilities, delivery, lawn services, HVAC , etc.) are scheduling and responding from homes rather than offices.

So the trends were there before the pandemic, working and home and shopping online. The pandemic has greatly accelerated the inevitable, and the technologies which make both these things possible are advancing as well. The irreversible is happening. Even with a return to normalcy and an ability to get out of the home and do stuff, we will find a very different world of job descriptions, workplace cultures, shopping experiences, and societal interactions.

Way back in 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote “Future Shock,” about us trying to keep up with technology. But even that was underestimated. Broadly today we are experiencing literally-mind-boggling and rapid changes in technology, cultural diversity, and inclusion which challenge comfortable “norms.”

We poor humans, homo sapiens sapiens, are hard pressed to accommodate such rapid evolution. But we will. The workplace is just a small part of this.