Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Back to the Office

It is a dubious distinction, to say the least, but Americans are lagging the world on the return-to-work scale. In a place like New York City, that means empty office towers and shut down storefronts. It also means that developers are trying to turn commercial real estate residential.

Anyway, considering the new work-from-home fad, our media has been telling us that less time in the office is largely beneficial. It makes people more productive and does not impact the bottom line.

Of course, this is not really true, as Steven Ratner explains in the New York Times.

Why is it better to be present in the office?

Ratner suggests that…

… collaboration is harder, as is mentorship. That short stroll to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question or make a request becomes a laborious process. Working remotely “doesn’t work for young kids or spontaneity or management,” Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan, said in January at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

Nor, he said two years earlier, does it “work for those who want to hustle.” Many employers simply don’t believe that their staff works as hard from home, where distractions are many and supervision more difficult.

Other business leaders echo Dimon’s thought:

Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, noted recently that staff hired during the pandemic were less productive than longstanding employees and speculated that lack of an office culture might be a reason. And Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, made a similar observation last week. “In-person time helps build relationships and get more done,” read the heading on one section of a lengthy memo to his staff.

Of course, our consultants tell us that all is well. And yet, Ratner argues our competitors around the world do not follow the same formula:

But we should be aware of different choices being made in other countries, particularly China, our biggest strategic adversary. The Chinese expression “996” means working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While the Chinese government has been trying to curb this practice as part of a series of labor market reforms, in my many interactions with businessmen and investors there, I still find the prevailing work ethic extraordinary.

Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal report, the property manager JLL found that office occupancy in Asia ranges from 80 percent to 110 percent (meaning that in some cities, more staff is in the office than before the pandemic). By comparison, U.S. office occupancy stands at 40 percent to 60 percent of pre-Covid levels, lower than even Europe, which is at 70 percent to 90 percent. 

Also, physician Jordan Metzl explains the disadvantages that accrue to those who work from home. In particular, he emphasizes the simple fact that people who stay home move less.And, being immobile is bad for our health:

The more we move, the healthier we are. Moving every day doesn’t just make us feel better; it’s among the most far-reaching and effective forms of preventive medicine. Furthermore, sedentary activity is strongly linked to disease. More sitting time and less movement throughout the day can make a person less healthy. Both life expectancy (life span) and health profile (health span) are negatively affected by prolonged inactivity.

Despite incredible technological advances, the human body has basically required the same amount of movement for preventive health for more than 100,000 years. Unfortunately, technology and convenience often work against our health. With each technological victory, from the horse and buggy to the car, the airplane, the computer and now the smartphone, we move less. 

In today’s world, one can order meals, conduct relationships and even work while never taking a step. Studies of age-matched skeletons exhumed from before the Industrial Revolution — when people walked and moved more — show less knee arthritis than knees of today.

So, ask yourself how much time you spend in motion during a day. Apparently, most of us are not moving enough:

Right now, many of us aren’t getting enough. If you want to prove this to yourself, find a way to measure your steps such as using the health app on your smartphone. If you work in a hybrid environment, check your steps on the days you commute. They’re likely much greater than the days you’re working from home while sitting next to your primary food source, the refrigerator.

As a nation, we aren’t especially healthy. Our two most expensive conditions, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, cost more than $500 billion per year (including health care spending and lost productivity) and are largely preventable with a healthy diet and regular movement. We’re spending the most and moving the least. A recent survey found working from home in the United States still is the norm for roughly 50 percent of the work force but is less common in Europe and Asia, where 75 percent to 80 percent of workers are back in the office. As we move less, the associated health care costs will rise.

As it happens, being active is also good for your mental health:

Another important consideration of remote work is mental health. Humans are social animals. Much like our biological imperative to move is our need to interact. Despite advances in technology, our brains thrive with in-person relationships. When in person, we learn to read body language, understand unstated nuances in communication and work more effectively with others. Studies have shown increased rates of depression and anxiety during remote work. Even if it’s easier, there is a sense of isolation that develops when real, in-person communication is substituted with virtual interaction. EEG studies of the brain found that face-to-face interactions produced stronger and longer-lasting psychological connections than virtual ones.

It matters that we connect with other humans. And, we know that we do not connect as well over the internet. 

So, back to the office?

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