Working from home isn’t a utopia — it’s a total drag

The coronavirus pandemic has already taken more than 7,000 American lives, thrown the economy into chaos and washed over our daily routines with melancholy and terror. But, hey, did you know there is a silver lining?

I sure as hell didn’t until I read a recent Fortune story: “Coronavirus may finally force businesses to adopt workplaces of the future.”

Sounding like a pop-up ad, the co-writers continued, “The coronavirus is a terrible public health threat, but there is a hidden upside. It gives us a chance to rethink how work is organized and bring our policies into the 21st century.”

They go on to argue that telecommuting leads to improved well-being, less burnout and higher job satisfaction than office slaves endure, and that perhaps COVID-19 will be the “nudge” to make companies scrap their old-school expectations.

Or, in other words: Thank God, we can all work from home! Cue “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”!

Yes, so-called “shelter in place” policies have forced some 75 percent of nonessential US employees to do their jobs from their homes for the time being. For many nine-to-fivers, the opportunity to work pantsless is a wish granted straight from Aladdin’s genie.

Roll out of bed and into your comfy “office,” unshowered and clad in flannel pajamas and slippers. Enjoy a nice mug of freshly ground Lavazza coffee instead of that charred sawdust in the yucky breakroom. There are zero co-worker quirks to agitate you, and no wafting odors of microwaved codfish from the kitchen. Heaven.

Or is it? While this forced experiment in remote work — only applicable to certain digitally driven careers, by the way — is functioning well enough for those of us who are caught in its iron grasp, should it become our new normal?

Absolutely not.

A broad swath of Americans are fast figuring out that attempting to do meaningful tasks from their La-Z-Boys and kitchen countertops is a surprisingly stressful experience that turns simple communication into a Rubik’s Cube, stymies creativity, offers nonstop distraction and, to invoke a buzzword of our new lives, keeps us mercilessly isolated.

The closest we get to real human contact these days are “Brady Bunch”-style video meetings, and they are a giant, counterproductive pain.

Time for a conference! What will we use? Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype? OK, now that the laptop’s software was been updated to sorta function, let’s blockade the door so the kids and dog don’t interrupt this extremely important conversation. Now that that’s taken care of, we’ll ultimately accomplish next to nothing. How can you brainstorm ideas with garbled sound and pixelated facial expressions?

On-screen confabs can even lead to misconduct claims. A corporate human resources acquaintance told me she’s received an uptick in complaints from employees about co-workers videoconferencing from their beds, foolishly mistaking their duvet for a desk.

Another drawback of the living-room office is unintended dust-ups between co-workers. Misconstrued e-mails and texts have long been commonplace, because it’s easy to be too curt, abrasive or emotional in the heat of the moment online. Understanding this, Gmail, the largest e-mail provider in the United States, added a function in 2018 to “unsend” hastily composed messages. Instantly regret writing “THAT’S A DUMB IDEA, KAREN!”? You have 10 seconds to make it vanish forever.

But at home, the majority of our interactions are now typed out. Unable to convey tone or empathy in a quick note, we have trouble expressing what we really mean, and both parties can forget they’re talking to another human.

Remote-office advocates insist that companies will be more productive if we work from home, but a 2017 Gallup study found that employee engagement is what leads to bigger profits. The report argued that strong top-down communication, clear expectations and promoting co-worker relationships all breed employee engagement — but it’s awfully hard to do any of that on Slack while your neighbor is learning bass guitar.

As the days, weeks and, potentially, months of self-quarantine tick down, we’ll begin to see all the old office tropes with new eyes: even the droopy-eyed morning meetings, the co-worker who talks louder than a tractor, and the malfunctioning paper-towel machine in the bathroom will offer more comfort than our favorite chair. Because, despite the inconvenience of commuting and the formality of professional spaces, we will all miss coming together as people to get something done. Or, as the ’80s band Cinderella once sang, “You don’t know what you got, ’til it’s gone.”

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