When will workers return to the office

·4 min read

I stopped a fellow traveler to take a picture in the Milwaukee airport this week. It is out of focus and of poor quality. I should have found a 9-year-old instead of someone near my age. Still, the photo captures my friend and me in what may have been our last time together.

His name is Shelton. He has spent his entire working career in the image enhancement business. He has been polishing my image for the past seven years. Shelton is a study in the dignity of work. He is the embodiment of faithfulness. He is at his post every workday. He stands and solicits business, then stoops and brushes and polishes to perfection. But it is the open conversations he has with those who sit before him that endears him to his customers. He opens his heart and captures the hearts of others like butterflies in a large net.

“Clean ‘em up! Shine ‘em up!” he says to all who pass his booth. Shoes have changed in Shelton’s time. “Too much cloth,” he says. “Not enough leather. People don’t dress up like you.”

I agree. It is hard to enhance the image of a man in shorts and a T-shirt wearing flip flops on bare feet.

Shelton’s commute from his modest home in Milwaukee to Mitchell International Airport is well over an hour each way. He needs three different busses. “But that’s alright,” he says with a smile. “Because of those busses I can leave the car with my wife for her errands and such. Thank God for city busses.”

Covid took a big toll on Shelton. “Nearly put me out of business,” he said. “But God is good.” He snaps his shine cloth and says, “He sent me you.”

God is indeed good. He sent me Shelton.

Every day in America millions of workers like Shelton make their way to a myriad of jobs that do not lend themselves to remote work. They cannot sit in their kitchens in pajamas moving images around on electronic screens. They have to go where the work is done. They bus tables, sweep hallways, deliver packages, clean rooms, carry this, and repair that. Life brings what it brings. Do they complain? Not much. There is work to be done and the people who do it step forward every day.

The Covid pandemic changed us in many ways. One of the most profound impacts it had on our lives defines how we work, where we work, and how we feel about our employment. Journalist Greg Ip, writing in the Wall Street Journal says the Covid-19 pandemic has caused “a reappraisal of what workers are willing to do, for how many hours, and at what wage…The unemployment rate, at 3.7%, is similar to levels of 2019, but far more jobs are vacant…Several things can erode willingness to work…such as time with family or leisure activities. Working from home may have proved so pleasant that some workers would sooner quit than return to the office. (“Workers New Attitudes Tighten Job Market,” by Greg Ip, Wall Street Journal, 9/22/2022)

Another article in the Journal reported that office occupancy is 55% of the level it was in 2020, just before the pandemic. Saying this another way, 45% of the office space we once occupied is now vacant. (“Work-in-Office Rates Jump To Highest Since Early ’20,” by Peter Grant, WSJ, 9/20/2022) Big companies are trying to bring workers back to their workspaces and rebuild corporate culture. But many employees prefer the flexibility of working remotely and are reluctant to return to the office.

Michael McMahan
Michael McMahan

How long will the remote work trend last? It is hard to say. In my view it is unhealthy for both the employers and the workers. The best organizations encourage collaboration and camaraderie among their staff. This is hard to accomplish when people are spread across large geographic areas and rarely come together. Workers need engagement with one another. They need to understand and believe they are part of a team that is solving problems or delivering important products or services. Working remotely is the antithesis of what is needed to build a healthy corporate culture.

If you are fortunate, you have a job that is satisfying and meets your financial needs. Doing that work with competence and determination is important, not just for your employer and customers, but also for you. Striving to be the best you can be at what you do builds self-esteem and encourages co-workers to emulate your success.

Also, acknowledging those who do important work around you and for you is the right thing to do. It helps you build relationships that will enrich your life. We are all traveling on this planet together. Get to know people like Shelton. Treat them with the respect they deserve. You might be like me and make a friend who will enhance your image and make your life shine a little brighter.

Michael McMahan is a resident of Gastonia.

This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: When will workers return to the office