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Returning to the office sparks anxiety and dread for some

Martin Jaakola, a software engineer in Minneapolis, does not want to return to the office. Tim Gruber / The New York Times

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A year after the pandemic abruptly forced tens of millions of people to start working from home, disrupting family lives and derailing careers, employers are now getting ready to bring workers back to offices. But for some people, the prospect of returning to their desks is provoking anxiety, dread and even panic rather than relief.

Martin Jaakola, a software engineer in Minneapolis, never wants to go back to the office and is willing to quit if the medical device company he works for says he must. “I can’t honestly say that there’s anything about the office that I miss,” Jaakola, 29, said.

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People like Jaakola say last year proves that people do not need to sit cheek by jowl to be productive. Working at home is superior, they say, because they are not wasting hours in traffic or on crowded trains. Far better to spend that time with family or baking sourdough bread. And they do not have to worry about getting sick to boot.

These people are not on the same wavelength as David Solomon, the Goldman Sachs chief executive, who in February called remote work “an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Yet many companies are falling over themselves to appeal to office-reluctant workers. Salesforce says its work-from-anywhere approach would “unlock new growth opportunities” and “drive greater equality.” Spotify describes its flexible work policy as a “jewel in our Talent Attraction crown.”

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Target, Ford Motor Co. and PricewaterhouseCoopers say they are going to let office workers work remotely more frequently. Even Wall Street banks where employees often while away hours at their desks to be seen by the boss are preaching the gospel of flexibility. JPMorgan Chase is telling some workers they can cycle in and out of the office.

How long will employers remain flexible? When the pandemic loosens its grip, bosses could well demand that people file back in, and pronto. Some leaders, including Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, have already called people back. Amazon told employees Wednesday that it expected “to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline.”

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Amy C. Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who studies human interaction, has been advising financial firms, consumer products businesses and universities. She said many executives were spooked that they will lose their best people if they are not flexible.

But she said some managers might now be going too far. Teams need to get together to get stuff done.

“Just because we’ve managed to weather this storm doesn’t mean it’s an optimal way to work,” Edmondson said. “If you’re in a shipwreck and a piano top floats by, it becomes a lifesaver. But it’s not the way you would have designed a lifesaver.”

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But many employees said that the pandemic gave them free time they do not want to give up. Several people said they felt less beat down because they were not spending time in cars and on trains or buses.

Sheeta Verma, right, with a co-worker at her office in Boston, said that “being the youngest in the office, I don’t get to connect with my colleagues and it’s important that I connect.” Verma came in for the day but usually works from home.

“I’m not excited to go back to the office,” said Tracie Smith, who has an hour commute each way to her job as an analyst at California State University, Fullerton. In March, the university told Smith to come back in July, but it is not clear how often she will have to go in.

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“My fear is that, given the opportunity, they’ll take all of it away, and we’ll be back to 8 to 5 in the office again,” she said. “But the pandemic has shown that there are alternatives that work well.”

For the first time in decades, Smith, 49, said she felt rested because she is not getting up early to commute. Over breaks or during lunch, she dispensed with laundry or grocery shopping rather than using up precious evening hours.

While she has, at times, been lonely and is looking forward to kibitzing with colleagues and students, she does not want life to return to its previous grind.

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“I feel like a whole person. I am living an actual life every single day instead of trying to cram it into a day-and-a-half on the weekend,” Smith said. “It’s definitely making me reevaluate my work-life situation.”

Plenty of people are eager to return to the office, especially younger workers who feel they have more to lose by being away.

Sheeta Verma, 21, a recent graduate, was hired early last year before the pandemic shut down the offices of her tech firm Neurable, based in Boston.

“Being the youngest in the office, I don’t get to connect with my colleagues, and it’s important that I connect to get to know them, understand their mindset, how they learn and how they grew their careers,” Verma said.

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Yet even Verma wants her employer, who has not yet set a date for a broad return of employees to the office, to let her work from home some of the time, a hope shared by experienced workers like Deborah Paredes, who works at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Paredes commuted one hour each way from her home in Palmyra, New Jersey, to her desk before the pandemic. She is not interested in resuming that trek daily.

Some of Paredes’ concerns are about her health. She has had both COVID-19 vaccine shots, but she has asthma and an autoimmune disorder. “I don’t fancy being packed into an elevator with all of the people and the trains. It just seems silly,” Paredes, 59, said. “Who decided we needed to leave our homes and go to an office to work?”

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Paredes also believes she got a lot more done working at home. A self-described introvert who is easily distracted, she liked working at her own pace without standard office interruptions. “I can wake up, go for a jog and be working by 8:30, and sometimes I’ve worked until 10 at night, and I don’t feel resentful about that because I’m on a roll,” she said. “But there’s no way I could have been in the office until 10 p.m. working.”

Some companies spent the past year trying out different models to figure out which one works best.

Jaakola contends that last year is proof that people do not need to sit in close quarters to be productive.

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Last fall, after some of the restrictions had eased in Germany, Trivago, a travel company based in Düsseldorf, let employees work remotely three weeks of the month and then spend one week in the office. The office weeks were designed for collaboration and were treated like celebrations, with balloons hanging from the ceilings and employees plied with coffee and muffins, said Anja Honnefelder, the chief people officer and general counsel of the company.

But the experiment failed, she said. “We saw that many of the people only came back for two or three days during the week because it felt unnatural, all of the social interactions,” said Honnefelder, who described her staff as young and made up largely of software engineers and data scientists. “They felt like they couldn’t get their work done and that it was disorienting.”

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So in January, Trivago announced that employees would come back to the office two days a week, but it has not been able to implement the plan because Germany has imposed new restrictions because of a rise in coronavirus cases.

“What we think will happen is that employees will use the two days to socialize, have extended lunches and work with their teams because they know for the rest of the week they will have time to focus and manage their own work and not be distracted,” Honnefelder said.

The ability to focus on work without distractions from other employees is the main reason Jaakola, the Minneapolis software engineer, does not want to return to the office. He admits he finds dealing with other people kind of “draining” and hopes his company will not force him to return to the office, even for a few days a week.

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“My sense is that my company will try to go back to how things were before, and I think they’ll quickly realize there are a lot of remote possibilities out there for us,” he said. “If they try to force us to come in without a legitimate reason, I can get another job if I don’t want to come in.”

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