The Office and Covid – The New York Times

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Welcome to the Virus Briefing, your comprehensive guide to the latest news and expert analysis on the coronavirus pandemic and other outbreaks.
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Fall is unofficially here, and some corporations are hoping it’s the season for a broad-scale return to the office. A number of companies, including Apple, Capital One, Comcast and The New York Times, are setting fresh guidelines around returning to the office in September.
More Americans will be commuting in the coming weeks, and returning to offices and workplaces that have been substantially reshaped by the pandemic. For insight on what’s next, I turned to my colleague Emma Goldberg.
What’s the current work moment?
There’s a lot of worker power that’s built up and is being flexed in different ways. We’re in a tight labor market that has ensured that workers can either assert what they want from their current employers, or leave their current employers and move to a job that meets their financial needs — or their needs in terms of flexibility or working conditions.
We’re also seeing a lot of people experiencing really frayed mental health. People have so much on them, whether it’s child care obligations, other care-taking obligations, or maybe they’re juggling multiple kinds of work or multiple jobs. People are feeling real fatigue and a sense of being overwhelmed. And you’re seeing that take on all different kinds of labels, including “quiet quitting,” or what older millennials call anti-hustle culture.
At this late stage in the pandemic, how are offices viewing Covid?
Offices have, in a lot of cases, dropped their safety protocols in an effort to get as many people back as possible. Some even dropped their vaccination requirements. And that’s one of the challenges of the moment. A lot of people, especially those who are immunocompromised or who have family members who are immunocompromised, still have real health concerns about going back to the office.
What happened to plans to change offices physically to make them less of a petri dish?
The companies that have undergone physical changes, in a lot of instances, are remaking their office spaces to try and make them more social environments. A lot of offices have added more “soft seating” and collaborative areas to try and communicate that they understand that when people go into the office now, it’s going to be more for collaboration, conversation and mentorship.
That’s sort of the opposite approach if you’re trying to prevent the spread of disease.
Yeah. The physical changes that have been made to office spaces are in many cases a reflection of a changed understanding of what purpose the office serves.
A lot of people look at it as “earning the commute.” If you’re asking for an hour of people’s day that they were previously able to use for exercise or child care, then you have to really make the case for that extra hour. And I think the most instructive case that people have made for the value of the office is that it has to promote relationships and mentorship and, you know, creative brainstorming and teamwork.
But in order for that to happen, there has to be a kind of reconceptualization of how office spaces are used. Because it doesn’t work for people if they’re going to go into the office, spend all that time commuting, take on all the associated risks and costs, and then sit there on Zoom calls with people who are home.
How is the return to office actually going?
A lot of companies brought people back this spring. But what’s happening now is they’re trying to figure out what the value of having some in-person work is and make sure that hybrid work setups are done in a way that actually helps achieve those goals. One thing that’s been interesting is the growing geographic and sector divide, in terms of how people experience work.
What do you mean?
I recently looked at where in the country people are fully back in the office. Researchers have found that the biggest predictors of whether people will be back in the office (aside from industry) are: Do you live in a city that had a prolonged Covid lockdown? And do you commute by a car or by mass transit?
If you live in a city that did not have a strict Covid lockdown and you commute by car, then you’re way more likely to be back in the office. So while San Francisco and New York are still seeing offices looking fairly empty, there are a lot of cities, especially in the South and in the Midwest, where people are back in the office, sometimes five days a week. In a moment when so much is polarized, it’s interesting that now the way someone works or what expectations they face in the workplace can look wildly different, just depending on where their desk is sitting in the country.
What are other trends that will shape the future of work?
More than ever, the politics of your employer are going to affect your life. It might affect whether your employer mandates vaccines for Covid. It might affect whether your employer will cover abortion-related travel expenses. We’re seeing the divide between blue and red companies play out in a really profound way.
For example, Walmart recently said that it would cover abortion related travel expenses for its employees. But it did so after a lot of other companies. For weeks its employees were wondering whether they were going to have the same reproductive health care coverage as employees at Amazon, for example. We’re seeing an increasing divide play out between different types of employers, between the politics of different employers and how that affects their workers’ lives.
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We recently asked readers for their lessons, life hacks and advice for making the return to the office better. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts.
“I am a public health nurse who spent the better part of the pandemic doing Covid-19 case and contact management virtually. On Zoom, it was so obvious and irritating when a person was interrupted. It required a whole reset of the conversation, with people apologizing over each other and time wasted. So I learned to sit back and listen and let people express their full thought without interruption. Now that I am back to visiting patients in their homes, I am putting a lot of effort into letting my teammates and patients complete their thoughts fully.” — Glenna Fraumeni, Toronto, Canada
“I Google funny one-liners and crack jokes at the top of meetings. People like to laugh and it eases conversation for all of us who feel awkward around people after so much time away.” — Sean Sakamoto, New York City
“One of the best things about remote work was being able to walk while it was still light. Now that I’m back in the office I make sure I transfer that feeling and walk around the block at work. ” — Andrea Agre, White Plains, N.Y.
“Bring a little bit of home with you to work — slippers, a plant, my favorite snacks, a framed photo of my dog and my favorite cardigan. Making my office homey really eased my anxiety.” — Meg, Chicago
“One thing I love about remote meetings is that they tend to start and end on time. On Teams or Zoom, two minutes is considered late enough to apologize for! I hope this is something that will stay!” — Ida, Sweden
“The habits I practiced while working from home — going to bed early, getting up at the same time every morning, dressing professionally every day, eating a good breakfast and lunch and keeping a strict work schedule — I am continuing now that I am back in my office. The fact that I was so disciplined while working from home made my transition back to the office very smooth.” — Katrina Alison Jaggears, California
“My first few weeks in the office on a hybrid schedule were intense. Returning to the noisy, open office environment was overstimulating and I thought I wasn’t going to make it or ever get any work done. I invested in good, sound-canceling headphones and made an ‘In A Meeting’ sign for my desk. I may have also put that sign up even when I wasn’t in a meeting, just to focus. That’s my best advice. Also Life saver.” — Melissa Meyer, Utah
“When my employer began a hybrid working schedule at the beginning of the summer, I realized I wasn’t going to do it. I told them thanks, but no; I’m worth more. And I started looking for a new job. After a week they said if I wanted to go full-time work from home, they’d approve it. Remote work taught me what I value more, and that I’m more valuable than the hustle.” — Roberta O., St. Paul, Minn.
White House officials said Americans may need only one booster shot per year, Stat News reports.
Katelyn Jetelina, who writes the “Your Local Epidemiologist” newsletter, discussed the White House’s plan.
Nearly every province in China has recorded infections in recent days, and some 60 million residents are in lockdown.
From vaccines to propaganda, Beijing has prioritized politics over science, creating conditions that make it difficult for China to adapt to living with the coronavirus.
The Biden administration last week formally requested $27 billion in emergency spending from Congress to fight the coronavirus pandemic and the monkeypox outbreak.
An international study estimated that nearly eight million children lost a parent or a caregiver to the pandemic, NPR reports.
New York City ended mask mandates on mass transit.
The U.S. now has more than 20,000 confirmed cases of monkeypox, more than any other country.
The U.S. government said a new contract with AmerisourceBergen would expand the number of vaccination locations, Reuters reports.
Federal officials are set to testify next week at a congressional hearing about the government’s monkeypox response, Bloomberg reports.
Other viruses
Wastewater surveillance for polio and monkeypox is improving, CNN reports.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back Friday — Jonathan
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