Opinion | Graduates should enter the office, not work remotely

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21 years ago this month, I graduated from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Last week I was back there talking to other alumni and students.

It makes me think of the world the students are graduating into. My class experienced some powerful shocks, first the bursting of the dot-com bubble and then 9/11. But it seems almost tame in relation to what these students are facing.

Many had to go through a whole year of pandemic schooling, which denied them many of my best memories of the place – the fun of being thrown with hundreds of really smart young people from all over the world. And now they, like millions of other students, are heading into jobs that may not even be places. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 33 percent of employers expanded teleworking during the pandemic, and 60 percent of them intend to keep some or all of these remote choices in the future. Kastle, which supplies security badge systems to businesses, says that as of the last week of April, occupancy at the offices they serve was about 45 percent of its pre-pandemic level.

I do not have to review the benefits of teleworking for anyone. But there are also dangers. And these dangers tend to be most dangerous for young people who need to build their human capital right now: acquire skills, learn about their industries, create professional contacts that can help them find their next job, or the job after that. . All of these things are harder to do via email or Zoom.

Humans are a social species, developed for face-to-face interaction. Anyone who worked or taught externally during the pandemic knows the disadvantages of going over to video conferencing. The jerky, unnatural pace of the conversation stifles spontaneity, and the distractions of the home make it easy for people to check out, even when they want to pay attention. You never bump into anyone before the meeting and remember a quick question you would like to ask, or catch up with subsequent children and pets and recent vacations.

Over time, these deficits accumulate. You have not made friends or built up a reservoir of goodwill with leaders and peers who will carry you through difficult areas (I am sorry to inform new graduates that there will inevitably be tough areas). You did not hear the gossip about competitors who could warn you about opportunities – or warn you against similar mistakes. You have not listened to the war stories that teach you how to handle difficult situations, or get caught up in an interesting project because you were chatting with the right person at the coffee machine. When you travel, you are not a good memory, but only a box smaller on the Zoom screen.

And while you are there, you are more vulnerable. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, bosses are generally very reluctant to fire their workers because leaders are human and most people do not like to hurt other people. It’s a lot easier to fire a box off the screen than the sweet boy you ate lunch with last week. And as an entrepreneur of my acquaintance would like to point out, if your work can be done from the beach, it can probably also be done from Bangladesh, by someone who earns much less money than you. So working in the kind of job or company that supports full-time telecommuting is likely to make you more vulnerable to layoffs in the long run.

How big a problem will this be for recent graduates? It depends a lot on whether the current situation lasts. Currently, labor markets are tight and workers have a lot of bargaining power that they use to push for more remote opportunities. But if we soon end up in a recession (as we can), employers will regain some of that power, and given the benefits to companies of having workers close to each other, they can capture workers back into offices. The future may end up resembling the pre-pandemic past.

So the smart candidate will at least have a contingency plan against the possibility of corporate offices continuing to spin employees out into suburban home offices or remote cities. And even though I understand the danger of us old fools giving advice (“Have you considered blogging?” Mumbles the journalist who began his career in 2003), I want to take the risk and offer some anyway: Be there.

Do not take the job that lets you work from the beach or your apartment. Choose a company with headquarters and move to the city where it is located. Enter the office several days a week, even though the space is two-thirds empty. Chat at the coffee machine. Listen over the breakfast table.

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