Of course workers have given up on the office

The daily death toll from COVID has finally dipped below March 2020 levels. In May, the U.S. public health emergency expires. In most places, life looks pretty normal. Movie theaters, airplanes, restaurants and gyms are crowded. If families gather outside, it’s probably because the weather is nice, not because they’re trying to avoid getting sick.

But one place — the office — still hasn’t been fully repopulated. Even as inflation has soared, interest rates have risen and layoffs have been announced — all developments that might make remote workers feel insecure and inclined to put in more facetime — badge-ins at offices remain only half of 2019 levels. And even when people do show up, some don’t stick around for the full day. Instead, they do a quick “coffee badge,” swiping in, saying hi to colleagues and then heading back home to finish their work.

Many corporate leaders say workers aren’t engaged enough in their jobs, and they point to remote work as the cause. The solution, they say, is obvious: Tout the benefits of structure and facetime with colleagues, and if that doesn’t bring people back voluntarily, simply command employees to return to their desks.

Those who see no problem with remote work point out that surveys tracking workplace engagement find that levels are just a couple of percentage points lower than in 2019. The notorious “quiet quitting” trend turned out to be a myth (as I wrote last year), and the so-called “Great Resignation” mostly proved to be baby boomers retiring or low-wage workers switching to jobs with better pay.

But what if both sides are wrong? What if there is a hard-to-quantify malaise in the workforce right now, but it isn’t caused by remote work?

Consider: Worldwide, the coronavirus has killed almost 7 million people. More than a million of those deaths occurred in the U.S. alone. A year into the pandemic, about 20% of Americans already knew someone who had died from COVID. After the omicron wave, that number doubled. And when you include hospitalizations, it doubles again. More than 80% of Americans now personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died from the virus.

We’ve been surrounded by death. Not figuratively. Not sporadically. COVID brought death to our doorsteps. Even the minority of Americans who don’t know anyone who died or was hospitalized with COVID are extremely lucky, but haven’t come away unscathed. For 36 months there’ve been constant reminders of the finitude of life.

Being confronted with so much mortality will affect different people differently, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior at the Insead business school who trained as a psychiatrist.

In the face of so much death, some might turn toward their close friends and family and eschew looser ties. Others might become even more tribal, preferring their own political or ethnic group. Some might decide to become more cautious, to try to keep death at bay, he says, while others may take on more risk, figuring that you live only once — and there is only so much you can control. What links all of these behaviors is the same underlying realization: Our time is not infinite.

From my perch writing about the human side of business, this range of emotional responses, and the shared trauma that is their underlying cause, have been largely ignored by most executives and management experts.

Yes, companies have had to grapple with COVID. Leaders have had an enormous amount of complexity to manage throughout the pandemic, from snarled supply chains to workplace mask policies. But the focus has been mostly on logistics, not employees’ new emotional reality. Phrases like “pent-up demand” and “re-examining our relationship with work” — omnipresent over the Past three years — scarcely begin to cover it. It’s a bit like a mass midlife crisis.

To the extent that people might feel slightly less zealous about their work lives, Petriglieri thinks it could be a sign of personal growth. Before COVID, the pressure to log insane hours, to love your work, to identify strongly with your chosen career — and particularly in segments of the tech sector, to fundamentally change the world — was a bit obsessive, he says. If people now have more emotional distance from work and are able to carve out more time for basic needs like exercise, sleep and human connection, that’s a healthy correction.

In this new landscape, senior executives in half-empty offices are a little bit like priests standing in half-filled churches, says Petriglieri. If you’re a priest and half your congregation has stopped showing up, do you believe that they are probably praying just as hard at home? Do you tell yourself that faith and good works are really what matter? Probably not.

Seen through this lens, the tug-of-war over remote work should look a little different. Workers have become more discerning about how they spend their time. They have become aware that long commutes are literally hours of time they can never get back. And it’s become obvious that people can be productive without trekking to an office.

If being confronted with our mortality has helped us find more balance, that’s a good thing. Even if it leaves the leaders of the church of capitalism feeling a little lost.