The opinions in this article are my own and do not reflect those of Salesforce.com.
One year ago I received my first notice to work from home (WFH) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On my whiteboard at home, I wrote down “WFH until 3/31,” summarizing my employer’s guidance, reminding myself to resume working from the office as soon as I could. Aside from two brief trips to retrieve my personal effects, I haven’t been back since then. My office remains “hard-closed” and I can’t go in even if I wanted to. Last month my company announced a “work-from-anywhere model” in which I’m expecting to be on a “Flex” schedule, obligating me to be in the office only infrequently. Once it’s safe for my office to reopen, I’ll be allowed to go in as often as I’d like, and I intend to be in the office more than I’m expected to.
On a typical workday I spend at least 23 hours in my house sleeping, working, cooking, eating, and entertaining myself. As the weather improves I look forward to more bike rides at lunchtime or after the workday is over. Although my gym reopened on January 2 — at a time when the Governor of Washington did not permit gyms in the state to open — I have not visited since last November due to their willful ignorance of COVID protocols and recent studies correlating maskless workouts and disease outbreaks. That leaves just three activities I typically do away from my home: outdoor exercise, grocery shopping, and on rare occasion picking up a takeout food order. The amount of sameness in my days is getting old. Even some of my doctor’s appointments take place in my home via teleconference.
Coming from Amazon to Tableau in 2014, one of the first things I noticed was how meeting-averse my new company was. At Amazon I would often set up a meeting to follow up on a casual discussion, but at Tableau it was just the opposite: my teammates discouraged calendar invites in favor of casual chats in offices purpose-built to encourage socialized decision-making with comfy chairs and whiteboards. That aspect of the culture continued after our acquisition by Salesforce in 2019. I’ve missed the incidental socializing most during my year of WFH. I’ve filled it in a variety of ways such as using Slack’s social channels, participating in team social hours, and most recently booking short time slots with my teammates for one-on-one meetings. It felt odd to have to book so much time on my calendar, but this is the closest experience I can have to a casual connection in between meetings or while running a long build, and I’m willing to accept a busier-looking calendar in exchange for regular direct human contact.
I’ve met many people who are excited to WFH nearly all the time. Some of my coworkers have hours-long commutes from spacious homes that are only affordable very far from the city. Some would like to be closer to family members who live far from a tech headquarters. Work from home forever companies aren’t new — for decades it has been possible to do software development from anywhere with a power outlet and a network connection — but prior to 2020 there had been a sort of stigma associated with frequent WFH. Marissa Meyer’s infamous WFH ban when she was CEO of Yahoo! in 2013 painted WFH as the enemy of “the spirit of collaboration.” I’ve known people who saw WFH before 2020 as a euphemism for not working at all, analogous to skipping school. I’ve worked with people I saw in person perhaps twice a month, and although they were very smart and productive, I felt that they were ostracized for the lifestyle they chose. Now, companies are being made to reckon with the fact that, in many cases, employees have shown that they can be just as productive and happy with hours of commute time returned to them. Personally, I’m not a fan of constant WFH. I spent most of last year “fake commuting” on my bike to replicate the exercise I had been getting on my way to and from the office. WFH was typically something I did out of practical necessity, such as while waiting for a repair technician or a package delivery, not out of a desire to be more productive and less distracted.
A year ago at this time I was ignorant of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had planned to use a day in March to attend the Mariners’ home opener. I had been looking forward to trips to Portland in April 2020, to Copenhagen in May, to my cousin’s wedding in Santa Barbara in October, and to see my parents a few times in the year. None of those trips happened and I haven’t rescheduled any of them yet. As of March 4, over 28 million confirmed cases have been reported in the U.S. and over 520,000 people have died of the disease. In Washington, there are over 346,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. In Seattle, there are over 20,000 cases and over 360 deaths. Our vaccination rate is mediocre even by U.S. standards: about 16% of my state’s population has been vaccinated as of March 4 and the state has consistently fallen far short of its daily inoculation goal. I am not in Washington’s Phase 1 of vaccination; the state’s summary flyer projects that I won’t get my shots until “summer / fall,” although I am hopeful that new vaccines and mass vaccination sites will accelerate that timeline and the reopenings that depend on it.
I’d really like to have regular in-person contact with people again without any guilt, fear, or shame. In the same way that I still believe in the city, I still believe in the office. I am at my best when I can be around other people. I can only speak for myself, though. There are untold millions of talented people who have excluded themselves from major companies because they didn’t want to work in their chosen urban or suburban offices. The next few years will be an enormous experiment. Can companies and employees do better by dispersing themselves geographically? Will the all-company meeting, which I often attend, be elevated in importance? Can companies diversify their workforces by expanding to more geographic areas and de-emphasizing relocation as a condition for hiring? (That last question may be flawed, as already this year I’ve gotten a couple of recruiter messages for jobs that would require me to move to San Francisco or Denver.) In my heart I always knew that something would disrupt the norm of tech company workers commuting to centrally-located offices at which they would sit in a sea of desks, put headphones on, listen to music, and edit text files for eight hours. I hadn’t expected the disruptor to be so deadly in its own right.