Denizens of the DMV are accustomed to moving about. The Bay one day, Luray the next. The monuments today, then the Constitutional text. But after 20 months of being bunkered, DMVites aren’t sure they want to move back to the office. To paraphrase the Clash, the question is: Do I Stay (at home) or do I go (back to this office).
In the 30 years since, downtowns have transformed. They have become vigorous cultural hubs. But now the “Homers,” those that refuse to return to the office, are robbing urban downtowns of the oxygen they need to survive, thereby rendering them “soulless.”
Virtual work—with its benefits and drawbacks—is not new. But its pace accelerated at a dizzying rate in 2020. Now, people don’t want to return to the office. That doesn’t mean they can’t be committed and productive through astute virtual leadership. Ensuring such leadership should become a key priority for organizations.
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds, Americans are contemplating how best to return to some semblance of normal in their personal and professional lives, and how they’ll be able to shed the anxieties of the pandemic to handle the stress of resuming work in an office.
Returning to the office is a key to recovering from the pandemic. This is especially so in urban areas, where downtown life are cultural and economic hubs. They represent the backbone of urban landscapes. Office occupancy is well below pre-pandemic levels worldwide. But the nation’s capital, brimming with museums and clubs and tip-top restaurants and 24 million visitors from around the world each year, has only one in four people back in the office? That is not sustainable.
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds its way, Americans are contemplating how best to return to some semblance of normal in their personal and professional lives, and how they’ll be able to shed the anxieties of the pandemic to handle the stress of resuming work in an office.
As the world—cautiously but inexorably—returns to the office, an inescapable concern is how to deal with those who don’t want to return. It is the responsibility of leaders to support this organizational change in the same way that any change is supported. Leaders need to know who doesn’t want to do what and why. If they don’t know, they can’t facilitate change. If they can’t facilitate the change, there are going to be a lot of unhappy employees pulling up their office chairs.
The overarching narrative, up until now, has been that commuting is a bad thing. But despite a year of working blissfully from home, our job satisfaction and general mental health have deteriorated. Why? A part of this is that our commutes were an integral daily ritual, and rituals have been a natural human behavior since the beginning of time. They add stability and certainty into an otherwise unstable and uncertain world — alleviating feelings of grief, anxiety, and increasing confidence.
Samuel Clemons claimed the nom de plume Mark Twain after the riverboat navigators’ cry to signal the shift from dangerous waters into safe ones — as well as the reverse, from safe waters to dangerous ones. “Mark” was the starting point; “twain” was where the two forces met. This is a fitting metaphor for leadership in today’s American moment.
In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel yearned for Joe Dimaggio. In 1977, “Star Wars” offered a new hope. In 2016 Yu-Gi-Oh — the wildly popular Japanese collectible card game — proclaimed that a new hero was rising. We are always looking for heroes. Heroes represent the best of us and help us to see the best in ourselves. In today’s moment, we desperately need to believe in ourselves, and to do so there must be those that we can look up to and believe in.