We are caught in the swirl of history—insurrection, impeachment, a deadly virus. It is a confusing time and only one thing is certain. Nothing will ever be the same, especially the way we work.
Now we have what they call the “New Normal,” a lockdown in a war against an invisible enemy. Unless you are an essential worker, you are directed to stay home. You can see the results for yourself: the center of San Francisco from Union Square to those shiny glass towers South of Market is deserted.
BART has 80% fewer passengers than it did a year ago. I stood on the corner of Fifth and Mission streets last week and watched the Muni, Golden Gate and Sam Trans buses roll by—a bus almost every minute, ready to serve the traveling public. There was plenty of room. On these buses, three’s a crowd. And when was the last time you saw one of those so-called Google buses, the ones with the dark windows and the mysterious destination signs? They were full of techies, heading back and forth from the city to Silicon Valley. A lot of the tech companies have moved out, and tech workers operate remotely. The Google buses are parked in storage lots, waiting for life to return to normal.
But that may never happen. Only a year ago, the idea of working from home was regarded with suspicion by gimlet-eyed bosses. I used to be a minor league boss myself, back in the 20th century. I shared the common cultural view that people “working” at home were really lounging about in their pajamas, surrounded by all the comforts of home. Instead of checking on company business, they’d be out walking the dog on the company dime. So managers kept close track of workers; if they were not out on assignment they were supposed to be in the office.
The coronavirus changed all that. Going into the office was a health threat. All across the region, all across the country, the business districts emptied out.
There is a lot to be said for working out of a home office. If you plan it correctly everything you need is at your fingertips, office supplies, snacks, the internet. The world is at your doorstep. Zoom has replaced those face to face meetings. If you wanted to talk to someone there was always social media. You didn’t have the commute to work every day—five days a week stuck in traffic, or jammed in a BART train. Think of how you’d be on a Muni bus, standing room only, and the driver would slam on the brakes, and all us poor working stiffs would crash into each other like tenpins in a bowling alley. Only yesterday.
But after about a month of working at home I began to miss going to The Chronicle office. I began to miss the small rituals of getting ready to go downtown, putting on a coat and maybe a tie, riding the Muni streetcar. I missed seeing the others at work, sharing ideas and asking questions. I missed the talk and the idea we were all in this together. I missed the gossip and the office intrigue.
I missed walking the crowded streets and going out to lunch trying to notice who was lunching with who, asking around and posing that eternal question: What’s new?
I began to sense the difference in San Francisco; how the commuter had poured into the city in the morning and went home to other places at night. It was like the tide flowing and ebbing twice a day. At the noontime high tide there were more than a million people in San Francisco. It was lively, sometimes dangerous, always interesting. You could see why longtime San Franciscans called this place The City, as if there were no other.
Now we are at the top of the pandemic. A vaccine has been developed and soon everyone will get a shot. By spring, or maybe summer, we can begin to return to normal.
But I suspect that normal will be different. Now that we have discovered that working at home is easier, less costly and maybe better, we’d have to ask: why do we need all these offices? They must be expensive to operate with maintenance costs, telephone lines, security, and the hundreds of things that go into a modern office building. Maybe they are functionally obsolete like land line telephones and taxi cabs. These institutions will still be around 10 years from now but there will be fewer of them.
And if there are fewer office people commuting back and forth, why do we need BART, or a better Muni Metro subway, or faster Caltrain service? Why don’t we convert a 1,000-foot-tall office building into housing, or biotech facilities?
So maybe you worked in a San Francisco office a year ago and got the message just before St. Patrick’s day—start working from home effective immediately. Don’t come in to the office. Like a lot of us you left your stuff in your desk: files, notes, a candy bar, a plant. This won’t last long. Everybody says so, we’ll be back at work in the office in a few weeks. But it’s been 10 long months and your desk is still there, gathering dust.
So when this is all over and the pandemic dies down as it surely will, we will have a newest new normal. New ways to work. No one is sure what that will look like. But I’ll bet you a cup of lousy office coffee that nothing will ever be the same.