WASHINGTON — For the second time in a week, President Biden on Friday urged an end to remote work, depicting the much-delayed return to office for millions of white-collar workers as necessary for the United States to move past the coming pandemic.
“Because of the progress we’ve made in fighting COVID, Americans can not only go back to work, but they can go to the office and safely repopulate our major cities downtown,” Biden said during White House comments. that was touched on February. encouraging job numbers, which saw the unemployment rate drop to 3.8 percent†
“Most Americans can take off their masks, go back to work, and move on safely,” the president said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed their guidelines for face coverings last week; before that, many Democratic states had already dropped mask mandates.
Biden’s comments came on the same day that New York City Mayor Eric Adams ended a vaccine mandate in the city’s public schools, as well as proof of vaccination for businesses such as restaurants. Because they came into the largest city in the country, those moves had the effect of Biden’s message.
The president touched on similar themes in his State of the Union address. “It’s time for America to go back to work and fill our great city centers with people again,” he said. “People who work from home can feel safe and start returning to their office.”
The message could only have been welcomed by civic leaders in cities like Washington and New York, where downtowns have often been empty or nearly empty since the start of the pandemic. Small business owners in many central business districts have complained that work-from-home policies, combined with a lack of new stimulus funds, could force them to close†
On Tuesday, Biden specifically mentioned the federal workforce, which is largely remote, effectively leaving parts of the District of Columbia abandoned. “The vast majority of federal employees will again work personally,” he said.
The return to office message is new to the president, whose rhetoric was marked by caution for much of his first year. But as Americans tell polls they are ready to move beyond the pandemic, Biden has responded accordingly. On Friday, he said inflation was his top priority.
The economic advantages and disadvantages of remote working remain unclear. The lack of commuting has damaged public transportation as well as downtown businesses, leading to vacant storefronts in downtown Manhattan and the once thriving blocks around the White House. The days of Zoom happy hours seem to be over and there is clearly a need for a resumption of normal human contact.
Decoupling recruiting practices from expensive cities like Washington and San Francisco could create a more geographically diverse workforce, spreading wealth from sectors like technology and finance to the more affordable outbacks of the country.
At the same time, reports suggest that homebound workers are actually more productive. No longer having to commute saves both money and time, allowing for more family activities and rediscovering hobbies that were discarded long ago. And while many commercial buildings have improved their ventilation systems, millions of Americans have medical conditions — or live with someone who does — that make them hesitant to return to the office.
Some say that working remotely will hurt the economy in the long run. “Personal work promotes innovation, the effects of which on productivity almost certainly outweigh the benefits of working harder at home for potentially unsustainable periods,” economists Edward Glaeser and David Cutler wrote last year in the Washington Post. “An even higher rate of growth once people return to offices will quickly outweigh the one-time gain from saved travel time.”
More difficult to define will be the cultural and social impact of the return to the office. Working from home, along with distance education, has been one of the most controversial features of the pandemic, with strong opinions on both sides.
If nothing else, going back to the office will signal that a post-pandemic phase has been reached. Some have said it is premature to have reached that stage: the virus remains in circulation, with a current average of more than 50,000 new cases and 1,700 deaths per day.
Mayor Adams, who calls himself New York’s version of Biden, has emerged as a vocal critic of remote work. “You can’t stay home all day in your pajamas”, he said in a recent speech†
When and how that will happen remains to be seen, given how taxing and difficult the past two years have been for virtually every American. As the president’s top economic adviser, Cecila Rouse, said at a White House news conference Friday, “We are a society scarred by a pandemic.”