On-site work is back. But is it better?
As the pandemic winds down in the U.S., companies are preparing to bring millions of employees back into the office.
The argument many employers are making is that being in the office is essential for collaboration and innovation. They say that fresh insights and keen decision making are born out of chance encounters and spontaneous meetings.
But is that true?
My colleague Claire Cain Miller, who writes about gender and the future of work, dug into this question and found that not only is there no evidence to back up that argument, but that in some cases, the opposite may be true. The office stifles creativity because it can create an inhospitable environment for many people.
“Long hours of face-time requirements in the office are often worse for many women, many people of color, people who have caregiving responsibilities, people with disabilities, people who are shy,” Claire said. “And when you lose those people you’re losing diversity, and the ideas that come with people from diverse backgrounds.”
Remote work, however, can enable ideas to bubble up from people with varied backgrounds. People who are not comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting may feel more able to participate in a virtual setting. Brainstorming sessions using apps like Slack can uncover many more perspectives by including people who wouldn’t have otherwise been invited to a meeting, like interns or employees from other departments.
Companies insisting on in-person work may also be overlooking one of the big takeaways from the country’s mass experiment in working from home. Even as the virus terrified workers, sickened millions and devastated entire industries, a funny thing happened: “It worked out really well for many white-collar workers,” Claire said.
Sure, many parents had their kids home from school and workers were constantly worried about getting sick, but for many “it was good for productivity, and work-life balance,” Claire said.
But corporate culture is hard to change because companies tend to stick with what they know, Claire said. Employers may be wary of allowing people to work from home indefinitely; it requires a lot of trust in employees.
“People who are making these decisions are usually managers, and they are the people that like to have visibility into what their employees are doing,” Claire said. “The people who are making these decisions are also the same people who have back-to-back meetings all day — and a long day of meetings on Zoom is not that fun.”
Related: Do meetings even have a purpose? Our colleague Caity Weaver investigates.
A coronavirus from deep time
This is hardly the first time that humanity has faced a coronavirus pandemic. It may not be the last time we emerge from one, either.
Researchers have found evidence in human genes that a coronavirus epidemic swept East Asia some 20,000 years ago. The finding could be useful in drug development.
“This is the first time that people have found evidence of another coronavirus from deep time, from our very, very ancient forebears,” Carl Zimmer, our colleague from the Science desk, told us. “This was a pandemic that was so big in East Asia that it left a mark on their DNA for thousands of generations.”
It plagued the region for years, a finding that could prophesy our fate if we do not get this coronavirus under control soon through vaccinations. And disturbingly, the coronavirus appears to have circulated at a time when people were still living in small hunter-gatherer bands instead of big cities, pointing to the potency of contagion.
“It should make us worry,” said David Enard, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who led the study. “What is going on right now might be going on for generations and generations.”
The researchers looked at DNA in the parts of the human genome known to be crucial in fighting coronaviruses. In those genes, the scientists looked for evidence of rapid evolution. (People with a specific mutation would have been more likely to survive a coronavirus infection while those without it would probably have died.) In East Asian populations, but not others, Enard found that 42 of the coronavirus-specific genes had dominant versions that evolved at the same time.
“Those 42 genes went through an evolutionary change all at the same time,” Carl said. “That is a sign of the kind of evolution you’d expect if humans were being hit all at once with a massive pandemic, so that all of these genes were being selected at the same time for survival.”
This finding could have big implications for the scientists trying to design drugs to help us fight our way out of the current pandemic.
“We might be able to get some ideas about how we can manipulate those genes to do an even better job of fighting this new coronavirus,” Carl said.
The White House plans to send three million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to Brazil.
San Francisco, which has one of the highest vaccination rates of any major U.S. city, will require all city employees to be vaccinated.
University of Washington researchers unveiled a new map to chart attitudes toward Covid vaccines by ZIP Code, a tool that will allow for highly targeted vaccine drives.
Dozens of new cases recently emerged at two schools in Israel, which has been a leader in fighting the pandemic but has struggled to vaccinate 12- to 15-year olds.
More people are getting two different Covid vaccines. Here’s what you need to know.
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the first day of California’s reopening. Timed-entry tickets were required, and everyone wore masks but the crowd was there! We were all together, “oohing” and “aahing” over the octopus antics and the bat rays. I saw one little girl twirling in front of a big tank exclaiming, “I love the aquarium.” Brought tears to my eyes.
— Martha Haack, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.