Fitter, Happier, More Productive: Will DC Telework Forever?

As with everything else about this year: No one knows.

Hayden Higgins
Sep 30, 2020 · 5 min read
This is a visual metaphor. (Flickr/Maria Silva)

California, my home state, can be a self-consciously futuristic place. One way that California is already living the future: Climate change.

The fires always start, but a baking 2020 summer fueled a season of hellish devastation. Most climate impacts will work this way. They will not be entirely novel, just supercharged beyond all historical record.

So California is living the future of how we live alongside climate impacts, what is often called climate adaptation. It’s also living the future of our climate mitigation, the fight to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

California has already done much to reduce the share of emissions from power generation. But in some ways, this is the easy part: You swap out the power plants. California is a big state, and it has 1,500 power plants. But change over those and you’re done.

The problem is that in the United States, for several years now we’ve actually not generated most of our emissions from the power sector. This is a post on a Washington, DC-focused blog, and I promise we’re going to get there; this next paragraph will be more familiar territory, because I am going to start hating on cars and bad land-use policy.

See, it’s transportation that’s the next big problem for climate action in California. While it can be easy to focus on the cars in this equation — yes, there are 15,000,000 cars in California, each gas-guzzling motor a miniature power plant that needs to be replaced — there’s two factors to the equation for total emissions, miles per gallon and, you know, miles. The entire project of suburbanization, of which California is a paragon, was based on the myth of cheap gas, and while cheap electricity to power your electrical car may be coming, we are in the interregnum between energy regimes, and the suburbs for the time look like a major hurdle to taking another huge chunk out of carbon emissions, as California has promised to do. (And must do, if it wants to keep those flames down.)

Where I’m getting is that teleworking promises a possible fix to what is a civilization-challenging phenomenon, one that I spend my waking life thinking about solving.

And you know what? I don’t care, because I (mostly) hate teleworking. I loath the mixture of work and life, the ugly but functional standing desk that doubles (poorly) as a bedside table. I miss the breeze on my face waking me up as I bike through Shaw on my way to work in the morning, I miss reading on the train on the days when it’s too hot or cold to bike. I work worse without the augmentations of the office, digital (faster Internet, bigger monitors), chemical (free coffee and tea), and social (friends, coffee chatter, being able to drop in to hear what colleagues are up to).

I am, in other words, fitter, happier, and more productive working from an office. But that’s just me, and I know others have enjoyed working from home. So we asked our readers, and this is what you said:

What emerges is a complicated picture I won’t try to fully explicate here. More than a third of respondents say they would telework forever, but only 16% said they would telework five days a week; it seems that for most people, there’s a happy medium. And that I can agree with; three or four days in the office and one or two out can be great for knocking out big projects.

(I’ll note here that we designed the survey specifically for office workers. COVID has disparate impacts on different sectors of the economy and surveys on these would be worthy endeavors.)

There’s also a vote of confidence in DC. While some prognosticators have suggested teleworking means the end of cities, there are other reasons people like to live in urban areas. (Culture, I think they call it?) While a quarter of respondents would move away if their job was no longer tied to DC, many more say they would stay.

What happens next, no one knows. Perhaps teleworking is here for good. Perhaps not. It depends what workers think of it. Here are your selected further elaborations:

  • I am slowly sinking into a deep depression working at home. I do like having a window, though.
  • Free office coffee!
  • Increased opportunites for after-work socialization — everyone’s already in the same place.
  • Easier to collaborate with people who have busy schedules because I can physically track them down in the office instead of constantly pinging them on slack — and then they’ll see me smiling when I apologize for it instead of me having to add endless exclamation points to my apology for bugging them.
  • Work is close to other things I like to do.
  • I don’t want to work with my spouse in the house!
  • I do miss my work pals.
  • Hard to organize in the workplace when everyone is isolated like this.
  • spontaneity of conversations and meetings, ability to ask questions, work happy hours
  • I wouldn’t say my commute is “enjoyable” per se, but it’s a walking commute and gets me more cardio.
  • I miss my coworkers and virtual meetings are not the same
  • I love my colleagues and would rather be with them than alone all day!
  • I’m an extrovert so being in the office gives me healthy socialization!
  • I work in a museum and events, so teleworking means we are closed.
  • Seeing the sun.
  • Security-clearance required work.
  • Overall variety in routine.
  • I love planning outfits! (I’ve never worked in an office with a conservative dress code)
  • The local sandwich shop.
  • I miss liminal space.
  • Gets me away from my wonderful toddler

Got an idea for a survey about society & the city during COVID? Let us know at hello@730dc.com.

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