Opinion|We’re Kidding Ourselves That Workers Perform Well From Home
HOUSTON — This March, my partners and I paid special bonuses to all employees at my law firm in the heart of this city. Unlike at many other firms around the country, this $395,000 in bonuses — in addition to the $2.7 million in year-end bonuses — was not some apology or atonement for cutbacks stemming from the coronavirus economy. We wanted to reward all 90 of our employees for their record-breaking work in 2020: Our small, specialized, 28-year-old firm had its best year yet, and we did it mostly together.
Not Zoom together — real together.
In March 2020, a tidal wave of stay-at-home orders from local and state officials turned downtown Houston into the kind of a ghost town one might imagine when a hurricane is about to hit. We closed our office along with most other city businesses.
Advocates of the move hoped that working from home would not slow productivity significantly and could obviate the need for office space in the future. But in a remote-work setting, we never matched the team creativity and production we had taken for granted at our office. On Zoom, some people were distracted and anxious to leave meetings, but in person, they were engaged and animated — there was just no comparison.
While lawyers at other Houston law firms claimed to be happy with remote work, I believe it prevented us from performing at our sharpest. There is a cost to working at home that goes beyond depression, disconnectedness and failing to bathe regularly: It can drain morale and diminish collegiality.
So after about five weeks, we reopened our office. Some of our lawyers had, in fact, already been coming in. Many of our clients — a group that includes a collection of Fortune 500 companies in energy, health care and tech — jealously applauded our decision in private conversations with us. But they feared being second-guessed by stockholders and worried about problems that could arise from reopening offices. Other law firms, big and small, kept their offices shut and instituted pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs. Some remain closed.
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Our choice to reopen the office was not just about our bottom line. Nor was it just about the collaborative nature of a physical office space or about keeping our administrative staff employed. We wanted people driving to work and supporting our many energy-sector clients and stopping for coffee and lunch to keep the city’s local economy going. We felt some moral obligation to help our city thrive again.
In deciding to reopen, we calculated the degree of risk we could manage — not what risk we could eliminate. For example, we decided we could accommodate the needs of those most at risk while counting on our mostly young, healthy work force to restart our vibrant workplace. We decided not to let corporate naysayers like cable-television talking heads guide us.
But we took steps to try to assuage some fears, providing plastic shields for common-area desks and face masks, hiring industrial cleaners and instituting a common-area mask mandate and a staggered lunch schedule. We offered age and health exceptions for those who still needed to stay home. Our people said they were largely delighted to be back. We did not say no to anyone who chose to stay home.
For my part, I think the decision to reopen paid off. In 2020 our revenue grew by 39 percent, but not because we cut costs like so many businesses around the country that posted strong years. In 2020, we never cut staff members or salaries. We instituted no furloughs or layoffs. Instead, we hired eight new lawyers and picked up 75 clients in 2020.
As the year wore on, it became clear to me that ambitious lawyers at firms like ours simply couldn’t thrive in a virtual setting. We had six trials in 2020. Most were held completely — and painfully — over Zoom. Interruptions from inevitable glitches were commonplace, and questioning witnesses is greatly handicapped when not being able to judge them in 3-D.
Once vaccines became available, we issued a vaccine mandate. Our lawyers were on board. Other lawyers — especially those at competing firms — said they were envious. To convince a few reluctant staff members, in March 2021 we invited a doctor who had toured a Moderna vaccine-production facility to talk to our staff about his comfort with the vaccines and undergo our unique brand of cross-examination.
Our choice to reopen was not without consequence. Some people at our firm did get sick with the virus after we reopened; some may have picked it up at a bar they visited together. No one was hospitalized or became seriously ill. But as a sensible precaution — one available to businesses throughout the pandemic — we closed the office for a week after this group tested positive.
People running businesses can become paranoid or risk-averse. When even one voice says, “Slow down,” they often adopt a better-safe-than-sorry mentality without balancing the pros and cons. We did not deny the existence or seriousness of the coronavirus. But we did not think that nothing else mattered.