Downtown businesses that rely on daytime foot traffic are begging employees to return to their offices. But workers are only haltingly — or grudgingly — coming back, and in one survey 97 percent said they want to work from home at least some days every week. I guess I can’t blame them. But what about the effect of all those home offices on everyone else? Two-plus years into the COVID-19 pandemic that has utterly reshaped attitudes about work, I’m starting to find the constant sidewalk meetings, the fashion don’ts, and the loud walks-and-talks a tad oppressive. So allow me to add my voice to the chorus: For the sake of residential neighborhoods transformed beyond recognition by the WFH culture, go back to the office — please!
My Boston neighborhood of mostly two-family houses has a near-even distribution of long-time residents and renters with roommates. I didn’t notice anything at the start of the pandemic, when we were all consumed with wiping down our mail and sewing masks out of old T-shirts, but as we emerged out of lockdown that first summer, some of my neighbors began colonizing the street and sidewalks for everything from department head meetings to happy hour.
One group of 20-something women established a kind of tar beach, complete with lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers set up in the driveway, working diligently on their tans if not their deadlines. A fellow down the street, deprived of his company gym, began working out in front of his house in the afternoons, alternating a hip-hop soundtrack with reports on the Nikkei index. (I exaggerate, but not by much!)
The incursions have only become more pronounced as the pandemic has worn on. All around me, quiet quitters are knocking off work at 4 p.m., gathering around the grill or the fire pit to debrief the day’s events. My once-serene neighborhood has become an open-air office: business casual exiles ambling down my street arguing loudly about puts and shorts, or supply chain woes, or what Chris said to Tony on Slack. Pro tip: I don’t care about your firm’s big case or stock price or company vacation policy. Take it inside, pal.
Where once office colleagues gathered informally around the water cooler or the company kitchen, now groups of two and three stand beneath my window dissecting the latest gossip, surrounded by that other pandemic proliferation: their dogs. Social scientists fret over the way work hours have bled into leisure time, so no one is ever really off the clock. In the same way, dedicated work spaces have bled into backyards and front stoops. I’m not sure that’s something to celebrate.
I know that the younger generation has little need for privacy, oversharing on social media and braying into their earbuds in public places. But even middle-aged UPS drivers have their cellphones on speaker these days, treating all of us to complaints about their bosses or what’s for dinner. Which brings me to another WFH hangover: the constant grinding gears of delivery trucks. These ubiquitous visitors, who always seem to get the dogs howling, are the soundtrack to my days. It’s gotten so I can identify the difference between the FedEx, UPS, and Amazon vans just by the sound of their back-up beeps. Parking, never easy on city streets, was once at least a possible dream from nine to five. Now no one is leaving their spot. It’s like those space-savers people use after a blizzard, but the space-savers are the cars.
Don’t get me wrong, I love (most of) my neighbors, and I wouldn’t want to live in some sterile suburb where you hear nothing but crickets and see nothing but Subarus. And I know the new work rules have been a blessing to many, especially young families who otherwise would struggle with child care. And yeah, I’m probably bitter that I missed this particular work-life balance boat. But when I’m roused at 6 a.m. by that multitasker in his pajamas walking his wolverine and shouting instructions on an early call to London, I can’t help thinking about that old Dan Hicks ditty: How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.