The two kinds of workers after COVID

Although in-person school was back this fall (with few hitches), the same is not true of the return to the office. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains that we now have two different kinds of employee, and why that’s the case.

By Jeffrey Cole

Early last summer, COVID numbers everywhere were headed downward. It looked like things might be returning to normal. After close to eighteen months of working from home, most offices and workplaces announced that employees would head back to the office just after Labor Day.

Many companies implemented mask and social distancing policies. Some went further, mandating full vaccinations to return to work or even just to stay employed at the company.

Then the Delta variant arrived. As we have experienced repeatedly with COVID, our hopes were dashed, and we had to move backwards.

Returning to the office in early September shifted to mid-October and then to November. For many organizations, the return is now planned for the beginning of the new year, a full 22 months after we gathered all our work and headed home.

If it happens.

With few exceptions, students (K-12 and college) were thrilled to return to the classroom to see their friends and learn in person, even if it was probably a little too early. Back to school by and large has worked, at a cost of occasional COVID closings and masking protests in front of school boards.

No back to normal for employees

Unlike students, some workers—maybe more than half—are not enthusiastic about going back to the workplace. Our COVID work last summer showed that only 10 percent of workers wanted to be back at the office full-time, like before. An astonishing 30 percent said they never wanted to return. Sixty percent wanted some sort of hybrid part-office/part-remote work life.

There was a lot to like about working remotely. The day did not begin with getting dressed and leaving home. Many did not wear pants or shoes for close to two years. No grueling commute in clogged traffic or on public transportation. During breaks in our workday, we were at home where we could interact with family or attend to household tasks. We could control our physical environment since there were no eccentric workmates turning on air conditioning in winter and heat in summer. Best of all for the lucky ones, remote work meant we could do our jobs at vacation homes or other comfortable locations far from the office, with the bonus that we didn’t have to plan around kids’ school schedules.

Despite the advantages, there were still challenges with learning at home and working from home. About a quarter of us couldn’t do our jobs remotely. Those workers had to come into the workplace where they faced a serious risk of infection. Others found that since they couldn’t work remotely, they didn’t have a job.

Many of those who could work from home found they couldn’t do their jobs as well as before when we all went inside. They missed or even needed collaboration, spontaneous conversations, and “water cooler” meetings. Even those who could work effectively at home grew weary of endless Zoom meetings, looking at the same four walls all day and night, seven days a week.

Our work and other research has demonstrated that after 40 minutes on Zoom, attention spans begin to wane. We grow bored. After two Zooms in a row, we need a break. Many of us don’t enjoy being in the spotlight on video, forced to turn on the camera.

During the depths of lockdown, we also found that we missed structure: our office days had been punctuated by when we got up and went to work, lunch at or near the office, and knowing when we would be home. It turned out that being at work led to the excitement of Fridays and the expectation of weekends. Early in COVID, I found myself saying as a Friday afternoon Zoom meeting ended, “Have a great weekend—whatever that means.”

Weekends are less exciting when they are merely two more days at home.

Disappearing boundaries

A new challenge arose with extended remote work: the disappearance of the boundary between work and home. Some of us were working all day, in the evenings, and on weekends. Family members saw us at home, and often didn’t respect that we were working. Although they would never come to our work offices unannounced and casually start a conversation, at home that happened endlessly.

Our attitudes about returning to work after almost two years of working in new ways are different depending on our experiences. How we feel depends on the size and comfort of our homes and our personal circumstances.

Did we have a private room or workspace with a good internet connection, or did we have to concentrate on work while in the crowded kitchen and fighting to get enough bandwidth (as the kids went to virtual school)? Did others in the home respect that we were at work and not interrupt for trivial matters? Could our jobs be done well without face-to-face interaction?

Our different experiences lead to whether we are excited or depressed at the thought of returning to the workplace, assuming the threat of COVID is minimized.

Unlike students, some workers—maybe more than half—are not enthusiastic about going back to the workplace. Our COVID work last summer showed that only 10 percent of workers wanted to be back at the office full-time, like before. An astonishing 30 percent said they never wanted to return. Sixty percent wanted some sort of hybrid part-office/part-remote work life.

A lot of the workers I talk to strongly believe they will have a choice about work logistics. Many expect they will now work remotely on Mondays and Friday, coming into a physical workplace some of the remaining time. Yet, most of the CEOs I talk to want their employees back at the office full-time or close to it. Maybe it’s ego, and they want to see the troops as they walk through the office. Perhaps, they don’t believe that work is really done unless it happens in front of them.

Some execs are suspicious that working remotely on Mondays and Fridays just means a three-day work week. Some companies—those that pay their workers more because they live in expensive urban centers—plan to cut wages by as much as 25 percent if their teams move to working remotely full time. That has not met with a warm response from workers.

Beyond the war that has already started over workers being required to be vaccinated to maintain their jobs, I see another profound effect as the workplace re-opens. The population of workers will bifurcate.

The two types of workers.

  1. The ambitious go-getters. These are the workers who want to get ahead with regular promotions. Their game plan is to climb the ladder and end up running the company. They will quickly see that to be noticed and promoted they need to be visible—in person in the office—and interact with the boss and even the boss’s boss. These are the employees who want to stand out in meetings and make presentations, rather than being in an equal-sized box on a Zoom call.
  2. Work is just a part of my life. These are the workers who know they will never run the company and probably don’t want to. They are not willing to put in extra time to stand out from everyone else. Perhaps they have other interests that are as important or more important than work. Maybe they plan to only work long enough to be able to leave and do what they really want to do. These workers are interested in cost-of-living increases and being part of the team but do not want to lead. They can be excellent employees and do great work, but the job is just a part of their lives.

There have always been these two types of workers, they just blended into the workplace, often annoying each other. Now, given a new choice, they will each seek the work environment in which they can excel.

The “go-getter” will gravitate back to the office even if they have a remote-work option.

The other worker will have to be mandated back to the workplace. Many will seek other jobs where they can work remotely.

Workplaces have always been filled with all kinds of different dynamics, politics, and types of engagement. Now there will be a new wrinkle.

This is yet another long-term impact of COVID.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

October 13, 2021