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Reblogged:Why Return to the Office?

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If there has been a silver lining to the Covid-19 @#$%-storm, it has been the opportunity to test-run work-from-home presented by entire offices adopting stay-at-home measures, be it because employers saw actual merit to them or were wrongly forced to adopt them.

To be fair, the audition for work-from-home was flawed, given that so many who had children were conscripted to provide child care at the same time. Nevertheless, the fact that so many balk at blindly returning to the way things were shows that the advantages -- at least to office workers -- were evident anyway.

With many offices calling their workers back in, the popular press has produced articles about some of the benefits people are losing when they return.

One such article appeared recently in USA Today, which proposes that office work costs employees more money than working from home:
The report found that employees working at the office pay about $51 a day on the following expenses: $14 (Commute), $8 (Parking), $13 (Breakfast/coffee), [and] $16 (Lunch) [format changed from bulleted list]
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, via Pixabay, license.
This fan of work-from-home calls shenanigans on this assertion.

First of all, over half of the added dollar cost is for food, which most of us can easily reduce by, say, eating an early breakfast at home or on the way, and brown-bagging lunch on most days. (If you protest But Gus, it takes time and planning to do that! Isn't that a cost?, I applaud you, but also note that I am not done.)

Second, let me point out a common mistake: yielding to the temptation to be lazy by considering only dollar costs. You would have eaten breakfast and lunch anyway, so regarding these as "added" expenses inherent in office work is silly.

This doesn't mean it's wrong to point out that commuting makes meals more expensive: It does, but relying on the fact that lots of people will order food and forget that they would have eaten meals anyway isn't the way to begin to understand the costs.

It is far more accurate to say that commuting incurs an additional dollar cost for anyone who orders out and an additional time cost for anyone who doesn't.

So this dollar cost analysis, although thought-provoking, is almost too easy to demolish. It furthermore lends itself to another common fallacy: context-dropping.

The first clue comes from the article itself, which notes a few other non-monetary expenses:
From getting stuck in traffic and the extra effort put into getting dressed, many employees would much rather clock in from home.


The report also states that 49% of workers feel it's easier to maintain a work-life balance with a remote job while 31% believe it's easier with a hybrid and only 20% at the office.


...46% of employees find it easier to build colleague relationships when working from home...
So the article does acknowledge in passing that non-monetary costs are also an issue. It even offers a comeback on behalf of worker bees for a common managerial rationale for going back in.

So... good, right? We're acknowledging that money isn't the only thing we forgo to work in the office and we acknowledge that our bosses have a stake.

Not really. The piece reminded me of a post I read at The Endeavour years ago, in which John D. Cook noted of some two-income couples that sometimes, one of them was basically working ... so he or she could work:
Some people need to work because they work. A family may find that their second income is going entirely to expenses that would go away if one person stayed home.
If you think that sounds bad, consider the fact that somebody is wasting entire days to achieve zero financial gain.

Got you again!

Cook's point is completely valid if the entire reason for the second income is financial: That would be an obscene waste.

But what if it isn't? What if the spouse is a former career woman who took out time to raise kids and needs to get back up to speed or develop skills she missed out on during that time in order to pick back up again? Or suppose this is the best way to start making contacts in a new city? A zero net gain or a loss might simply be the necessary price of admission to better things down the road.

Every individual owes it to himself to know why he is working in order to make a rational calculation of the benefits or harms of taking or staying in a particular work situation.

Focusing on monetary costs might seem like due diligence, but it can easily miss the whole picture, as can looking too much at disembodied statistics.

-- CAV

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