WASHINGTON — For the second time in a week, President Biden on Friday urged for an end to remote work, framing the much-delayed return to the office for millions of white-collar workers as necessary for the United States to move beyond the pandemic.
“Because of the progress we’ve made fighting COVID, Americans can not only get back to work, but they can go to the office and safely fill our great downtown cities again,” Biden said during remarks from the White House that touched on February’s encouraging job numbers, which saw the unemployment rate fall to 3.8 percent.
“Most Americans can remove their masks, return to work and move forward safely,” the president said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its guidance for face coverings last week; before that, many Democratic states had already dropped mask mandates.
Biden's remarks came on the same day that New York City Mayor Eric Adams ended a vaccine mandate in the city’s public schools, as well as a proof-of-vaccination mandate for businesses like restaurants. Coming in the nation’s largest city, those moves had the effect of compounding Biden’s message.
The president touched on similar themes in his State of the Union address. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” he said. “People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices.”
The message could only have been welcomed by civic leaders in cities such as Washington and New York, where downtowns have often been empty, or almost empty, since the start of the pandemic. Small-business owners in many central business districts have complained that work-from-home policies, combined with a lack of new stimulus funds, could force them to close.
On Tuesday, Biden specifically mentioned the federal workforce, which has been largely remote, leaving stretches of the District of Columbia effectively deserted. “The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person,” he said.
The message about returning to the office is a new one for the president, whose rhetoric for much of his first year was marked by caution. But as Americans tell pollsters that they are ready to move beyond the pandemic, Biden has responded accordingly. Speaking on Friday, he said inflation was his top priority.
The economic benefits — and drawbacks — of remote work remain unclear. The lack of commuting has hurt public transportation systems, as well as businesses in city cores, leading to vacant storefronts in midtown Manhattan and the once-thriving blocks around the White House. The days of Zoom happy hours appear to have passed, and there is clearly an appetite for a resumption of ordinary human contact.
Untethering hiring practices from expensive cities like Washington and San Francisco could create a more geographically diverse workforce, spreading prosperity from sectors such as technology and finance into the nation’s more affordable interior.
At the same time, reports suggest that homebound workers are actually more productive. No longer having to commute saves money as well as time, allowing for more family activities and the rediscovery of hobbies discarded long ago. And although many commercial buildings have upgraded their ventilation systems, millions of Americans have medical conditions — or live with someone who does — that make them hesitant about returning to the office.
Some say that remote work will be detrimental to the economy in the long run. “In-person work fosters innovation, the effects of which on productivity almost certainly exceed the gains from working harder at home for possibly unsustainable stretches,” wrote the economists Edward Glaeser and David Cutler in the Washington Post last year. “An even slightly higher growth rate once people return to offices will quickly outpace the one-time gain from saved commuting time.”
More difficult to define will be the cultural and social impact of returning to the office. Working from home has been, along with remote schooling, among the most controversial features of the pandemic, with strong opinions on both sides.
If nothing else, coming back to the office will signal that a post-pandemic stage has been reached. Some have said any notion of having reached that stage is premature: The virus remains in circulation, with a current average of more than 50,000 new cases and 1,700 deaths per day.
Mayor Adams, who has called himself New York City’s version of Biden, has emerged as a vociferous critic of remote work. “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day,” he said in a recent speech.
Just when, or how, that will take place remains to be seen, given how taxing and difficult the last two years have been for virtually every American. As the president’s top economic adviser Cecila Rouse put it on Friday at a White House press briefing, “We are a pandemic-scarred society.”