So You Don’t Want to Go Back to the Office?

Here are a few reasons why, at least in my experience, your career depends on being in the workplace—with real, live people.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

Post-COVID, we’re in so many revolutions at once. The top three revolutions seem to be in education (upward of $50,000 a year for college is an unsustainable model); healthcare, also a broken system; and “where we work and how we work.” I know that there’s pushback from workers about coming into the office, and the Financial District in Boston can often feel like a ghost town. Visiting people in downtown offices and hearing much anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that some 30 percent of workers are actually in their physical offices on any given day. These “given” days seem not to include Mondays or Fridays.

Late in the pandemic, a newspaper-editor friend told me, “The older reporters want to be back in the newsroom. They say that’s where good ideas and stories come from. The gossip and the banter produce provocative inspiration. This doesn’t come from the artificiality of teleconferencing: We need to be in the newsroom, eyeballin’ each other.” My friend went on, “The younger people don’t want back in. One of them said to me, ‘We feel threatened in the workplace.’ It was from fear of COVID and ideas that didn’t reflect their own. Where’s Woodward and Bernstein when we need them? In the basement with their giant screen and the Ping-Pong table?”

I see so much evidence of young people everywhere pushing back against returning to offices. In my opinion, they just don’t get it. Rule number one of life is that all life is relationships. I don’t think anything else comes close. You build these relationships in person, not remotely. They are the key to your and everyone else’s future.

I chatted with a young woman I met in a gallery at the MFA. I asked her if she went into a physical office.

“I don’t think I’ll ever go back full time,” she said. “No lousy commute for me.”

“But,” I told her, “you won’t get really educated without being there.”

“I get all I want from podcasts and YouTube.”

I repeat. They just don’t get it.

A brokerage office was my graduate school. I got my MBA among stock analysts, back-office workers, clients trading in boardrooms, and institutional salespeople. They were a wildly fascinating cast of characters out of a Charles Dickens novel.

After I had been in the investment business for about a decade, my firm went out of business. I had money in the company, and it vaporized. The manager of the office, much older than I, had most of his net worth in the failed business. “You’re young,” he told me. “A lot of time to make it all back. I’ve got a short runway. I always ran a profitable office. But the New York hustle mentality took us down.” He died of a heart attack a year later.

Flashback: This is the same man who mentored me when I was a raw rookie, making $75 a week. When President Kennedy was assassinated, clients were sitting in the office watching the ticker tape as stocks went into freefall panic mode. Most of them were trying to put in sell orders, believing that we were going to be invaded by Russia. But the New York Stock Exchange had closed early, preventing markets from being overwhelmed. I witnessed who panicked, who was cool, who was crying, and who was arguing to use the phones to call family, which the brokers wouldn’t relinquish because their clients at home were lighting up every phone in the office.

That’s when the manager came over, took me by the arm, and led me to the office windows. He seemed completely unemotional when everyone around us was either hysterical or silent from shock. “Look down at the street,” the manager said. Our office was on Boylston Street overlooking Copley Square. “Look at the people going into stores, to banks, off to see family. We have something almost no country on Earth has…a constitution that we all observe. Succession planning that is seamless. The vice president steps in. No tanks in the street, no bayonets. No revolt against the order. We should be buying solid companies for the future. Not following the crowd and selling. You will never really create wealth for yourself by following the crowd.”

Within a few weeks, markets had made up all of the losses. And the only losers were the people who pushed the panic button. This has been true in every dangerous market event I’ve seen since then, at times when fear and greed were washing over us. Eternal good advice from someone wise, with his arm over my shoulder. Educating a rookie. This lesson has been key for me in every major market bump since then: “Be a buyer when everyone else is panicked.” I could only have learned this in the eye of the storm. In person.

We were soon bought for pennies on the dollar by another company. I got no “sign-up bonus” for joining the new place. As a clueless refugee, I was just relieved to have a new home. The first morning in my new office, I was given a former conference room cleaned out for me with only file cabinets left. I walked in, carrying my briefcase and old client account docs. There was yelling coming from that room, and as I walked in, two men were on the office floor beating on each other as others were running in, trying to separate them. Those were the good ol’ days in the investment business: You never knew what was going to greet you. Every day was an adventure.

The fight was eventually sorted out, and once I got settled in, one of my new colleagues wandered by and introduced himself. I knew he was their top producer of business, and he was sniffing around to see if I represented competition. “So,” he said, “what’s your deal?” I knew what he meant: What were my “incentive perks”?

“No perks,” I said. “Only a desk and an office.”

“Don’t be a schmuck,” the big producer said. “Always make a few demands. Particularly nonnegotiable if you’re bringing in business. Show them you’re not a pushover. Good luck.” He was right. I asked for a few simple things, including an expense account and that they paint my office walls yellow. It got their attention, which was the point. I got a yellow office.

This special wisdom of the streets is something you only get in person.

Then there are relationships that are formed in the office. I know of a number of marriages in which the couple met at work. There are rules at many businesses that prohibit the dating of employees. My father used to tell me, “You cannot legislate human nature,” one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. People will find each other at work, even have romance. Human nature.

Before Boston, my first training in the money business was “on the job” in New York, at the top of Wall Street right near Trinity Church graveyard, where Alexander Hamilton is buried. On-the-job training at my firm meant that I would spend a few weeks in each of the departments they maintained: research, trading, bonds, personnel, and advertising. There was no technology in those days. If you wanted a quote on a stock, you’d teletype down a request to the New York office. Or have a rookie employee sit and watch the running ticker tape that tracked prices and write down on a large pad of paper prices of favorite stocks as they paraded by. I found a girlfriend on the bond trading desk. She took me on the MTA to a magical place called Brooklyn, sharing stories about every stop along the way and the history of her family, who migrated to New York from a tiny town near Galway, Ireland, in the early 1900s. She introduced me to her family of seven siblings, who put me through the wringer at dinner, particularly when they learned I rooted for the Red Sox. The first dinner with the family was tougher than infantry basic training in the Army. I flunked the test. But I was mildly tolerated until our eventual breakup.

From my Brooklyn girlfriend, I discovered that relationships formed in an office are priceless. You can learn history, geography, and economics. You can even learn about love, Irish family life, and the different tribes that inhabit the universe.

Seasoned bosses are among those most enthusiastic about coming back to offices. I had lunch recently with one of these people, a retired managing partner at a large law firm. He’s not a fusty, musty person lost in the “good ol’ days” of the past. But as a brilliant man who loves history and relates it to the present and the future, he has high standards about behavior. “I cannot think of any profession that would not benefit from in-person relationships,” he told me. “And it’s not just young people who seem to be clueless about basics. It’s our younger partners who don’t want to be walking the halls. They should be giving the mentoring. But they’re too busy to do that.”

I must butt in here to say that I hear from young adults all over the country who reach out and tell me, “I think I need help. I feel let down by institutions. My schools never taught anything practical. And my parents never really dared to give me advice about how tough life can be. They just want to be my best buddy. I don’t want my parents to be my best buddy.” My take is that these kids need an education after their education.

My lawyer friend rolled on. “But these partners say, ‘I’ve already learned. I don’t want to come in.’ Do they have any concept of the future of the firm? No. It’s just narcissism. Not seeing beyond the end of your nose.” This attitude, he believes, is something that starts at home: “I watch my kids. They sit in the living room, across from each other, texting instead of talking.” By contrast, he said he learned “by going into partners’ offices and listening to their stories. All I had to do was walk down the hall. Instead, now they send me emails at 11 p.m. They need human connectivity, and they don’t have these assets of human connection that move you up the ladder. Maybe my biggest complaint is that they’re not making any friends.”

Stories from the frontlines of the corporate world confirm this. A friend of mine in the investment business in Texas recently hired a new sales assistant. Her previous sales job had been with a giant software company. Over three years, she hadn’t spent one day in an office. He put her on the phone with me. “I was hired and dropped virtually into a room with a bunch of kids like me from many colleges who were supposed to cold call to sell software for equipment leasing,” she explained. “The men on the video call were rowdy, like frat boys. There was lots of turnover and confusion.” The people on the other end of the line, meanwhile, would often be angry, having received multiple uncoordinated calls from salespeople.

The woman blames the disorganization squarely on the managers. “It was up to them to inspire and mentor us. But nobody did. It numbed my mind. The only advice I got was in person. One of my managers was quitting, and he said to me, ‘Whatever you do, you gotta know your shit. Own what you know, you’ll have success.’ That was it.” Remotely, she said, no one gave her any advice. “My friend quit also, and I felt like I was in a bad movie. I wasn’t going to find new friends working at home.”

Mia, a young woman in the advertising world—first in San Francisco, now in Boston—recalls fondly the days when everyone went into the office. “It was so much fun. Every day was a learning experience. Best of all,” she told me, “the higher-ups in the organization got to know me. I got taken to Paris with a team that always seemed to be groomed for advancement. Can you imagine going to Paris for work? It never would have happened if I worked from home. The bosses got to know me as a real person. Not an image.”

Mia smiled before sharing a bit of advice of her own. “Here are key sentences to getting ahead at work. ‘Let’s go out for coffee.’ Or, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’” Bosses, she noted, are much more likely to make a personal connection with employees when they’re face to face with them: “On Zoom, it’s all business.” She’s noticed that deals, too, happen much faster in person. “Talking means so much more than the written word,” she said. “But many of my friends are married with kids. Home life becomes more important. I benefit from that. If you don’t care if you’re the CEO, stay out of the office. I happen to be ambitious.”

When I ran into a professor at Harvard Business School recently, I asked him, as I ask almost everyone I encounter these days, about the return-to-office debate. This professor is usually short and to the point. “Statistics tell me,” he said, “that people working from home work at about 30 percent of their capacity. This is no model for success. If you care about your future ability to thrive…get back to life around you.”

Another quickie came from a longtime money manager I ran into on State Street. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I come in five days a week. You have to meet the clients to really understand their hopes and fears. You have to pay attention to their body language. At home, you get distracted: the kids, the deliveries. Your job is to do the job. It should be full time, during office hours. Not faking it. Your job is to do the job.”

Since so much in life is a head game, I asked a friend who is a child psychiatrist to take me through why, exactly, getting back to the office is so important. She lives in Denver and still speaks with a bit of the accent of Austria, where she grew up. She was the first doctor I knew of who practiced via teleconferencing before Zoom entered our lives—and yet she’s still a proponent of in-person work. “To get to the core of any experience,” she told me, “you need real human contact. You need all five of our senses. We have to see the body language of others for our brains to process the memories fully.” It’s impossible, she explained, to pick up on the subtleties of someone’s reactions and develop trust when you’re simply watching a screen. “‘Non-verbal communication’ is the term: checking out the crowd or the person,” she noted. “It’s all neurology, how the brain processes things. You cannot get true education working from home while you’re also carrying your phone on these remote days, walking the dog, doing errands, paying bills, picking up children. Believe me, people are doing all kinds of things that don’t add one penny to the mythical ‘bottom line.’”

It’s also, she added toward the end of our conversation, “very hard to focus watching all the little people on a little screen. All of us have ADD. And loneliness with depression is rampant in America. Returning to the office is an antidote to this.”

Similarly, when thoughtful young people seek my counsel, they often admit to saying to themselves, “Who am I? And what’s it all about?”

Why don’t you get back to the office with real, live people and find out?

First published in the print edition of the March 2024 issue with the headline, “So You Don’t Want to Go Back to the Office?”