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An empty newsroom with TV monitors hanging from the ceiling.
The Sun-Times newsroom, viewed from my office door, at the end of January. Workplaces around the world are contemplating how—or whether—to bring their employees back as the COVID pandemic slowly begins to recede.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

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Office sings its siren song even as COVID vaccine spreads

With a third of the country receiving at least the first dose of vaccine, workers are wondering when — or if — they’ll return to the office.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, workers pouring out of the Sears Tower looked up as they cleared the building. The World Trade Center had come down about an hour before, and nobody knew what might happen next. Hurrying away, carrying laptops, they scanned the skies.

I know that because I saw it. As employees streamed out of their offices, I was heading toward mine, the Sun-Times newsroom at 401 N. Wabash. I was going into work because that’s what people did in the morning. You went to work.

Not for the past year, of course. COVID-19, a far more deadly disaster — in the United States, closing in on 200 times the toll of 9/11 — creating a chasm between those who could work at home and those who had to risk their lives to draw a paycheck.

I’ve gone into the office three times over the past year, always because I was downtown anyway, going to the library or conducting an interview. Each time, the newsroom was silent and empty. It was grim, unnatural.

When will that change? With millions of doses of vaccine being pumped into millions of arms every day, society is pondering a return to work.

On March 29, Microsoft and Uber are welcoming employees back into their West Coast headquarters.

Not everyone will be going back. A big British paper, the Daily Mirror, is closing its London office. Reporters can work out of their cars or homes.

I can provide some insight of what that’s like. For most of my career, going in to the office was a choice. As a columnist I could work at home and usually did. But I routinely prodded myself to go in, for a variety of reasons. Usually because something specific was happening downtown, an event, interview, meeting, lunch, opera rehearsal. I was hoofing into the paper in 2001 because I joined the editorial board, a five-year detour into being a serious person.

More recently, I try to go in once a week on principle, whether something was cooking downtown or not. And that principle being self-protection. Regularly going into work struck me as strategic. In the game of musical chairs that journalism has become, it’s easier to fire the guy whose face you haven’t seen much.

Do such intangible benefits make it worth having an office? Most days are not 9/11. For me, COVID won’t be over until the newsroom is humming again. Then again, most offices aren’t newspapers.

In Chicago, the average cost to rent an office space is $7,000 per employee. So if your employer decided to pocket $5,000 and offer you an extra $2,000 a year to work at home, to cover paper clips and coffee you’d normally sponge up for free, would you take it? That’s a toughie. I’d miss going into the paper. Then again, the Sun-Times used to have a jet, a Citation X, and we got rid of that, too. We still get by.

Employees will certainly see more flexibility. It’s hard to force people to work at home for a solid year, and then whip around and forbid them from doing so. Expect more flexible, hybrid schedules, at smaller, more communal offices, with desks shared by staffers who come in on a particular day, like hot racking in a submarine.

Life is simply more deeply felt in person than it could ever be in the online world. That morning of 9/11, after I contributed the detail about employees from the Sears Tower looking up to our first, shocked editorial, I asked the city desk what I could do to help.

They sent me out into the Loop, where I talked to puzzled tourists turned away from the Sears Tower observation deck and an older doorman who had played in the Negro Leagues and was lowering the flag in front of his building to half-staff.

Later that morning, John Cruickshank, the future publisher, gathered everybody in the newsroom together around the city desk and said, in essence, that this is a big news story, probably the biggest of our careers, but it was also an enormous human calamity, and we should say a prayer for all the lives lost today.

And so we did — a moment of silence, heads bowed, eyes closed — before snapping back to our tasks.

That wouldn’t be the same on Zoom.

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