Of Course WFH is “Really Working”


Normally, I am a fan of Steve Rattner’s work. The former Obama “Car Czar” makes great charts and seems to be a fairly level-headed asset manager. But in the great baseball game of punditry, we all occasionally step up to the plate and whiff.

Such a down on three swings was contained in his recent NYT Op-Ed, “Is Working From Home Really Working?” Every single paragraph has something you can legitimately push back against.1

Let’s start with this simple observation: Americans’ attitudes towards work were less changed during the pandemic than they were revealed. This is a nuanced difference, and if you miss this you are going to miss much of the arguments taking place today between WFH/RTO.

Perhaps a bigger issue is that the entire piece is based on a Gallup poll about how actively engaged Americans are at work. A second survey is referenced from Qualtrics (Likely poll result: Your name sucks).

If you have been a regular reader of this site, you will be familiar with how LOL wrong polling is in general. The underlying problem is that asking people questions is a terrible way to learn what they believe (now or in the future) and what they are doing or might do at some later date. (The mother of all polling fails is Black Friday).

Why is this? People have no idea what’s going on in their own brains; they really do not know what they’re going to do in the future; they certainly have no idea how they will feel, or what will be their resulting mood if X, Y, or Z happens. We DO know that the specific language and grammar of how a question is asked will radically change what answers are generated. In short, polling is mostly bullshit, and anything based on polling comes with a very dubious provenance.

To be fair, training, mentorship, and maintaining corporate culture are challenges when operating remotely. But just like the small mammals that learned to opportunistically take advantage by scampering around the lumbering dinosaurs 210 million years ago, smart companies can be nimble.

At my shop, WFH has allowed us to do things versus the Bigs in ways we probably couldn’t pre-2020. RMW hired lots of new employees over the past 3 years, including a Chief Compliance Officer and a head of HR. We found folks who we likely would not have but for the ability to work from home. It’s a huge advantage for us small mammals versus those Jurassic-era behemoths.

Note to Rattner’s researchers: Facebook and Salesforce are not exactly Silicon Valley start-ups and somehow tying the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank to WFH is profoundly ridiculous.

I’ve been commuting for my entire career – I had it pretty wired with my mobile Wi-Fi and laptop — really got it down to a science. used the time to get a lot of reading done, wrote, and listened to a lot of podcasts essentially turning my commute into at least an hour of work in each direction.

The pandemic revealed what a colossal waste of time and disruption commuting in America is. Our mass transit is shit;2 we live too far from our jobs because of the cost of housing; the indignities and frustrations of merely getting to and from work in an automobile-based society are endless.

Compare the American experience – which is running at ~60% of full office capacity – with that of Europe, which is more than 90% back in the office. As I observed last month, the reason “why RTO has been so difficult is that the traditional urban/suburban business district/bedroom community in the USA is broken.”

In Europe:

-Mass transit is 10X better

-People live closer to where they work

-Their houses are cheaper (but much smaller)

-Childcare is more available (and often free)

It’s no surprise Europe has found it easier to get people back to the office.

We should think of the 40% of Americans who are still WFH not as the problem, but as a symptom of the larger concern. If you want them to return, then deal with these underlying issues. Hey, I get it, it’s much easier to whine about WFH (the symptom) rather than treat the underlying issue — a complex and expensive task that would require reorganizing much of society.

The “Great Labor Reset” is the real reason we have a shortage of workers. America’s wages have lagged (especially in the bottom half of earners), we have cut back legal immigration, we have unhealthy lifestyles putting too many people on disability, and we are still wrestling with Long Covid, to say nothing of the outrageous number of Covid deaths.


One last thought about work: “Just a fact of life for most, drudgery for many and enjoyment for a few, most often those closer to the pinnacle of responsibility and compensation.”

I totally disagree with this assessment; I found the practice of law drudgery and so I shifted to finance. The new gig had me starting over at the bottom, where I made very little money for the first decade-plus of my new career. But I found something I was really good at, and really, really enjoyed.

Perhaps therein lay the real problem with Rattner’s op-ed: It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how people work in the modern era.



WFH vs RTO (February 16, 2023)

Why Aren’t There Enough Workers? (December 9, 2022)

Back in the Saddle (May 4, 2021)

Sorry, We’re Closed (March 13, 2020)

Random Lockdown Observations (May 8, 2020)



Is Working From Home Really Working?
By Steven Rattner
NYT, March 22, 2023

I Would Love to Have Enough Time and Money to Go to an Office to Work All Day
By Ben Mathis-Lilley
Slate, March 27, 2023

Is the era of remote work over?
Brigid Kennedy
The Week, March 28, 2023



1. I don’t want to make the WFH/RTO debate about wealth inequality, but that is a component of the debate Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley did a nice job explaining this.

2. To be fair, mass transit in NYC area has been slowly improving: The new LIRR Grand Central Station is beautiful; many of the subway lines are renovated; even La Guardia has become great. Counter argument: LIRR utterly destroyed my Oyster Bay Branch schedule last month, making commute times longer but less frequent.



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