Opinion | Remote Work Saved Me During Covid. Now de Blasio Is Taking It Away.

Like many working mothers, I struggled with work-life balance long before Covid. I was overwhelmed and exhausted, and despite having a secure job as a senior manager at New York’s Department of City Planning with good benefits, decent pay, reasonable hours and supportive leadership, I often considered quitting.

In the middle of this midlife crisis, the pandemic hit, and I was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. In March 2020, I started chemotherapy just as my two school-age daughters started remote learning. Before the year ended, my father suffered a debilitating stroke. After a five-month medical leave, I went back to work­.

Unlike the nearly two million women who have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic, I was able to keep working. I could collaborate with my co-workers from home while I monitored dinner cooking on the stove or threw clothes in the laundry. My husband and I could take turns picking up our daughters from school between meetings, and time that I once spent on commuting was devoted to more sleep and exercise.

The agency did well while working remotely: Key performance indicators for fiscal year 2020 were as good or better than the year before. And the rest of city government fulfilled its mission as workers were remote, holding land use hearings, conducting primary elections, running the campaign finance system, monitoring air quality, reviewing building plans, managing the payroll for 300,000 workers, preparing the budget, and overseeing the city’s legal affairs.

It felt great to be able to serve the city while also tending to my family and to my own health. But when Mayor Bill de Blasio abruptly announced this month that city workers had to return to the office full-time starting this Monday, also the first day of classes for public schools, it felt like an invitation to quit.

Since I joined the agency in 2004, I have never seen morale so low and turnover so high. In the days since the mayor’s return to work announcement, frustration has evolved into fury. Employees feel disrespected, ignored and undervalued. I don’t want to quit, but I also don’t want to go back to my life before the pandemic, a life of too little sleep, too much responsibility and not enough time.

The mandate to return is forcing me to make what feels like an unnecessary choice between my career and my family, between my health and my duty to my colleagues and the city. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I share the concerns of other city workers that the return to office is too sudden for parents scrambling for child care and too risky with the Delta variant surging and no in-office distancing requirements. But what really has me contemplating leaving after more than 15 years of city service is my dread of indefinitely going back to the office for eight hours a day, five days a week after experiencing the flexibility of remote work. After only a few days of being back in the office full time, I’m already feeling a familiar sense of weariness and anxiety.

Proponents of a full return to office note that most city employees cannot work from home and are already back in person. It’s right to acknowledge the sacrifices of frontline workers, but requiring a return to the office for all other workers does not help them. My daughters’ teachers are not safer because I’m going into the office; indeed, I now pose a greater exposure risk to my children, who are too young to be vaccinated.

What’s more, forcing employees for whom in-person work is not essential to return to the office could create a crisis. I’m not the only city employee considering quitting because of the mayor’s order. According to an internal survey in July completed by 73 percent of my agency’s employees, 40 percent said they would seek another job if the city stopped allowing remote work. Many have started looking. Others have already left.

The Landscape of the Post-Pandemic Return to Office

    • Delta-variant delays. A wave of the contagious Delta variant is causing companies to reconsider when they will require employees to return, and what health requirements should be in place when they do.
    • A generation gap. While workers of all ages have become accustomed to dialing in and skipping the wearying commute, younger ones have grown especially attached to the new way of doing business. This is causing some difficult conversations between managers and newer hires.
    • How to keep offices safe. Handwashing is a simple way to reduce the spread of disease, but employers should be thinking about improved ventilation systems, creative scheduling and making sure their building is ready after months of low use.
    • Return-to-work anxiety. Remote work brought many challenges, particularly for women of color. But going back will also mean a return to microaggressions, pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism, and high rates of stress and burnout.

    This is a huge problem because the need for skilled workers in city government is greater now than ever. The pandemic has only deepened and accelerated government’s dependence on technology and information. For example, remote community board meetings and hearings during the pandemic were possible only because of the rapid deployment of the NYC Engage portal, which was developed by a team of more than two dozen city planning staff members, including city planners, software engineers, web designers, experts in the land use review process, lawyers, communications specialists and project managers. All of these employees could easily get jobs in the private sector with higher salaries and remote working options. And I fear that many of them will.

    The possibility that a city agency, even a small one like city planning, could lose 40 percent of its staff should be alarming, especially during a pandemic and on the cusp of a new administration. Career professionals and highly skilled, tech-savvy newer hires work in all branches of city government, from the Fire Department to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Police Department and the Human Rights Commission and Education Department.

    We are the bridges between administrations and across parties, the limited continuity city government has in a time of disruption. It’s the worst time to push dedicated city professionals out the door.

    Jennifer Gravel is the director of housing and economic development for New York’s Department of City Planning.

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