Work from home debate

As our work-life balance evolves, the workforce is moving toward its new normal. In New Jersey, a full-contact commuting state, the rules of engagement will be different.  (Photo: Andy Mills

Last week, I opened my morning newsletter from ROI-NJ to the following headline: “Ranking reveals best state to work from home: New Jersey.”

The news came via WalletHub, a consumer credit company that uses surveys and rankings to raise brand awareness. In a previous life at NJ.combefore we launched our strategic communications and digital media consultancy the merits of WalletHub and similar were debated often. 

No doubt smart people do this work, but it doesn’t always meet the standards of many data experts. 

So what do we make of this latest work from home data?  

In a word, duh.

A spin through the WalletHub methodology reveals why the rankings tilt toward wealthy states in the northeast. There’s access to high-speed internet, a large share of the population already is working from home and a large population is available to work from home. States even got points for their many backyard swimming pools. 

Data for the win!!

Why New Jersey is different

Let’s look at a few things the data did not include. 

  1. It’s expensive to commute if you live in New Jersey.
  2. It takes a ridiculously long time to commute if you live in New Jersey, 31-plus minutes on average pre-Covid. 
  3. And then there’s NJTransit. Our regional transit network — once among the best in the country — is a laughingstock, despite recent improvements. The service crumbles under pressure, the equipment has been beaten to hell and not even the most helpful driver or ticket taker can make that better. (PS: NJTransit would have been a bigger factor in the 2021 governor’s race were it not for Covid.)

The list of reasons New Jerseyans are better suited to work from home goes on and on. Does that mean we’re currently living the new normal? Hardly.

There is a growing divide between workers and managers. Just read the headlines. Workers — even those who want to be in the office 2-3 times a week — still believe they are living in a world that has changed. They still want a clearly defined career path, a diverse workforce, respect from all sides and a job that allows flexibility and focuses on health and well-being. But managers, according to a Forbes survey, believe the world is about to rewind, and workers will back in the office full time before the end of the year.    

I say no way — at least not in New Jersey.

The reasons? Time and money.

What not to take away

Nationally, the cost of commuting already has topped $5,000 a year for some workers. It can stretch higher for a lot of people in New Jersey — much higher. And that’s before we add in the time spent commuting. In New Jersey, it’s estimated, we spend the equivalent of four weeks of work time every year commuting.

And then there’s the thing that not enough people are talking about when doing the math on bringing everyone back to the office: That’s the problem with taking something away from workers they’ve had for the past two years.

I think it’s simple. Everyone who two years ago traded the 7:09 train into New York Penn to work in an extra bedroom or at the kitchen table have either banked that savings or found new ways to spend it. I’m looking at you, DoorDash and $4 gas! Many also have proven they’re more capable and more efficient doing the work remotely. And that’s before we get into the value of truly flexible work time. 

Do we think families stretching every dollar will be OK with one or two breadwinners giving all that back? Do we think younger workers who only know remote or remote/in-person hybrid will fork over $5,000 in out-of-pocket, post-tax dollars, the equivalent of $7,000 in salary?

I know there are other factors to consider, but I’d be tapping the brakes before writing that “It’s time to return to the office” memo. Those nice raises that put out fires last year were important. But you have a lot of employees who now count their savings of time and money as a permanent benefit.

And we know what happens when we take things away from employees. Been there, done that.

(Note: Kevin Whitmer is president of Whitmer Consulting, a strategic communications and digital media firm he launched this year with his wife, Regina.)