We Asked Workers Why They’re Not Coming Back to the Office
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We Asked Workers Why They’re Not Coming Back to the Office

Terrible commutes. Expensive child care. Employees explain why they will keep working from home.

By RAY A. SMITH
Thu, Jun 1, 2023 8:34amGrey Clock 4 min

What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”



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Retro Kitchens Are Everywhere—and the Ultimate Rejection of the Sterile Luxury Trend

Playful 1950s style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances

By TRACY KALER
Mon, Apr 22, 2024 6 min

The 1950s spawned society’s view of kitchens as the heart of the home, a hub for gathering, cooking, eating and socializing. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the same decade could inspire today’s luxury kitchens.

“The deliberate playfulness and genius of the era’s designers have enabled the mid-century style to remain a classic design and one that still sparks joy,” said James Yarosh, an interior designer and gallerist in New Jersey.

That playful style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances—all of which are a conspicuous rejection of the sterile, monochrome kitchens that have defined luxury home design for years. One of the hottest brands to incorporate into retro-style kitchens, SMEG is turning up more these days. But the question is: How do you infuse a colourful refrigerator and other elements from this nostalgic era without creating a kitschy room?

“The key to a modern, fresh look in your kitchen is to reference, not imitate, signature looks of the 1950s,” said New York-based designer Andrew Suvalsky, who often laces retro style throughout the rooms he designs. He said using the period as inspiration will steer you away from imagining a garish space.

“When it comes to incorporating that retro-esque look, it’s a fine dance between looking beautiful and looking kitschy,” added Lisa Gilmore, a designer in Tampa, Florida. Gilmore suggested balancing contemporary pieces with vintage touches. That balance forges a functional yet attractive design that’s easy to live with while evoking a homey atmosphere––and ultimately, a room everyone wants to be in.

Colour Reigns Supreme

Suvalsky said one way to avoid a kitschy appearance is to mingle woods and colours, such as lacquered base cabinets and walnut wall cabinets, as he did in his Montclair, New Jersey, kitchen.

“Mixing colours into your kitchen is most effective when it’s done by colour-blocking––using a single colour across large areas of a space––in this case, zones of cabinetry,” he explained. He tends to lean toward “Easter egg colours,” such as baby chick yellow and pale tangerine. These soft pastels can suggest a starting point for the design while lending that retro vibe. But other hues can spark a vintage feel as well.

A mid-century-inspired kitchen by Blythe Interiors.
Natalia Robert

“Shades of green and blue are a timeless base foundation that work for a 1950s vintage look,” said designer Jennifer Verruto of Blythe Interiors in San Diego. But wood isn’t off the table for her, either. “To embrace the character of a mid-century home, we like a Kodiak stain to enhance the gorgeous walnut grain,” she said. “This mid-tone wood is perfect for contrasting other lighter finishes in the kitchen for a Mid-Century Modern feel.”

Since colour is subjective, a kitchen lined with white cabinetry can assume a retro aesthetic through accoutrements and other materials, emanating that ’50s vibe.

“The fun of retro designs is that you can embrace colour and create something that feels individual to the house and its homeowner, reflecting their tastes and personality,” Yaosh said. He recommended wallpaper as an option to transform a kitchen but suggested marrying the pattern with the bones of the house. “Wallpaper can create a mid-century or retro look with colours and hand-blocked craftsmanship,” he said. “Mauny wallpapers at Zuber are a particular favourite of mine.”

Suvalsky suggested Scalamandre wallpapers, for their 1950s patterns, and grass cloth, a textile that was often used during that decade. He also likes House of Hackney, a brand that “does a great job reinventing vintage prints in luscious colours,” he noted. “Many of their colourways invert the typical relationship between light and dark, with botanical prints in dark jewel tones set over light, more playful colours.”

Materials Matter

Beyond wall covering, flooring, countertops and backsplashes can all contribute to the 1950s theme. Manufactured laminate countertops, specifically Formica, were all the rage during the decade. But today’s high-end kitchens call for more luxurious materials and finishes.

“That’s a situation where going the quartz route is appropriate,” Gilmore said. “There are quartzes that are a through-body colour and simple if someone is doing colorued cabinetry. A simplified white without veining will go a long way.” She also recommended Pompei quartz Sunny Pearl, which has a speckled appearance.

A kitchen designed by James Yarosh that incorporates pops of yellow.
Patricia Burke

But for those who welcome vibrant colour schemes, countertops can make a bold statement in a vintage kitchen. Gilmore said solid surface materials from the era were often a colour, and quartz can replicate the look.

“Some brands have coloured quartz, like red,” she said. But keeping countertops neutral allows you to get creative with the backsplash. “I‘d pull in a terrazzo backsplash or a bold colour like a subway tile in a beautiful shade of green or blush,” Gilmore said. “Make the backsplash a piece of art.”

Suvalsky also leans toward bright and daring––such as checkerboards––for the backsplash. But depending on the kitchen’s design, he’ll go quieter with a double white herringbone [tile] pattern. “Either version works, but it must complement other choices, bold or simple, in the design,” he explained.

Neutral countertops with a bold backsplash, designed by Lisa Gilmore.
Native House Photography

Likewise, his flooring choice almost always draws attention. “My tendency is more toward very bold, such as a heavily veined marble or a pattern with highly contrasting tones,” he noted. Yarosh suggested slate and terrazzo as flooring, as these materials can make an excellent backdrop for layering.

Forge a Statement With Vintage Appliances 

As consequential as a kitchen’s foundation is, so are the appliances and accoutrements. While stainless steel complements contemporary kitchens, homeowners can push the design envelope with companies like SMEG when making appliance selections for a retro-style kitchen. Although Suvalsky has yet to specify a SMEG fridge, he is looking forward to the project when he can.

“I think they work best when the selected colour is referenced in other parts of the kitchen, which helps to integrate these otherwise ‘look at me’ pieces into the broader design,” he noted. “They are like sculptures unto themselves.”

“For our mid-century-inspired projects, we’ve opted for Big Chill and the GE Cafe Series to bring a vintage look,” Verruto added. Similar to SMEG, Big Chill and GE offer a vintage vibe in a wide selection of colours and finishes, alongside 21st-century performance.

Can’t commit to a full-size appliance? Sometimes, a splash is enough. Gilmore tends to dust her retro kitchens with a coloured kettle or toaster since her clients are likelier to add a tinge with a countertop appliance or two. “Mint green accessories make it pop, and if in five years they are over it, it’s not a commitment,” she said. “It’s a great way to infuse fun and colour without taking a major risk.”

Deck out the Breakfast Nook

Kitchen dining areas present the opportunity to introduce retro lighting, furniture, and accessories to complete the look. Flea markets and antique markets are excellent places to hunt for accompaniments.

“Dome pendants and Sputnik chandeliers are iconic styles that will infuse vintage charm into your kitchen while also easily complementing a variety of other styles,” Verruto said.

A retro breakfast nook desinged by Andrew Suvalsky.
DLux Editions

Suspend a vintage light fixture over the classic Saarinen table, and you can’t go wrong.

“Saarinen Tulip Tables are almost always guaranteed to deliver a home run in nearly any interior, especially a 1950s-themed kitchen,” Suvalsky said. “The simplicity of its form, especially in white, makes it nearly impossible to clash with.”

To really channel the vibe of this era, Verruto suggested local vintage stores and brands such as Drexel Heritage and Lexington. Dressing the windows counts, too. “Cafe curtains in a chintz pattern will make for a fabulous finishing touch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yarosh delights in selecting tabletop items, including novelty stemware and other trappings ubiquitous in the 1950s. “Mid-century kitchens also need to have pedestal cake plates and maybe a cloche to keep a cake,” he mused. “I love the opportunity to curate these details down to the correct fork and serving pieces.”

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