WASHINGTON — As a general rule, the nation’s capital is not a “work from home” kind of town, even though theoretically it could be. It’s not as if a lot of essential goods are created here in some physical plant or factory — not cars, or microprocessors, or beer or, on most days, legislation.
We can make it work in a pandemic by conference call, Skype or Slack, but that is not the point of Washington. The city runs on relationships and convincing others that you have a certain juice about you. It prizes backslapping, glad-handing and now, in this time of coronavirus, awkward fist-bumps, elbow-taps or whatever else you cannot do remotely. It relies, for the most part, on showing up.
And not in your pajamas.
“So much of what we do is just looking someone in the eye,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “When you can see a facial expression or body language, you get a much better sense if you’re making your case. It can be much more challenging to convey urgency remotely.”
In the short term, there’s a novelty in working from home, Ms. Sittenfeld said. This might wear off since her two children — ages 10 and 12 — began “distance learning” on Monday, per a mandate from their school. “I can still do conference calls while I unload the dishwasher,” she said. “Not that that’s a perfect situation.”
Nor, for that matter, is leading an officewide meeting via Zoom while being interrupted by the plumber who just showed up to fix the upstairs toilet. “I swung my laptop around so the plumber could say hello to my team,” said Rachel Laser, the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who normally works from offices downtown but as of Friday morning was working from home along with the rest of her organization.
As much as modern communication tools make it possible to work remotely, you lose a basic boundary in the process. Yes, Ms. Laser can run a perfectly good meeting by video conference. “But no one needs to see my son walking around in a towel in the background,” she said. “That is not a good look for me.”
This is after all a city whose economy is geared heavily to a certain pose — the lie of looking essential to the operation at all times. Not to mention the primal fear of not showing up and not seeming essential, because of course you are essential. Your presence is needed because you matter.
Like Wolf Blitzer matters, and he can’t work from home.
Washington is a city of office people, for the most part — if not literally, then certainly by temperament — who live by T.G.I.M. (thank God it’s Monday).
It is a city that “does lunch.” It is a city that hobnobs, that fights the good fight against the real truth we are all running from, terrified: that we are impostors. That somehow the think tank or law firm or Pentagon would continue to function in our absences.
In a sense, this goes to the real terror of working from home, which is the lurking fear that we have placed ourselves out of sight and thus out of mind. That we are easily replaceable and, worse, could actually be forgotten.
Home is a place of retreat while our presence in an office validates the very important work we are doing, like texting germ emojis or checking Twitter.
Beyond the fragility of the local ego are a host of practical disruptions. If you are say, a lobbyist, and someone is paying you a six-figure retainer to provide wise strategic counsel, the last thing that a client wants to hear is a dog barking in the background, or a vacuum, or “Dora the Explorer.”
“Now I have my cat jump on my laptop in the middle of conference calls,” said Siobhan Gorman, a partner at the Washington office of the Brunswick Group, the corporate public relations colossus. “It is not helpful.”
When working from home, people often assume a level of privacy that does not exist. Conference calls, for instance, are a danger zone. People forget they’re on the screen for all to see. A spouse pads into the background, on a hunt for a clean shirt. Children make faces. Attention wanders.
“You can tell that the vast majority of people are multitasking,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist. “You know they are shopping and responding to email and generally not as focused on what we’re talking about than if they were sitting in front of you.”
Again, not helpful. Of course, this can work both ways, too. The inherent placelessness of client-based industries such as lobbying, law and public affairs can have its benefits.
“The job of being a consultant is that nobody ever expects to see me in person,” said Michael Feldman, a founder of the Glover Park Group, the international consulting firm, and a former top adviser to Vice President Al Gore. “I left D.C. six years ago and nobody knows it.”
Granted, in the realm of major disruptions brought upon by the coronavirus, the nuisances of telecommuting are minor compared with the catastrophic loss of a job or actual exposure to the virus. To this point, the effect has been mostly expressed through the luxury of glibness and gallows humor.
“Washington is already dysfunctional,” Ms. Gorman said. “How much more so can it get?”
We’re about to find out. That seems to be a Beltway consensus, which is that things are headed toward a whole other level of disruption. Schools, courts, restaurants, bars, gyms, libraries and churches are all shut down. College students are moving back home. Amtrak, the Washington Metro and buses have all reduced schedules.
Members of Congress are still here but expected to leave at the end of the week. It is unclear when they will return.
There are some benefits to working from home. Mr. Elmendorf, who did a yoga class on Tuesday over FaceTime, is happy spending the days with his 8-year-old whippet, Truman, and noted that “one advantage is that you don’t have to shower before noon.’’
Maybe there is a bright side here. Perhaps it took a terrifying pandemic to reunite us with the simple connections of our lives and dislodge us from the web of inanity that Washington has become known for.
“Politicians have been talking for years about draining the swamp,” said Nedra Pickler, a managing director at the Glover Park Group. “And now we know what it takes — a virus.”