This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
Last night, I took seven different Google Docs, downloaded them as Word Files, turned the footnotes to endnotes, put them in a big old single Word File, added a table of contents, and sent them to our editor at Knopf. All told: 74,291 words on the future of office work.
I made a conscious decision to avoid any sort of cleaning and almost all housework during the last two months of writing, and what you see above is the state of table where I’ve been writing. But this whole room (poofs of dog hair hiding in the corners included) is a pretty accurate representation of my brain as well. Charlie and I spent Sunday re-reading the entire thing, which, we realized about halfway through, is just reading an actual book, only you wrote the words and you kinda hate them. But the process did clarify a few main points, which I thought I’d share below.
1) What you’re doing now is working from home during a pandemic
This is still difficult for people to get their heads around, but whatever your situation is now — however sick you are of your own walls, however assailed you are by your own children, however annoyed you are by the mere presence of your partner or your roommates — it’s not what remote work is going to look like in the future. When we’re no longer confined to our homes, just think of all the options that will open to you: you can work at a coffee shop, of course, but you can also work…..with your friends? A lot? And your kids will be in school, or in care, but most importantly, not with you? You can go work in a library, or a co-working space, or a park, or a different co-working space. What matters is that it will not be you, in your home, alone — unless you want it to be.
I think our difficulty with imagining this much more textured mode of remote work is our difficulty with imagining the future, just generally. It still feels emotionally reckless to get our hopes up about anything. But it’s worth reiterating: the way you’re working from home now is not the way you’ll be able to work from home post-pandemic.
2) This isn’t about working from home forever. It’s about real flexibility.
There will be some companies that use this moment to go fully “distributed” — no HQ, no traditional office, nothing. But most fully remote workplaces start that way and build from the ground up. The vast majority of companies are currently looking for some sort of hybrid, flexible model in which offices still serve a function, but workers have much more control over their schedules.
In some cases, this will look like what Dropbox is doing — setting up “studios” in the four cities where its employees are clustered, and reserving those studios for collaborative in-person work. Some companies will simply decrease their footprint substantially, and do away with most “assigned” desk space, or embrace a more “hub and spoke” model, in which a central office still exists in some form, but then, depending on where workers live, there will be smaller “outposts” that are really just company-owned co-working spaces. All of this thinking hinges on the reality that most people do still want to see their co-workers in some capacity — and are figuring out just how much that will actually be. One day a week? Three? But almost certainly not five — and the hours that people are in the office will also be far less rigid.
The larger point: companies can no longer hide behind the thinking that people are less productive at home, or unless they’re being watched by a manager. Do you get the work done? Great. Now you can decide where and how you do it.
3) “Boundaries” are meaningless. We need guardrails.
The idea of “boundaries” has become so porous when it comes to cultivating work/life balance that it’s lost all meaning. People don’t respect boundaries. You don’t respect them. Even when the pandemic is over, it’s going to be very, very difficult to try to rebuild them. What we actually need are guardrails, big and sturdy ones, to protect us from the runaway semi-truck of work.
In our current framework, boundaries are the individual’s responsibility, and when they’re broken, it’s because the individual failed to protect them. But guardrails? They’re there to protect everyone, and they’re maintained by the state, aka your company. There are a lot of ways to actually build guardrails around employee’s lives, and we discuss them at length in the book. But the larger shift has to be away from all of this worthless “personally-maintained boundaries” bullshit.
4) The C-Suite has had “flexibility” for years. If companies don’t expand it to other workers, they’ll find jobs elsewhere.
A friend recently told me that before the pandemic, her department within a large company had instituted a “flexible” work from home policy, in which employees could choose a day to work from home during the week — it just couldn’t be Monday or Friday. But the person in charge of the department and her deputy? They quietly worked from home on Mondays and Fridays all the time.
This sort of shit is just not going to fly anymore. “Executives have had flex forever,” the CEO of a real estate company told us. “I’ve been able to work from home on Fridays in the summers since 1992. People always say that the future is here, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed. And that’s true. Flexibility has just been segregated off in the C-suite and slightly downstream.”
If CEOs decide that they’re going to try and pull everyone back into the office five days a week when the pandemic is over, people with in-demand skills are just going to quit and take jobs elsewhere. “Forcing everyone to work in a certain way seems dated in a world where talented employees have more choice than ever,” Dror Poleg, who’s doing some of the sharpest thinking on the future of office/work, recently wrote. “Already before COVID, talented graduates were voting with their feet. As CNN reports, 20% of business school graduates chose to work in finance in 2008, compared to 12% who chose tech. In 2018, tech's share of graduates rose to 17%, while finance declined to 13%. And this figure only takes into account business graduates, who are less prized in the tech world than engineers or even product managers.”
This understanding applies to a certain echelon of worker, but the ideas that formalize within those industries will trickle down elsewhere, too. Flexibility isn’t just a perk. It’s going to be standardized.
5) If you’re actually serious about DE&I, you have to be serious about remote work.
One of the women we interviewed for the book used to spend a lot of time, pre-pandemic, meeting with big companies about their “DE&I” problem. (DE&I = Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). In January of last year, she told two of them: if you’re actually serious about solving this problem at your company, you have to stop telling your job candidates that they have to move to Seattle. If you want a diverse workforce and diverse leadership, and you want them to thrive, you have to think of where a more diverse workforce actually wants to live. And for a lot of people, that place is very much not Seattle.
I was thinking about this point when the Washington Post recently circulated job descriptions for five new tech-related jobs. The job ads emphasized that the Post “strives to provide its readers with high-quality, trustworthy news and information while constantly innovating. That mission is best served by a diverse, multi-generational workforce with varied life experiences and perspectives. All cultures and backgrounds are welcomed.”
But the ad also noted that the job would be with the Post’s San Francisco office, and would not be eligible for remote work after the end of the pandemic. If someone’s covering, say, tech policy, then I get the argument that they should be in Washington D.C. But why should someone covering the technology of the office, including the technology of remote workers, have to be in San Francisco? Just think of how significantly the Post is limiting its applicant pool but insisting that they live 1) in a particular city that 2) happens to be one of the most expensive areas to find housing in the country.
A better example, I think, is The 19th, which, as part of its mission for a truly intersectional approach to the news, allows people to live in their communities. The site launched during the pandemic, and they have an office in Austin, but no plans to force anyone to move another expensive and increasingly white city. Is it tougher to collaborate remotely? Sure, but people are smart, and there are so many ways to make remote collaboration actually work, especially when we’ve emerged from our fear and anxiety cocoons. It’s not insurmountable. But trying to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion while insisting that all applicants move to expensive and often exclusionary cities? That is.
6) Resist the urge to screw all of this up with surveillance.
There’s a real eagerness to re-instate the sort of control and ostensible omniscience that managers once had in the office in the form digital surveillance. It’s all garbage, even if it’s sold as a “productivity monitoring tool,” and will just make workers hate everything about their jobs.
7) Managers have to figure out how to actually manage.
There’s a particular style of management, endemic to office jobs, that I like to call “add-on management.” It happens when someone is very good at their job, but there’s no real way in the current system to give them a raise or reward them other than making them a manager. This person does not necessarily have an aptitude for management, which requires a unique set of “other-focused” skills, and aren’t really interested in learning those skills. But who doesn’t want a promotion? So they take the manager role, while usually still holding on to all of their previous responsibilities as well.
The add-on manager is spectacularly bad at managing, and responsible for a significant amount of an individual worker’s misery within an organization. The past year has only clarified just how bad these managers are at their job, because if you’re generally bad at communicating, you’re probably even worse at communicating remotely while everyone on your team is experiencing peak anxiety.
If companies want to make a flexible, hybrid, and/or remote style of work happen, they need to figure out an actual manager strategy — which will probably include adopting a new understanding of who should take on the role and what it looks like. Is that a significant amount of work? Yes! And it’s not even close to as simple as making people go to a half-day management seminar! Is it ultimately worth it if your workers are far less miserable and doing far better work? Also yes!
8) If we get flexibility for knowledge workers and call it good, it’ll be a moral failure.
The point of flexibility isn’t so that you can free up more time so that you can take on a side hustle or sign your kid up for her fifth sports league or just fill it with more work. The point is that you will have more time to 1) figure out who you when work is not longer the axis of your life and 2) to actually use that time to care about and for other people.
That means cultivating cross-industry worker solidarity, advocating for labor laws that actually address and protect workers laboring in the 2020s, and remaining vigilant to ways that shifts to remote work are affecting your community. That means creating networks of care and support, and helping to weave and reinforce a social safety net so strong that it can support all of us. That means de-coupling health care from work, re-imagining childcare, and re-embracing collectivism, just generally.
Otherwise, there’s an even darker dystopian scenario lurking around the corner, one in which the already privileged get a nice flexible schedule while the rest of the workforce gets even more constrained, more surveilled, more precarious. That scenario has been part of every conversation we’ve had about how all of this is going to go; it’s hideous and very real and we do not pretend otherwise. But if we don’t imagine how it can be different, and how we can actively resist that capitalism’s natural inclination, then we surrender to that vision.
Remote work could be great. But the point, we’ve figured out, isn’t actually about where you do the work. It’s about using this moment to rethink the literal and figurative placement of work in our lives — and what we want to prioritize in its place.
There’s so much more to tell you about this book and its scope: about all the really compelling history we synthesized in order to argue what work could and should look like moving forward, about what universal design can teach us about accessibility and inclusion across the workplace, about the Aeron Chair and the Organization Man and the “office of the future” that involved Tilt-O-Whirl cars in conference rooms. But for now, I need to clean off this table.
If there’s something you’d really love to see addressed in the book, or a company that you think is taking a compelling or shitty strategy to the future of flexible/hybrid/remote work, please email me — or feel free to comment below. The book, whose current title is Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, will come out in December.
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
The racist housing practices established the prices on your Monopoly board
The fuzzy blankets, beloved by immigrants, that feel “like a warm hug from an angel”
A really interesting piece on the Western biases of music production software
When I posted this piece earlier this week to my FB group, the response was “I kept thinking that I’d reached the worst part, but I was wrong” and “oh so this is what’s worse than an MLM”
A smart piece on what the Trump era should teach political reporters, particularly when it comes to listening to black reporters and black voters
Britney Spears was never in control (CW: sexual assault)
A fascinating read on the roots of the childcare crisis
This week’s just trust me
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I'm married and have a child and flexibility is important to me for obvious reasons, the sort that companies will likely recognize first because companies recognize it's a good thing to tout you are good for working families. But I wish many companies would realize that for their un-coupled employees, singlehood can mean bearing the cost burden of expensive urban centers alone. Flexibility means a person relying only on their own income can maybe buy a house in a cheaper area or travel back to their aging parents for regular periods if they need care, for example. There are so so many reasons flexibility is good for ALL types of employees.
The thing I think about a lot is the infrastructure of work.
I work as a designer for one of the Big Tech companies. Theoretically I can work from anywhere, and my bosses really don't care where that is as long as the work gets done in a timely fashion. However, my productivity depends on being able to move stupid quantities of data around quickly and reliably. Pre-pandemic, I rarely worked remotely because finding someplace with the kind of internet connection I need outside an office building where the owners had invested in Serious Bandwidth is difficult.
Currently my housemate and I are trying to share one of the fastest connections available in this midsize city as she works for the Social Security administration, and I do my thing. I am trying to only move large files around when she's done for the day, because otherwise there isn't enough bandwidth for her to actually talk to the people she serves.
If remote work is the future (and I suspect it is), employers need to address infrastructure. the benefit of a work place is your workers having infrastructure to do the things they need to do.