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'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.
I gave notice to my big law firm on Friday to hang my own shingle this spring. I am not optimistic re: guardrails coming to my sector of the economy time to make a difference for myself/my family/my small children. But I have excellent skills and a solid network and can imagine what being independent will look like after a year of wfh in a pandemic.
Your burn-out book struck a deep cord with me. I also read Overwhelmed a few years ago, which also started to plant some seeds. But nodding vigorously throughout the Burnout book gave me another layer of permission to take the leap. Looking forward to the new book!
Your last point is an important one, especially considering that there are lots of fields where working from home isn’t something that can be done on a regular basis. There are the people who still have to leave home to work, and have had to do so for the duration of the pandemic, such as medical professionals, retail workers, tradespeople, and those who do all sorts of personal care, just to name a few. There are the fields that have been absolutely devastated by the pandemic because they are so heavily dependent on in-person interactions, like travel and tourism, hospitality and food service, or arts and entertainment. And there are the areas where remote work has been possible but is far from ideal, most notably teaching. What happens to all of them in a world where “knowledge workers” in tech, finance, and the media tend to set the national agenda? Will anyone care about affordable housing when so many influential people can live anywhere? Will anyone want to fund mass transit when a subset of the population rarely commutes to an office? How many future policies will be enacted under the assumption that “everyone” works at home when so many don’t?
Needless to say I’m really looking forward to the book!
This is so interesting. I can't wait for the book!
On the subject of "futures that are not evenly distributed", even as I read, and nod, and agree with everything you write, I know that everything negative about this shift is happening and will continue to happen for quite a while, in most places.
I've seen executives and top managers taking pride of making themselves seen at the office during the pandemic, while their subordinates were working from home. It's pure, raw, stupid, somewhat ingenuous power-play, but it's has been laid bare in front of our eyes.
I've seen HR people with starry eyes while considering to adopt time and task tracking systems for the fist time ever, in the middle of the pandemic.
I've been asked many many times the question "How do we measure WFH productivity?" to which I invariably reply "How did you measure productivity before?" to which I invariably get the answer "We didn't" ("There you go", I gesture).
So for some cultures - as there's no "worldwide work culture" - the starting point (because, after a year, we are just barely at a starting point) is at the opposite end of the ideal situation to kickstart any kind of change.
I've been working for an officeless company for the past 4 years and I've been able to do so primarily because I quit the idea of being an employee at a company, and became a freelance consultant: everybody who's not making this kind of radical choice is just waiting endlessly for their companies "to do something" about it.
While it is absurd to think that everybody should become a freelancer in order to own their time/work/life (otherwise we fall into the sort of "tunnel vision" trap you describe at point 8), I do believe that companies will need several slaps in the face from both their workers and their national governments in order to change — and with the massive unemployment rates coupled with the additional wave of layoffs, I don't see individuals in a good bargaining position, so, for once, I need to put almost all my hopes in what national governments will do in terms of policy-making.
I hope that as a footnote to #8 you at least touch on Bullshit Jobs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit_Jobs . I think that any real discussion about work in the modern world has to define what work is actually needed, and not just work for work's sake. IMHO There is an entire career waiting out there to thread the needle on this whole affair. I hope an entire host of people take up the collective burden and run with it.
This, this, all of this. I need this book out now so I can distribute it like a Gideon. Point 8 is the beginning of the imperative global economic renovation: displacing work as identity, work as moral purpose, work as community, work as spirit. Doing the latter seem insurmountable but when you take up 1-7 it seems bits and pieces can push on the edges and hopefully deflate the middle. On a small scale, I am struck -- and revised by -- what you say about personal boundaries. I have found myself -- in the dangerous mentoring posture of an ally -- advising people to get fiercer boundaries, actually volunteering to write the 'no' e-mails and away messages and scheduling hacks. Thus reproducing the bullshit of individual responsibility when all these words are just a discursive lattice where a guardrail should be. I learn from that you're doing, and await eagerly celebrating this book.
One of the things that has haunted me (and is one reason why I'm still having a hard time "adapting" to working from home in a pandemic) is the fact that when the company I work for saw the need to make drastic cuts last year, so many of the first round of layoffs were women, and especially women of color. I had seen some decent steps taken in recent months and I was fairly optimistic about the company's change in philosophy in this regard. It had been a long time coming! But the minute the waters got choppy all that went out the window. Anecdotally what I saw was a whole bunch of moms losing their jobs. On paper, when taken individually, it might make sense because in many cases each had less seniority than their immediate colleagues. I'm sure it's justifiable if execs were ever truly questioned about it, but that "seniority" itself was/ is the product of decades of a white male-dominated culture. Part of me wishes we could all physically be back in the corporate HQ offices again so that we could take a glance around the lunchroom and see for ourselves what that impact *looks* like. Now that it seems unlikely to occur ever (and certainly not anytime soon) will anyone even notice that it happened?
I'm grateful to you and to the others who are taking this all in and sharing your analysis, because many of us in the thick of it are having a hard time taking a step back to do any meaningful assessment. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, I'm eager to read the new book.
I worked at a tech magazine in the late 90s when hot-desking was all the rage and it kind of died out. I don't think WFH is going to be like that, though. Hot-desking felt like a fad even at the time, but this feels structurally different. Looking forward to the book!
Absolutely love your writings 👍
Coming to this more than a year later and your observation that the C-Suite have had flexibility forever fused together all my disparate thoughts about why companies trying to roll back remote working for employees is so galling. Thank you!
I’m an office worker right now (accountant) and I have been entirely remote since March 15, 2020, so many, many parts of this post spoke to me directly. But in the past I have been, among other things: a care staff in a group home, a ticket taker at a theater, a receptionist, and a plasterer’s assistant on construction sites. None of these jobs could have been done remotely. As I read this, I couldn’t stop thinking about those jobs, and how vulnerable and exhausted I felt while working them, and how financially precarious it was, and how little anyone seemed to notice what I needed or give a thought for what the future of my work would look like. If someone out there is writing blog or substack posts like this for essential workers, or for folks in positions that might not be considered essential but also don’t the paradigm you are looking to shift, I haven’t found them yet. I get that this is a post about office work, and your book is also about office work, so I’m not expecting you to pivot entirely toward other industries and occupations. But I am curious. Where would I have fit into your blueprint, before?
For me flexibility at work means having the luxury to choose the time to start my work, as I am a morning person I really love to start working early, and then take a break after 2 to 3 hours of consecutive works. And after grabbing a cup of coffee and some chitchat with my kids again back to work, this way I feel extremely refreshed and energized to work again for few hours. This is what flexibility means for me, and as a complete remote worker, I am happy and proud to use CloudDesk as my employee monitoring tool, with the use of this tool I can count my hours in real time and make better allocation of time and measure my own productivity
I've worked as an Executive Asst for 20+ years. There hasn't been a single position where 90-100% of my job couldn't be done from anywhere on the planet. The problem has always been getting my boss to believe it. There is so much of a power structure in letting people work from home and having an assistant. Once you have an assistant it's almost as if you have to throw that around. I'll have "my assistant" schedule that for you. I'll have "my assistant" bring that to you. If I work from home do I even exist? They have always cared more about where the work is done than how the work is done. I could have been the crappiest asst but as long I was physically there that made up for a lot. I could have been the best asst but if I wasn't there what was the point? They couldn't show off that they had an assistant. The women were the worst about it. Once that glass ceiling broke then they really had to show off they were in a position of power and had an assistant. If I worked from home how could they do that?
I once had a male boss that traveled for 90% of his job. He wouldn't let me just come in when he came in and WFH when he traveled. He said I needed to answer his phone. HR and I told him many times his phone never rang. People knew he traveled so they called his cell. It was just so stupid.
This brings me to what someone commented earlier about freelancing. There is a massive market for virtual assistants and I'd love to do that. But the thought of actually having to spend so much time finding business/clients, sell myself, etc to get the work and then do all the work is horrifying to this introvert. I like a steady paycheck and health insurance. Another reason why insurance shouldn't be tied to jobs either.
Thanks for writing this. I loved the foresight into the future where working flexibly will not be the same as it has been during the pandemic. I founded http://www.humansphere.co/ to help companies and building owners find ways to attract people back to the office through improved spaces, but also wellness programs and community experiences. I'd love to connect and dive a bit deeper into this conversation ... could you please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org?