That's a Big, Poorly Camouflaged Red Flag
How Your Company Approaches Back to Work is How They Approach Everything
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So your organization has a back to the office plan! Maybe it’s been in place for awhile. Maybe, like a lot of companies, the date is hovering somewhere out there in January, when (a lot) of kids will be vaxxed, other workers will be boosted, and case and positivity rates will presumably have gone down.
Whether or not that date feels right, appropriate, or safe to you is very personal, and I’m not going to level judgments on those feelings. But the reality is that January feels like a fulcrum in the world of knowledge/portable work. Right now, companies are already ramping up to that moment or finalizing plans for it. And dozens of you have sent me their general outlines.
Some of these plans are dynamic and employee-needs-centered. And a lot of these plans are rigid, defensive, and employer-demand-centered. With this newsletter, I want to highlight some poorly camouflaged red flags, because in the end, this isn’t just about your organization’s skill in developing a single policy. How your organization approaches this particular hurdle — much like how they approached the first, rapid transition to working from home in the first place — is symptomatic of the organization’s overall health. Put differently: how an organization negotiates the return to the office is how they approach everything. You might be fine with that. But it’s worth seeing it, and its red flags, clearly.
Red Flag #1: Bad Comms
One person told me that their large company had been pretty great over the last year about communicating about their back to office plan — and, last month, had told all employees that they would start transitioning to that plan, which included several mandatory days in the office, starting January 1st. Last week, they emailed with an abrupt change of plans: everyone was expected back in the office on November 1st, no exceptions.
I wouldn’t be thrilled with this sort of communication from a good friend, let alone an employer whose mandates have very real ramifications on the rhythms and responsibilities of my daily life. Think of how this mandate is affecting people who’d been in the process of arranging child or eldercare assistance for January, and are now asked, with an incredibly tight childcare market (because the federal government still refuses to understand that part of the reason people aren’t taking jobs IS BECAUSE THERE IS EFFECTIVELY NO AFFORDABLE CHILDCARE, and there is a pretty straightforward solution that they are refusing to fund). It is also extremely difficult to arrange for new childcare solutions in the middle of the semester, particularly for after-school care amidst a nationwide bus driver shortage.
Flexible and remote work has helped with that big societal problem that all of us, not just caregivers, should be paying attention to — but if you take flex work away, you are essentially telling parents that they they should start running around like chicken with their heads cut off right about now. You are adding unimaginable stress. You are essentially asking them to have anxiety dreams. None of this will help performance or productivity or existing longterm burnout! You are also saying — intentionally or not — that your workplace is not a workplace that is a good fit for caregivers.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that these employers will never have parents in their workplace. It just means these caregiving workers will continually have to present themselves as if they’re not, and people who are more able to do that (generally not but exclusively: dudes!!) will advance within your organization. [I haven’t even mentioned the fact that kids can only start getting vaxxed this week, and while those kids might be in school, adding another vector of potential infection is something that I know a lot of parents were attempting to avoid.]
Chances are high that this decision was made because an executive was feeling annoyed with all the delays and wanted to rip the band-aid off already. But is the ill-will and anxiety it engenders worth it? No! No it is not!
A Better Idea: Long-lead communication with back-to-office dates coinciding with (or, even more ideally, the week after, so as to give kids and parents a week to adjust) a significant calendar event. I know some companies are pushing for post-Thanksgiving, but that sounds like a nightmare, and not just for people with kids. If you’re going to implement a plan this winter, early January is your best bet. (I also know that Microsoft is trying to be accommodating to parents by pushing their date to June while not requiring other employees to be in the office in January. Also: not great!) Whatever the plan is, employer should keep updating your employees about potential plans, even if it seems annoying. This is a really big deal! Act like it!
Red Flag #2: No Mondays or Fridays from Home
I get why companies do this. I’m sure you do too. The fear is so legible. They want to make it impossible for people to shirk on their work duties by extending their weekend into Monday or Friday. Mondays, I kinda get: depending on the organization, they can feel like the organizational launch of a new section of work. But Fridays? That is the sign of a company that fundamentally does not trust their workers to complete their work. When you mandate office attendance until 5 pm on a Friday, you are communicating that “good work” is not the quality of the work, or even necessarily the quantity of the work, but an arbitrary understanding of when the company says work should be completed.
If you’ve ever been in an organization that is very focused on butts-in-seats, you know the general listlessness of a waning Friday afternoon. Maybe you have a a few spurts of work, maybe someone has convinced you to be part of a meeting, but mostly you’re fucking around, draining down the hours. That’s because your mind is done, or, more precisely, your mind needs to be done with the work week. And yet, at least historically, companies have people in non-hourly jobs in offices as a means of 1) justifying their salary and 2) leveraging and maintaining control and power. Mandatory office time, in other words, as a cudgel to keep employees in line, because if they aren’t forced to be in the office, workers won’t work, or at least won’t work the way employers want them to.
This is a remarkably jaundiced way of understanding the worker: that they will only work if you force them into spaces where you can watch them do (or pretend to do) work. But it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy, too: if you’re the sort of company that conceives of your workers in this way, then your workers will behave accordingly. Give employees the skills, means (including capable coworkers, equipment, and fair compensation), clear parameters, and freedom, and the vast majority will do their work very well. Tell them exactly when and how they should complete their work and they will likely end up doing less of it, of poorer quality. This isn’t worker spite or rebellion so much as just how so many of us react, knowingly or not, to arbitrary rules.
This Friday scenario is also one of many reasons I’m such a champion of flexible work — and of the four day work week, just generally. There is a sliver of “knowledge” work that benefits from in-person interaction, and a solid portion of that same work, depending on your industry, that benefits from synchronicity, e.g., being in the space physical or digital space at the same time. But the rest of the work? Why have all this expensive complicated technology if not to unyoke us from a specific time and mode of work? If technology can liberate us from anything (I’m generally dubious!) it should at the very least liberate us from perfunctory, performative work hours.
If your company has had problems with falling productivity, consider: is the problem that they haven’t been in the office on Fridays? Or is it something much, much bigger? If work isn’t getting done, what’s the actual roadblock? It’s almost certainly not a lack of work done between the hours of 3 and 5 pm.
Organizations empower employees by giving them space and trust. Forbidding them from figuring out how to balance their week so that they could (gasp) travel somewhere on the weekend, put in a few hours in the morning, and then push off the rest of the weekend….or (gasp) complete their work for the week and instead of scrolling Twitter for hours, permit them do something that actually restores them to do equally good work the next week….that’s just saying that you want power for power’s sake.
A Different Strategy: Continue to work with managers to cultivate clear expectations of the amount of work that is expected — and continue to offer employees the flexibility to figure out when to do it, even if that means doing it remotely on a Friday morning. If you say you trust your employees, actually trust your employees.
Red Flag #3: Monitoring and Surveillance Software
The surveillance software isn’t even a subtle red flag. It’s a blaring siren. If a company believes they need to surveil the way you work, and understands work as, say, “how often your cursor moves” or “hours chained to keyboard,” or “let’s take a screenshot of your screen every minute,” they are almost certainly underpaying you, and you almost certainly don’t have the protection of a union, and the company is just generally a shitty actor in the larger business world. I don’t blame anyone who has been forced to take or stay in a job like this, but if you have even a modicum of flexibility to start looking for other jobs, you should.
A Different Strategy: These companies should stop being the fucking worst and the dark rotting heart of capitalism.
Red Flag(ish) #4: Requiring Permission to Inspect Your Home Workspace
This is a tricky one, but a demand I’ve been hearing from more and more workers — particularly those in more risk-adverse workplaces (big insurance companies, some financial institutions) or city/state/federal workers. The language of the demand varies a bit from institution to institution, but it generally goes something like this: the organization reserves the right to inspect your home workplace at any time so long as they give advance notice, sometimes as short as 24 hours.
I’ve chatted with some employment lawyers about this, and in most cases, this is boilerplate legalese that’s part of a general effort to ward off messy workplace comp/OSHA complaints, or to set forth a defense to deal with them after they’ve been filed. There’s a general concern that if you let workers work regularly from home, and they injure themselves in some way in that home, the company will be held liable via worker’s comp— and that includes liability for (expensive, ongoing) health issues related to bad ergonomic set-ups. Putting language like this in a remote agreement (or, conversely, asking workers to waive their right to sue if something does happen) is a means of warding off this situation. A lot of companies’ legal teams may have insisted on its inclusion, and it might not be intended nefariously, or at least with the nefariousness one might assume.
But putting in this boilerplate language is also a pretty shitty shortcut to dealing with some of the longterm issues of working from home. Employers might be putting it this language in the agreement, along with other weird or constrictive policies, to nudge workers back into the office without “forcing” them. Or it might just be a refusal to grapple with the much longer term issues of a distributed, flexible office. If a company decreases its physical footprint, where should the savings be directed? What will ‘third space’ workplaces look like? Does the employer of a fully remote employee owe them less, in terms of equipment, than they owe an employee who comes into the office? If the answer is yes, the company is implicitly creating a hierarchy — and also conceptualizing of remote work as a benefit, instead of just another way to work.
A Different Strategy: If a company’s lawyers absolutely insist on the clause, there should be actual ongoing conversations about how to make remote work mentally and physically healthy — which will almost certainly include some form of budget redistribution. This is particularly true if an organization has gone fully distributed and is no longer paying for an office space, but will become increasingly true as organizations downsize their office space.
Red Flag #5: Asking For Feedback and Doing the Exact Opposite
I cannot tell you how many people over the last year have told me that their organizations — especially, interestingly, smaller organizations, particularly non-profits — have employed this strategy. They send out a detailed survey, with lots of space for employees to voice what has and has not worked for them, what they miss, what they appreciate, what’s been useful and not-so-useful. They collect these responses (and, importantly, because of the size of the company, coworkers talk with each other about their responses) and then they announce a policy that largely ignores or even defies the feedback they solicited.
This is a pretty classic case of leaders who have been told — or gone to trainings that have encouraged them — to model empathy or listening or compassion or any number of buzzwords intended to communicate to employees that their opinions (and, by extension, they) matter….and then revert to ruling by fiat and feel. Back to the office feels right to them (and/or the C-Suite) and it feels right in whatever particular moment, and it feels right during these particular hours and on these particular days, so they draft a remote work policy based on those trusted feelings.
It’s like asking someone to pick where you want to get take-out, listening to them carefully, nodding attentively, and then choosing what you wanted anyway. It indicates that a company’s leadership team either doesn’t understand or doesn’t respect that other people work differently than they do, which is particularly noxious given that most senior leadership is older and/or doesn’t have primary caregiving responsibilities. They understand work as the way they, as executives, work — and will map that understanding into everyone in their shadow.
This isn’t just the sign of a bad back to office plan, but of pretty poor leadership style — and, if it’s gone out to the organization at large, also a sign that no one is empowered to push back against those leaders. Not great! If this is happening in your organization, you’ve likely known things are not great for awhile — and this moment might be the kick you need to start looking for other opportunities. Work is never perfect. But you don’t have to endure toxicity or this sort of behavior just because your organization tells you the work is “worth it.”
A Different Strategy: Listening to employee feedback doesn’t have to mean letting employees write the policy themselves (although that is not a bad idea, honestly). But if an organization is going to ask for feedback, it has to take it very seriously — and for common asks that can’t or won’t be granted, be prepared to offer a robust and evidenced-based explanation for why.
Red Flag #6: No Child or Pet Noises Allowed
Tell me that you want non-caregiving adults to work for your company, only put it in a job ad and then wonder why your company culture is still so exclusionary!
Charlie and I write about this extensively in our book (pre-order that shit! it’s out next month!) but remote and flexible work is an effective step (amongst many) forward for companies that have struggled with actual diversity, equity, and inclusion. It significantly broadens the application pool, which is particularly useful if a organization is in a location that is very white and/or very expensive to live, and it makes it possible for people still trying to figure out care schedules to, well, figure them out, and also includes people with physical limitations and disabilities that make 9-5 office work incredibly difficult if not impossible.
When an employer limit applicants or employees by their ability to have a separate, noise-isolated space in which they will never be asked to serve, even for a brief amount of time, as a caregiver, they are communicating the sort of culture they would like to cultivate at the organization: a culture where employees do not have lives, are largely shielded from familial responsibilities, and already have enough capital to have isolated spaces all their own. They do not want single parents, or people figuring out care for their aging parents in their home. They don’t want anyone who has a complicated life, which means that they want someone who can place the very natural complications of life onto someone else, either through partnership or pay.
These organizations are seeding the same monoculture that thrived before the pandemic: one where only who can squeeze themselves into that understanding of work will succeed. Their leadership will remained snow-capped, their ideas stale. They are clinging to the past, instead of solving for the future.
A Different Strategy: Enlist primary caregiver employees without internalized misogyny to help organizational craft policy; as an organization, lobby loudly and publicly for robust funding for childcare solutions that would make it less likely for children to be heard on a call; be less assholeish overall.
That’s a good end piece of advice, honestly: be less assholeish overall. If your employees are unhappy, if morale is low, if productivity is down, if everyone seems half asleep and like the energy has been wrung out of their body, an organization should ask itself: am I the asshole?
Part of the fun of writing about “office work” right now is how dynamic it is — and I oscillate between being thrilled with the opportunities to substantively redefine how office work works and dismayed by how many organizations are fucking this up out of fear or hubris. I’m always looking for more feedback on how work is working (or not working) for you right now — which you can drop below, if that feels anonymous enough, or just email my way. I’ll never quote you without permission.
But I’ll also reiterate: how your company is handling back to the office is reflective of how they they will handle pretty much any obstacle or crisis. If there are red flags with your organization’s plan, they’re not going to stop anytime soon. And if you need a gut check, the Culture Study Discord has a thriving and private Job Hunting channel where people ask these sorts of questions (and figure out how to even start thinking about finding alternatives) — please, come join us. Subscribe here.
And if you want more writing on the problem and promise of remote and flexible work, check out:
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In-house HR attorney here. (Disclaimer: none of this is legal advice!). I agree with all of your assessments. The issue is HR and management have never been trained to manage a remote workforce at most companies. It requires skill that these people were never trained to do and it ties back to the other issue you’ve written on lately - that “managers” are usually just high performing contributors. They don’t really know how to manage anyone, but they can fake it well enough when everyone is in the office based on seating arrangements and physical proximity. Ask these people to manage their employees based on work alone? That’s a tall order. I actually had one SVP tell me directly that he wanted all of his team back in the office because “HR doesn’t know how to train managers to manage remotely.” I think this is probably widely true. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try, but I think a lot of the issue is managers aren’t qualified to manage to begin with, and, to the extent HR has trained them to manage, they have only been trained to manage in person.
I read somewhere last week an analysis that a lot of people weren’t looking for jobs because they had significant savings or their spouse made enough to tide them over for a while. (I think the article was about the continuing lack of workers—which made the article weird on its own because it didn’t include lack of childcare and affordable housing, not to mention the pandemic or really anything that indicated they were looking at anything but a narrow slice of office workers.) It did make me wonder if a lot of companies don’t want to make changes because people will run out of cash and need to accept whatever conditions are offered.
Though JJ’s point below about managers seems pertinent. My spouse works for a big international, and I’m a self-employed freelancer, and we’ve been realizing how important good project managers are. My clients’ project managers tend to be excellent, while the full-time a lot of the ones my spouse’s company hires are less so. (Project managers not direct people managers, but it seems relevant!)