The Worst of Both Work Worlds

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On college campuses across the United States, staff are back in the office. More specifically, they’re back in their own, individual offices, with their doors closed, meeting with one another over Zoom or Teams, battling low internet speeds, and reminding each other to mute themselves so that the sound of the meeting doesn’t create a deafening echo effect for everyone else.

For some, the office is just a quick walk or bike ride away. But for many, coming into the office requires a distinctly unromantic commute. It means cobbling together childcare plans, particularly with the nationwide bus driver shortages and school quarantine regulations after illness or a potential exposure. It means paying for parking, and packing or paying for their lunches, and handing over anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours of their day. They are enduring the worst parts of a “traditional” job, only to go into the office and essentially work remote, with worse conditions and fewer amenities (and, in many cases, less comfort) than they had at home. It’s the worst of both work worlds.

Gerry Martini, associate director of admissions for the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, told the Washington Post he’s commuting 40 minutes on the subway to get into an office building, where most of his interactions are still on Zoom. Once there, the things spurred in-person interactions — the cafeteria and coffee shop — are still closed. David Perry, an academic advisor at an R-1 institution, is going into the office to do the same:

The ostensible reason for bringing staff back into the office: they need to be available for student “face to face” interactions and meetings. But the vast majority of students, university staff members have told me, are opting for virtual consultations instead.

Which begs the question: if students are opting for hybrid approaches to school, and, depending on the institution, faculty are crafting a mix of hybrid instruction/in-person class + virtual office hours…why corral staff back into their offices?

Stick with me here, non-academics, because this piece is for you, too. Over the last, oh, thirty years, four year institutions have increasingly understood and advertised their value in terms of infrastructure — or, as Ian Bogost put it last year in The Atlantic, “the college experience.” The college experience includes dorms, beautifully manicured campuses, gyms, and football stadiums, but it also includes student services: career centers, counseling centers, academic assistance, librarians, student club and activity facilitators, and all the people who manage and assist those people. When students — and their parents — are sold on the promise of a college, the infrastructure that makes up that college experience is very much part of that package. These employees are back in the office, then, in an attempt to make good on that promise, particularly as so many other aspects of it have been compromised.

It’d be one thing if students were lining up at the door to meet with these staff members. But, for the most part, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Students are instead demonstrating how they’d prefer to use the services available to them, whether out of safety or convenience. But institutions as a whole are still wed, whether out of fear or straight-up obstinance, to the pre-Covid vision of their promise.

The university might seem like a weird example of an “office,” but it’s a pretty vivid illustration of one. You have leadership who are obsessed with image, cost cutting, and often deeply out of touch with the day-to-day operations of the organization (administration); a group of “creatives” (tenured faculty) who form the outward core of the organization and thus have significant self-import but dwindling power; full-time employees of various levels who are fundamental to the operation of the organization and chronically under-appreciated (staff) ; an underclass of contingent and contract workers who perform similar jobs to full-time employees but for less pay, fewer protections, less job security, and are held in far less esteem (grad students, adjuncts, and sub-contracted staff, including building, maintenance, food service, security). And then there’s the all-important customer, whose imagined needs, preferences, whims, demands, and supply of capital serve are the axis around which the rest of the organization rotates (students and their parents).

[Brief interlude: Here is where I acknowledge that it’s shitty to think of students in educational institutions as “customers.” It degrades the entire enterprise. It is also the current reality. The degradation, it’s done. And when participants refuse to think of themselves or others in that enterprise as laborers, they also fail to see the ways in which their labor is exploited, the way academia as a whole has been precaritized, and how and why they should stand in solidarity with other workers within the institution at large, especially if those workers don’t have the same privileges or power. I know most academics reading right now get this. I wish people not reading this right now would.]

In many cases, the university is an organization that is mis-conceiving its customers’ actual needs — and then making pretty nonsensical staffing decisions in order to accommodate those misconceptions. The same is true for tens of thousands of lawyer’s offices, nonprofits, accounting firms, you name it, all still requiring reception and administrative staff to be in the office full-time “just in case” a client stops by — or, in the case a client or customer wants to come into the office for a meeting, so the client can see the “worth” (e.g., hustle and bustle and ‘work’) of the office itself.

If Slack and too-many-meetings are a way to Live Action Role Play (LARP) your job, requiring people in the office for these reasons is LARPing your service’s value. Put differently: the shiny office, the receptionist proffering bottled water, the conference room, the support staff, all of it evinces the quality of the service someone is paying for, e.g., the reason a lawyer bills as much as they do an hour. (Or, in the academic context, this is why you are pay the tuition you do). Value LARPing is inefficient and infuriating and not actually making anyone’s customer experience that much better. But it justifies the status quo — and thus must be sustained in whatever form necessary.

A similar thing is happening when senior leadership (and white men in particular) demand others to be in the office whenever they are — even if, once there, they largely keep to themselves in their own offices. They crave the feeling of management to which they had become accustomed over decades in power, and that feeling is only approximated through others’ ambient presence in their vicinity.

Many of these leaders only feel like they’re doing their jobs — which is to say, they only feel powerful — in scenarios in which that status quo is restored. It’s an incredibly wasteful, inefficient way of leading, but it is facilitated through cheerleading from other leaders, and underlined by people in corporate real estate with a very real stake in the game, the majority of whom are….also white men. (Wonder what’s going on here! Why would a bunch of white men need to have a visceral experience of power in this moment?!?)

Today, that waste is looking more and more ridiculous. Back in the Spring of 2020, transitioning to remote work was a major test for most organizations; many struggled and, especially in early months, straight-up failed. Still, faith, fear, and loyalty kept many employees tied to their employers, with the trust that only the most dynamic and skilled of organizations could’ve handled that sudden and severe of a transition with any sort of grace.

That was 18 months ago. The patience is gone. And the back to the office plan — it’s a crucible. It clarifies all of your leaders’ vulnerabilities: in planning, in communication, and in execution. More importantly, it makes organizational reluctance, rigidity, and general lack of vision impossible to ignore.

If a company is forcing you back into the office now with no reason other than “it’s time,” they’re scared. If they’re hauling out rhetoric of “we need to sustain company culture” by enforcing two days a week in the office, but have no plans or infrastructure for actually cultivating that culture virtually or in person — they don’t actually know what company culture is. If they complain, as one worker told me, that they don’t want the physical office to become “an expensive paperweight” and want to show the c-suite “it’s being used” but haven’t considered what sort of office design, size, or location might actually meet employees’ needs — they haven’t been asking employees the right questions or, even more importantly, haven’t been listening to their answers.

I am not anti-office. I am anti arbitrary office. I am against sucking two hours out of someone’s day just to briefly make a bad manager feel good. I am against siphoning power from workers and piping it directly to leaders’ already overflowing stores of it. We have such a unique, authentically exciting moment to take stock of what “office” work could look like moving forward — what parts of it need a collective space, which parts do not, and what office spaces will look like and provide. And so many organizations are straight up squandering that opportunity.

Again, the office does not have to disappear. But it should function differently. Rishad Tobaccowala laid out that function earlier this year in his description of the “the unbundled workplace,” which includes 1) home; 2) third spaces, including co-working spaces subsidized by employers; 3) periodic events/experiences, which look different depending on the org and its size; 4) the “legacy office,” which he refers to as “the museum.” In his words:

The old central office or HQ will remain but will be significantly downsized and be more of a gathering space for some key training or client meetings, a roosting place for senior management and a museum of relics and artifacts that are the key to the story telling and culture of the company. Most employees will likely spend less than a third of their working year at this office.

I enjoy this description because it simultaneously understands the value of the physical space as a showroom and a space for power to bounce around and let itself be heard — while also emphasizing that it’s increasingly a relic. The office has utility. It’s just not what many leaders think it is.

There’s a similar opportunity for clarity when it comes for the way work gets done every day. How can we keep refining virtual conference technology to make it more immersive and inclusive and less endlessly awkward? How often do we want everyone together, and how do we make those meetings and moments actually useful? How do we reconceive of the package and promise we offer customers with the hopes of making it fundamentally more valuable, less full of hot air and waste, for everyone? What would student support services look like in a reimagined, truly hybrid form? What purpose does a receptionist actually serve, and how can we reimagine it to make that role more useful for the hybrid workplace?

What happens, in other words, when we stop thinking about how to go backwards — and start to think about redesigning work to fit our new, undeniable future?

That design requires trust, humility, actual flexibility, and a genuine fearlessness when it comes to innovation and experimentation. Organizations that aspire to that — whether they’re law firms or in education or tech companies — are not only going to attract and maintain the best talent moving forward, but be the most resilient to the next pandemic-sized crisis. There is no more normal. No industry standard, no status quo. Each organization has an opportunity to figure out its own. And if your organization has shown a steadfast refusal to do so — there’s rarely been a better time to start looking for others that are. ●

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