The Promise of Remote Work Has Not Yet Been Realized
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When the journalist couple Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen moved from Brooklyn to Montana in 2017, they thought time saved from their grueling subway ride to Manhattan would be replaced with quality of life indulgences such as hiking, kayaking, and skiing. But the extra time, they discovered, was simply absorbed by more work.
Millions of Americans experienced something similar during the pandemic’s mass remote-working experiment. Although much of corporate America was no longer stuck in traffic or slogging it on trains, the fusion of the home and the office actually made it harder to disconnect.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, none of this is exactly a revelation. But in Out of Office, a timely new book by Warzel and Petersen, they argue that better remote work is possible only if we first repair our broken relationship with our jobs. Cutting the cord to the office is an opportunity to not only reduce our commuting hours, but a chance to address bigger issues in the U.S. labor force including the child-care crisis, inefficient working methods, worker burnout, toxic individualism, and work-life balance.
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted back in 1930 that his grandchildren might inherit a world where a 15-hour workweek would be entirely possible as jobs became more efficient due to technology. But that version of corporate America never arrived. Instead, as the U.S. economy expanded, workaholism became the American norm, the authors write, the inevitable result of a shareholder-centric corporate culture with no guardrails. Careers became synonymous with one’s identity, the main axis of our lives. While increased productivity and wealth tend to lead to more leisure time in other rich countries like Germany or the Netherlands, America has bucked that trend, with the OECD ranking it as one of the most overworked rich countries.
Warzel and Petersen warn that going full throttle into the work-from-home revolution without addressing workers’ needs can exacerbate our broken corporate values and work habits. Employers first need to look inward, experimenting with ways to cut down on unnecessary meetings and keep employees from doing constant performative work, such as sending emails during vacation or at ungodly hours just to prove they’re always-on. At the core of their thesis is something simple: Better work is often “less work, over fewer hours, which makes people happier, more creative, more invested in the work they do and the people they do it for.’’
Much of what you’ll find in Out of Office has been widely documented by the incessant stream of material published on the future of the workplace since March 2020 (including by, ahem, this very magazine). But the authors take the reader on a deeply researched tour through America’s broken work landscape and sketch out a vision of what a better future might look like.
One dangerous byproduct of the hybrid workplace, the authors argue, is the shadow hierarchy that will emerge, with overly-ambitious employees showing up in-person while “remote employees, motivated by the anxiety of not seeming productive, will live in fear of managers and compensate with overwork.” The authors speak with the head of human resources at Twitter, which declared early on it would become remote-dominant. One solution, perhaps clunky, that they’ve come up with to combat this imbalance: making sure everyone inside a conference room also dials into the meeting via their laptop to allow remote participants to see all faces clearly.
While Warzel and Petersen—two journalists with large social media followings—aren’t anti-office blowhards, they are unabashed evangelists for the promise of remote work. Having intentionally detached themselves from office culture first by moving cross-country, and later by leaving their respective employers—Petersen covering culture at Buzzfeed and Warzel a tech and politics columnist at the New York Times—to launch newsletters, their stance isn’t entirely surprising (Warzel has since joined the Atlantic). They acknowledge that “for most people, traditional office space will commingle, in some form, with co-working spaces.”
The biggest gaps in the book are the authors’ narrow focus on U.S.-centric knowledge workers. They primarily write about those who can do their work from home—about 42 percent of the workforce. Yet the pandemic is forcing a reckoning across the entire economy, with Americans leaving their jobs at staggering rates. Meanwhile, many of those who stay, especially in lower-wage jobs, are discovering more power to strike and demand better terms.
While the book at times delves into policy, especially when it comes to childcare, the authors don’t devote much space towards discussing the role U.S. politics plays in enabling our work practices. And one word notably absent: China. The Chinese work harder than their American counterparts and have successfully built companies that rival large U.S. conglomerates. While Europeans may on average have a better work-life balance, they’ve struggled to keep up with the U.S. and China when it comes to innovation.
Where Petersen and Warzel see promise is in companies like Buffer, a startup that discovered productivity actually shot up when it made the switch to a 4-day work-week during the pandemic. Other experiments have yielded similar results, they note, such as when Microsoft Japan instituted a 4-day workweek and productivity increased by 40 percent. “The real innovation of the four-day week, like other flexible, intentional schedules,” they write, “is the conscious exchange of faux productivity for genuine, organization-wide, collaborative work.’’
Out of Office will inevitably become a time capsule of a fleeting, chaotic moment and, at best, serve as a prescient, rough guide for how companies and workers can have a healthier relationship with each other moving forward. “Remote work—not remote work during a pandemic, not remote work under duress,” Petersen and Warzel write, “can change your life.”
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