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On Commutes, Leaving The House, And Addressing Remote Work's Problems
How the framing of our "lost commutes" and "soft work" is being used to push back against remote work - and the actual negatives of working from home.
Yesterday, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote a piece about how remote work has disrupted “soft work,” a piece that may seem utterly deplorable on its surface but on further probing is more frustrating than anything. Thompson - who seems a nice enough guy - leads with an anecdote I am shocked did not get a note that said, “okay, can you give us an example of when this happened?”:
I am pro-office. I miss a good eavesdropping, the promise of midday gossip, the “quick random question” that blooms into a half-hour conversation, and, theoretically, the magical combustion of creativity forged by these connections.
Seriously, can we stop letting people write stuff like this without asking them to describe a few times when it happened? What magical combustion? What creativity? When? What connections? Because in every single example of someone saying this, there is a dramatic void of any actual examples of it happening - I’m not even talking statistics or research; I mean, give me a god damn example here.
In any case, Thompson’s general point is that the soft work of the office is lost in remote work - catching up with people at the office, talking to them about ideas (which, of course, you can’t do on the computer), and that “soft work” is the “advantage” of the office. He cites - because God has put me on this world to suffer - the Microsoft Remote Work Study I wrote about last week, using it as proof that collaboration is more static and siloed and that it was harder for “employees to acquire and share new information.” Thompson spends an alarming amount of time talking about this study and even went to one of the researchers, who…proceeded to give him a quote that proves that “soft work” exists in remote work?
“Think of your 10 closest friends, and if those friends know each other or not,” Holtz told me. “If they’re all strangers to each other, that’s low clustering coefficient. But if your best 10 friends are all friends with the other nine, that’s a high clustering coefficient. What we found in our study is that communication outside of groups declined, but communications within teams became more densely connected.”
As I’ve noted, the study itself is total garbage, and Thompson should have been well aware of that going into this. He ignored the fact that the study happened and the spuriously-founded conclusions, along with the total lack of information about what information was used to draw said conclusions…well, it’s the classic remote work article. Even though Thompson eventually concludes that collaboration doesn’t necessarily have that much value, he mainly bases his entire article on clunky, badly-written research. He’s an intelligent guy! He’s better than this! Even if he landed at a more sensible conclusion than most, he still founded said conclusion in an article padded by a lot of vague stuff about “soft work.”
This is a big problem with writing about any research, especially research that is paid for and about a single trillion-dollar corporation. It’s also a problem of a lot of these articles about the future of work - they are less an evaluation and more an interrogation of the benefits of remote work, with a fire, anger, and purpose that suggests that remote work is being thrust upon people without proving its efficacy. Rarely do these articles concern themselves with the future - how the world will work as a result of remote work’s success, what could or should change as a result, and so on - but with shaking remote work to try and find out its filthy little secrets.
Sidenote: I don’t know Derek - and I do not believe The Atlantic has an anti-remote agenda (both based on my own work (which was never pulled back for fear of being too inflammatory) and reading others’ there). I also don’t necessarily think he’s anti-remote, more that he may have enjoyed his time in the offices he’s been in. Maybe? Who knows. Derek if you read this, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
The Commute Conversation
Though it’s one they’ve tried before, a new trick of the anti-remote crowd is to tell workers that they actually miss their commutes. Anne Helen Peterson had an excellent treatise on the subject - specifically how stressful commutes are - but specifically touched on one thing that genuinely frustrated me, which is the idea that commutes are either productive or a good barrier between your work and personal time. Respect to Peterson for also making this so abundantly clear [emphasis hers]:
With that said: the pandemic has underlined that most people working office jobs do not, in fact, need to be in their offices every day — and millions of people working those jobs were wasting unpaid hours of their day getting into those offices. If your presence is not necessary to do your job, daily commutes are a waste. Full stop.
She’s specifically talking about a Wall Street Journal piece from last week, a thinly-veiled PR pitch for several items to sell you at the end (which, bizarrely, the WSJ doesn’t get affiliate revenue from) that also has one of the more insane things I’ve seen said about work:
…[Commutes] gave us a buffer between work and life. Intentionally or not, we often used the time alone to do important mental work. We shed the fiercely focused mind-set that makes us good bosses or salespeople.
Excuse me? What?
I admit - as someone with severe ADHD, even when medicated, driving can be a little bit meditative because it is a time where I cannot be on my phone or dicking around on my computer otherwise, but this does not remove the annoyance of having to drive somewhere, especially in traffic. When commuting from inner San Francisco to Mountain View a few days a week, I got a lot of thinking done, but I also profoundly resented what could be an hour and 45 minutes in the car.
That “important mental work” is a vast generalization that is not a fair trade for the commute. And I also think that people are conflating the happy accident of having time in which they have nothing else to do other than listen to music or podcasts with commutes being reasonable. There is nothing to romanticize - if you could do the work at home, as Peterson said, daily commutes are a waste - their existence was to get you to the office, and if you don’t have to go to the office, then you don’t need a commute.
I also deeply resent the idea that they ‘give us a buffer between work and life.’ Does nobody else get phone calls on their phone anymore? What about emails? Texts? These are all things that you can get both on your commute and after it.
It turns out that the Journal has attempted to romanticize the commute a few times already. Their first try back in January banged heavily on the “work-life buffer” drum, bringing up research about people doing a “fake commute for their health”:
A group of academics are urging the Government to promote policies which encourage more physical activity during the epidemic given that so many people are missing out on daily exercise, often unknowingly, that was part of their going-to-work routine.
Before I focus on that paragraph too much, and scream “you don’t need to be going to work to use your bike,” I need to come back to the wonders of this Wall Street Journal article, which hinges itself on some of the more flimsy anecdotes I’ve seen in my life:
Before the pandemic, he used the hours stuck in his car between appointments to listen to podcasts and stay in touch with people by phone. The 5:30 p.m. stop-and-go became the perfect time to call “Big Ma,” his grandma in Florida. Friday evening highway bottlenecks were for calling his best friend from high school.
Two mornings a week, he drives from his home in the suburbs to downtown for coffee—passing plenty of coffee shops closer by.
Okay, man. Dude. My man. My fellow. My hombre. My dear boy. My friend. Pal of mine. Where did the hours go that you were commuting before? If I were the journalist, that would be my natural question - hey man, you’re not commuting anymore, why don’t you just listen to podcasts or call grandma from a chair, or stand outside, or on the toilet? A friend suggested that he may have been cursed by a witch to only be able to call his grandmother from the car - perhaps that’s it - but once again I am going crazy because this is such an obvious follow-up question. But it’s probably not one that was asked or printed because the answer would destabilize the entire article.
How about this one?
Kyle Ashley used to consider cycling to work at a Toronto, Canada, ad agency every day as part of his identity. He would share harrowing tales of cars cutting him off and him screaming at drivers.
Then his workplace shrank to his apartment. “One morning I woke up and said something has got to give,” he said. He rode his bike from his bedroom to his living room, which was about 7 feet away.
Now, he showers, dresses and leaves his house by 8 a.m. for a regular make-believe commute. “I go for a walk around the block to psychologically trick myself that I’ve left the house for work,” he said. It keeps him from “living in a groundhog situation.”
Okay, I cannot leave this anecdote alone, because it is so funny and so stupid. I can’t stop laughing at the idea of this guy riding his bike seven feet inside his house to “break up the monotony,” and then changing his routine to walk around the block. For a second, perhaps this guy could consider what the bike could do if he took it outside! Also, if your entire identity is having arguments with guys in cars, perhaps you need to find another hobby with all the time you’ve spent commuting. Ride your bike outside! Go ride it! Holy shit!
This piece is actually one of the more perfect examples of the spurious arguments for going to work!
Still it can be tricky to replicate commuting pastimes at home. Frank J. Oteri, an editor at a digital music magazine, found that being an anonymous commuter crammed onto a New York City subway every day inspired him to devour book after book.
“No one is calling. No one is emailing—or maybe they are, but I’m not getting a signal,” he said of his subway time.
Okay, here’s an idea - turn off your phone. I get that it was nice to have totally inarguably uninterrupted “you” time, but guess what? You can do that too with the smallest amount of self-restraint.
This article basically frames commuting as this romantic “you time” rather than a happy accident of a forced waste of time, where people have found themselves in a worse state because they work from home. The framing is inherently dishonest - because if it was, it would say that yes, getting out of the house is good, and commutes made us do that, so now we must find another reason to, or no reason to. Instead, it’s all about how remote has done something to us, we are its victim, and that we are being driven crazy by it.
The Journal loves writing about how the loss of our commute is bad, probably because there is a powerful editorial remit to fight every aspect of remote work, dishonestly framed as “just asking the questions” about it. And I cannot think of anything more steeped in privilege than romanticizing going to and from work, and acting as if those hours you’ve gained back have somehow been lost.
It’s such a frustrating way to frame it. None of these people are asked “hey, so, why don’t you ride your bike outside for fun?” or “why don’t you just call your grandma?” because the answer is probably “eh, it’s not the same,” which any editor will say “that’s not really proof of anything.” So it’s easier to just not ask the question at all - thus allowing you to frame things however you want to, especially when one of the people appears to have an identity built on nearly getting hit by cars.
Skip, I want to address this issue! You know I am an advocate for working from home…BUT!
There are many problems that remote work has highlighted and immediately been blamed for. The most obvious one is that most people do not have adequate space in their house to have a dedicated workspace, which means that it’s harder to separate work and home - which is a 100% reasonable criticism of remote work.
I have kept it quiet, but the last two weeks I’ve been pretty sick - in particular the last seven days - and I’m not sure what it was other than it not being COVID and not being strep throat (I am feeling better now, thankfully). In any case, it meant that I did a lot of work in bed, which I absolutely hated. Perhaps it’s the posture, perhaps it’s the laptop, perhaps it’s that I don’t like working in the place I sleep - and I feel like most pro-remote arguments - some of which I’ve made - fail to accurately consider how much this affects people.
I’m guilty of framing remote work as a perfect, untouchable angel - but yeah, if someone has to work out of their kitchen, that sucks. The question is whether that sucks more than working in an office and commuting to said office - which from what I can tell is not the case - but I have not necessarily been open enough to hearing this part of the conversation.
I also think that while the “commutes break up work and home!” argument is nonsense, I do think that one of remote work’s problems is that it is hard to stop yourself working, even if you enjoy it. If you’re really engaged in the work you’re doing, you can find yourself grinding away simply because you’re “into” what you’re doing. And if it’s a bad workplace, you can find yourself drawn back into it by the invasion of your personal space - which feels less dissonant when your laptop or phone is just there.
Dell Cameron also makes a really good point:
When work is home and home is work, it’s easy - I found this was the case especially when I was single - to wake up, start working, and not really stop until your body tells you to. While work may creep into our existence through our phones or laptops when we’re home from the office, it has an easier time when we are connected to these devices for other reasons.
To be completely transparent, this is not me saying “…and now the office is good!” but saying that these are problems to be addressed. It is hard to create new routines, but the difficulty of starting them does not mean that the old routines are good. When I first arrived in San Francisco, I was running my company totally remotely without any specialized “spot” to work out of, I was mostly fine because I was going out a lot - going to people’s offices, meeting reporters for drinks, and so on. It took real effort to force myself to go out, though, because it was much easier to sit on the couch and do work on the computer, and I am a huge homebody. And when I didn’t find reasons to leave the apartment much, I’d go a little stir crazy (and usually receive a text from Phil).
Remote work is going to require people to make new routines that make them leave the house, which will feel weird, wrong, and ironically inefficient considering the discussion. But it’s necessary to occasionally see people, or go outside, or ride our bike, or take a walk, and absolutely none of that stuff requires you to go to work to do it.