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Workplace Journalism Is Broken
Please, stop allowing academics and bosses to write about the workplace. I’m begging you. I am begging and pleading that the people who talk about the current state or future of work do not view the workplace like they’re looking in a fishtank, who view workers as objects to be manipulated or grouchy children to be corralled. The Wall Street Journal’s latest bizarro-propaganda is written by an academic, from an academic’s perspective - one that is informed, I’d argue, from the perspective of those they know and the offices they remember being in, none of which are reliable sources.
It starts with a quote that makes no sense:
There is a magical land where the temperature is always 72 degrees, the Wi-Fi never goes down, and there is always somebody to talk to.
The very first sentence of an article rarely pisses me off, but this is the most crystal-clear example of someone who has not set foot in an actual workplace in a long time. While you may assume that an office has “reliable” Wi-Fi, there are also plenty of bosses that refuse to pay for fast internet and so many that have incredibly cold (read: below 72 degrees) offices that there have been big articles on the subject.
Also, having somebody to talk to is not an incentive. Also, you can talk to people online. Jesus Christ, this isn’t that hard.
Before I move into the rest of the article, I must repeat that this is a problem that is only found as a result of someone who lacks the knowledge and/or curiosity to actually talk to workers about why they liked going into the office. It is the very definition of confirmation bias - I have the same problem, in that I am pro-remote work and thus seek sources that confirm that, but I very, very rarely find any workers that are pro-office. This article - as with so many of them - could have used a conversation with…workers? I don’t know.
“Worker” in this case refers to people that do the work that makes a company go. This can occasionally refer to founders or CEOs - smaller companies where the boss still does stuff - but in the vast majority of cases do not refer to managers or executives. As I’ve written before, hundreds of articles from the last few months about the future of the workplace fail to consider what workers think, feel or do.
Anyway, this article is about how bosses can get people back to the office. The problem is that it’s tough to get people back to the office for no reason - which is why bosses are struggling to get them back there. This article starts with the flawed assumption that there is a defined reason and purpose that bosses want people to go back, and also fails to interrogate that assumption in any meaningful way because the Journal is written for bosses.
Let’s take this paragraph:
It is up to the bosses to help them remember what the office has to offer. For instance: All the minor inconveniences of the home office—the lousy printer, the uncomfortable desk setup, the unpredictable Wi-Fi—get addressed in an environment where there are actual people whose job is to make sure everything works. But it isn’t just that. There are people they like and opportunities to get things done that are far more cumbersome at home. People have just forgotten much of that.
Though I myself didn’t print much, I know many law firms and public services print a lot. That’s fine, but it also makes me wonder why the problem appears to be consumer printers versus the hulking industrial ones that I have never seen regularly work longer than a month. And the obsession with printing here feels like someone watched Office Space and said, “well, that’s the office, alright.”
I also really love this vague idea of things like bad Wi-Fi and desk setups and printers that are magically taken care of by “actual people whose jobs is to make sure everything works,” another sign that the writer in question has not worked at a small business or spoken to a worker from one in recency. Most of these things can be bad at the office too!
Sadly, I immediately hit another problem:
Your strategy begins with understanding the reasons for your employees’ reluctance to return.
Chief among them? Health worries.
Sure, but no.
Yes, people are concerned about their health, it is absolutely a thing. But to make this the “chief” problem is disingenuous - it suggests that workers would love to return to the office, but they’re worried they’ll get sick. That’s not true - while they’re afraid they’ll get sick going to the office, they’re also likely wondering why it is they’re going there and what the point is.
Are employees concerned about commuting times or costs? Institute flexible schedules or subsidized transit. Dreading the return to suits-and-ties? Update your dress code. Stressed about child care? Open an on-site daycare center, or invite parents to work a split day so that they can pick up their children at school, then finish their work at home.
Granted, some of those changes may be pricey, and not every company can afford to add big-ticket amenities. Be warned, though, that these kinds of benefits may be necessary to lure back employees who have gotten cozy at home.
It is stunning to me that still, even to this day, even by academics that have written about remote work, that none of these writers can seem to get their heads around the concept that people don’t want to go to the office because they don’t see the point of doing so. It’s also disgraceful - and deliberate! - to refer to people as being “cozy” at home - the same kind of poisonous language as referring to going back to the office as a “return to work” - suggests that they’re lazy, and their work is bad, but they’re comfortable. It sucks! It’s pro-boss bullshit!
And if you hate that, you’ll hate this even more:
Removing the pain points isn’t enough. If you want your employees to be thrilled to return to the office, you need to give them positive reasons for looking forward to the grand reopening.
First and foremost: Remind people of the creative, collaborative and collegial benefits of time on site. That may mean reorganizing their work so that you shift people away from tasks that are best done solo (like writing or data analysis) and toward work that really thrives on in-person collaboration (like brainstorming or strategic planning).
As much as possible, give priority to projects that involve people working closely together. This is a great time to bring forward a neglected project that requires a lot of creativity and intellectual engagement, and is likely to be fun and engaging for your team.
Jesus Christ. Of all the loathsome crap I’ve had to read about this, I don’t remember someone being quite this disconnected. Do you know what sounds like work in these paragraphs? “Writing or data analysis.” You know what sounds like busywork made for managers to feel better about themselves and bosses to feel good about their workers? “Brainstorming or strategic planning.” Why is it that all the in-person things are so often described in the vaguest, flimsiest way? It’s because there’s not that much point in meeting in person.
However, this bit is genuinely funny:
Also remember that as a manager, you are just as big a draw as fun, creative work. Organize your schedule so you have as much time as possible with your direct reports. Time with the boss is a big incentive to come into the office, especially for employees who were hired while the office was closed and haven’t yet had a chance to bond with you and the rest of the team.
If you needed any evidence, someone hasn’t worked for someone else or spoken to anyone who does, ask them if they think “time with the boss” is an incentive. No, time with the boss is not an incentive; I cannot think of a single person who thinks, “I can’t wait to see my boss.” The only malformed version of this that makes sense is when you can’t get your boss to answer your emails or Slacks or texts, at which point you have a managerial issue rather than an incentive.
The joy of face time isn’t all about productive meetings or one-on-ones with the boss: Your employees will also be pulled in by the delight of simply reconnecting with one another. You want your team members to remember the pleasure of starting the day with a casual chat in the break room, the camaraderie of a team lunch, and the serendipity of solving a problem that would have required three emails and a scheduled video call, just because you happened to run into the right colleague on your way to the washroom.
This is fantastical garbage, utterly made up to please bosses reading this. Even the most enjoyable, pleasant, friend-packed office environment is still an office environment. Having people come into work so that they can not do work is not an incentive, nor does it build “camaraderie” in the way that bosses believe it does. “The pleasure of starting the day with a casual chat in the break room” isn’t something that justifies the commute or the other issues with the office.
The problem with so many of these points is that they are transparently the words of someone imagining why people went to the office versus recollecting or researching what happened inside an office. They are also continually written as if people want work to replace their social lives:
To get people back in the swing of socializing after all these months of isolation, schedule plenty of breakfast, lunchtime and after-work events. These should be genuinely fun and engaging—and eclectic, to win over the widest range of people possible. You can help this dynamic gather steam by making it easy for the party to continue after hours. Stock the office kitchen with snacks, bring in catered meals and revisit your entertainment budget, so that team members feel free to go out for dinner or drinks at the end of the workday, or linger over a long lunch to reconnect.
Hey, so, we want you to come back to the office - ideally early enough to get breakfast and after work, so you can spend more time here, not doing work, but talking to people who also do work.
Seriously, though, remember I talked about how remote work is destroying bosses’ brains a while ago? My principal point was that they didn’t just want you; they wanted to capture your time and your energy and trap you in the office. And if you want to see an example of someone who is pro-boss, anti-worker and genuinely speaking from a place of industrial evil, it’s this article - all of this stuff is to intentionally manipulate people to come back to the office for no actual reason.
If there was a tangible reason to return to the office, this article would actually talk about it. There would be numerous examples of reasons you’d want people back, and you’d use those reasons to persuade them to come back, rather than attempting to “linger over lunch to reconnect.”
And if you want to see another example of how evil this article is, from the section despicably titled “remind them home isn’t so great”:
Even some of the “benefits” of working from home have a downside—which your employees may become more conscious of, once you underline the alternative they can experience by returning to the office. Yes, it is great to have all that time with your family—but at the office, there are no toddlers to interrupt your phone calls!
When I started in PR, two managers would actively walk up behind you and interrupt you to let you know they were “always watching.” They would interrupt you during your work to ask you what you were working on and then ask you to explain why you were doing it, so they “understood your work habits.”
In other offices, I’ve had people interrupt me because they saw something on the news or had a funny joke. These are things that happen to everybody, and, again, I do not think anyone involved in this article has been to an office, or perhaps they just don’t care enough to fact-check the most superficial details.
Finally, remember that your employees may be happy to hit rewind on the rebalancing of work and home. What started as welcome flexibility has now turned into overwork and even burnout. The ability to draw a clear line between work and home is something many employees say they miss—and it is exactly what you can offer if you adopt a policy like “no after-hours email on days you’ve been at the office.”
Please, god, talk to a god damn worker, speak to them, ask them what they think, then hit publish or edit the piece. I am sick and tired of this shit. All of this is hearsay - every single thing here is imagined based on a vague idea of what a boss wants to believe is true rather than anything established in reality, written with the authority of one of the world’s largest newspapers, published as a “report” with less real-life research and consideration than the newsletter you’re reading now, which I am writing from bed because I am sick.
It’s Happening Again…
I will fully admit that I have not worked in an office in years, partly because I know that’s the easiest way to tear down my arguments. The difference here is that I acknowledge that and do my best to read up on what workers feel and talk to people who do not have a Ph.D. or who are entirely remote-based. This is so that I don’t write things based on what I assume to be accurate, and I take any and all feedback that suggests that I’ve missed something seriously. And, candidly, I still do actual work for my company, rather than simply delegating everything and going to bed.
I write this self-involved disclaimer because I read so many articles in such esteemed outlets that are utterly disconnected from what most people feel. I don’t know why it keeps happening - perhaps it’s an editorial remit, maybe it’s a genuine ignorance on the part of the writers - but there seems to be a defiant anti-worker stance to just about any remote work writing going on today. I understand that the logic is that you want to talk to bosses, as they are part of the company and making these decisions, but I feel like asking a boss about remote work is about a tenth of the story itself.
Reasoning aside, most media written about this subject focuses on imagining what the worker wants rather than asking them. I guess it’s less satisfying to write a piece for the Journal that says, “if you want workers to go back to the office, ask yourself why you want them there” and then speak to a bunch of workers that don’t want to go back to the office and then write your article.
It is not difficult to establish the clear-set issues here.
Many people don’t want to go back to the office, and many more do not want to go back full time. They don’t want to go back to the office because the office does not appear to have a tangible benefit to their work, nor does remote work have a significant (or any) effect on their work product. While in-person work allows for a vague amount of “collaboration” or “brainstorming,” it has been challenging to establish tangible reasons that people have to return to the office beyond “sometimes I like to see people.”
Bosses and managers want workers to go back because “office culture” has incentivized management as a form of surveillance. We have abstracted work away from power to the point that management regularly does significantly less work than those they have hired.
These are all blatantly obvious things if you haven’t been isolated from actual work for years or decades. These things are also not obvious if you have intentionally (or otherwise) chosen to align yourself with the powerful and take their beliefs at their word - that people “love to collaborate” and “work better in person.”
Too many of those writing about the workplace and the workforce are disconnected from it and mistaking those who extract value from labor for actual laborers. It’s an easy mistake to make if you take things based on societal assumptions - that a manager wouldn’t be employed if they didn’t do work, and that a boss couldn’t be where they were if they were disconnected from the workplace - but one that’s easily broken, again, by speaking to actual workers.
While the writer in question has been working remotely for 22 years (I’ll hit a decade next year), that’s a great point at which an editor should step in and say “okay, perhaps the person who hasn’t been working in an office since Bill Clinton was in office shouldn’t be the person who writes about how to lure people back to the office, or at least they need some editorial insight.” Then again, the writer in question could also have made sure that their assumptions weren’t totally flawed, perhaps putting in the time to speak to a few office workers (rather than using a McKinsey study that didn’t actually add anything to the article) or, I don’t know…think about it for a second?
The problem is that so much of workplace and labor reporting is done by viewing laborers as a herd and bosses as unique entities. It’s easy to make these very obvious mistakes if the only views you consider valid come from the top, and if you view workers as a form of dumb animal that must be coerced into the smart decision-making of their masters.
Sidenote: I do get the challenge they’re facing, though, especially as I work remotely and run my company remotely. It’s easy to assume what you see in front of you is the truth, and it’s even easier to assume what you want to be true is the truth. The way to get rid of those assumptions is a willingness to read and evaluate the agendas of the sources in question, and evaluate even tough criticism rather than simply dismissing it, which I have at times been guilty of. Recognizing one’s privileges and biases is easy if you’re willing to be wrong.
In this case, I am continually worried that I’ll get this wrong, which may be why I don’t have someone writing about my newsletter claiming I’m a big stupid idiot. But I also continually have to reckon with the fact that office work does exist and does have validity to someone, and be willing to hear their reasoning, even if I disagree with it.
What I am not going to do is accept that logic from a manager or executive. I do not give a shit if an executive tells me that the office is good. The comments and emails I receive from you all are wonderful, and I love hearing from you, and also keep me honest about this subject in a way that I deeply value, and I am exceedingly grateful that you take the time to read and respond.
What continues to puzzle me is the real reason why this is so common. I can’t tell if it’s a continual ignorance and assumption that the status quo is correct, or a deliberate attempt to placate and empower executives to find ways to control workers. The most obvious answer may just be laziness - that workplace reporting is something that’s done only by interviewing 3 sources (at most) and that the right people to talk to at a company are those in power.
It is something that continues to bother me. I know I’ve written a lot of these pieces that shout at a Wall Street Journal or New York Times piece, and it’s not because they’re fun to write, but because somebody - anybody - needs to continually yell at them for continually perpetuating myths about the workplace.
The real answer to all of this is to simply stop interviewing executives or managers for these pieces at all, or at least without speaking to a worker at the same company. Their views must be interrogated as if they are intentionally hiding something - this specific subject is one where they cannot be trusted, especially when it comes to creating a hospitable world for the worker.
And, more crucially, large media outlets need to stop letting academics or people otherwise disconnected from labor the opportunity to comment on it. The continual sludge of half-baked remote work takes isn’t a result of the “difficulty of the debate” but a continual lack of interest in the truth.