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Your Workplace Friendships Are Your Boss' Leverage
Behold, dear reader, the most unhinged anti-remote article you’ll ever read. The Wall Street Journal has done it again, starting with the weirdest accusation yet: vaguely suggesting remote work is responsible for suicides:
The number of suicides and overdoses continues to rise, and the market for counseling services and therapists keeps growing. This legacy of the pandemic, which seems to be ending after two years, is deeply disturbing. What are the existential reasons for these trends? By existential, I mean the way we see ourselves as humans and find meaning in our lives.
I don’t know; if I had to guess why suicides are growing, I’d put it on the average economic conditions for most people, along with the six million people that died due to the coronavirus and the massive upheavals and dangers that many people faced due to the pandemic. Now, let’s see what else a Professor of English has to add:
Before the Enlightenment, religion imposed meaning on the lives of most people. They went to a church, synagogue or mosque, and this, along with related rituals and events—baptisms and weddings, choir practices and socials—structured how people related to one another and found meaning.
Hold up, what? The enlightenment? Wait, why are we talking about the 17th or 18th century? What’re you talking about?
As belief in God ebbed, work-related structures replaced religious ones. People battled for fewer hours on the job and more free time until many had a 9-to-5 five-day workweek, with weekends off and annual vacations. A regular work schedule gave people something to count on and plan around.
Okay, you know, I sort of understand where she might be coming from, because as we all know, nobody went to work before the Enlightenment, and everybody stopped going to Church too. Until 2021, 50% of Americans belonged to a Church, synagogue, or mosque, dropping to 47% in 2021, and I cannot imagine why anyone would not have been leaving their house in that year or the year before. In fact, the majority of Americans belonged to a house of worship as recently as 2015! Man, does nobody actually read these op-eds?
Anyway, when you’re already struggling and making stuff up, it’s best to turn to a dynamite citation - which is why this author turned to dead president Calvin Coolidge, a guy best known for being ineffective at running the country and foreign policy.
When Calvin Coolidge declared in 1925 that “the business of America is business,” he was lauding the importance of productive work in American society but also, indirectly, how work gave structure and meaning to life.
I also want to be clear that this was just under 50 years before the release of the first personal computer. It’s just a terrible citation.
For knowledge workers in particular, the pandemic called this idea into question. What is the existential result of being confined at home working on a computer? What does it mean to live in a world where workers can move back and forth between studying a spreadsheet and doing laundry or emailing a supervisor and watching an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
Before we go any further, this is the URL for this article as of going to press:
Anyway, this is every remote cliché you’ve ever seen - the idea that someone working from home is some sicko deviant that’s messing around on company time. First of all, who cares if they’re doing that if the work’s done? Secondly, I realize you have taught at Drexel for 400,000 years, but did you know that people dick around at the office? You buffoon! You ignoramus!
For many white-collar workers, the pandemic has raised the question of what is essential in the work they do and what is merely done for the sake of appearance. For some, the entire reason for having a job has crumbled, causing the so-called great resignation. But most workers simply have reassessed the value of the workplace.
How much travel is really necessary to serve a client? How many staff meetings can happen online? How many days, if any, do we actually need to be in the office? In a society increasingly dominated by data, face-to-face interaction seems too negligible a variable to factor in. Yet the alcohol consumption, short tempers, and general malaise of many Americans suggest that something is deeply wrong. The World Health Organization has reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression world-wide, and a 2021 Census Bureau survey found that 30% of American adults suffered from anxiety or depression symptoms.
This section starts with a dangerous amount of sense considering the rest of the article but quickly descends into taking some incredible leaps of logic. As I have said above, do you not think that the invisible and deadly pandemic which kept us in our homes was not somewhat responsible for these jumps? What does the first part of this paragraph have to do with the next? Is it possible this woman doesn’t know what the pandemic was about? Did she only read about it in a book? Because I’m confident that’s where she learned about the office!
The in-person meetings may not matter, but the chitchat, lunches and happy hours do. Even the commute that we griped about had the value of keeping us in touch with our cities. We need to figure out how to maintain these structures before we throw out all our pre-pandemic work habits and hunker down in our home offices.
Ah, fuck you. I’m sorry, I want to be eloquent here and give some analysis, but if you’re going to say “commuting is good and connects us to our cities,” is such a bare-faced lie. When I lived in London, commuting was absolutely god damn miserable. It was better but still bad in New York City.
What’s equally funny is the total and utter lack of citations or backing for any of these statements. Oh yeah, we need the chitchat and lunches. Why do we need them? Well, we all know, so I won’t be writing it. Good day!
Meeting with other people, seeing their facial expressions and gestures, noticing what they eat for lunch, confiding our frustrations and celebrating our triumphs, taking in the familiar sights of our cities and towns—all this helps to clarify our position in the world. Covid has isolated us from this world, but it also has slowed us down and forced us to evaluate what is important. This should keep us from losing sight of what propels us to get up in the morning and makes life worth living.
To be clear, Paula Marantz Cohen has, as far as I can tell, literally only ever worked at Drexel after graduating from both Yale and Columbia. Dr. Cohen talks about “clarifying our position in the world” as if she is not someone that has sought to stay in exactly the same place doing exactly the same thing for as long as humanely possible.
What’s frustrating about this (other than the obvious) is that this is the voice that the Wall Street Journal is intentionally pushing. And no, I do not care that the opinion section is separate - there are plenty of awful editorial decisions that happen in the news department when it comes to covering remote work. Instead of any number of diverse, interesting and intelligent people, they chose an old white woman who wrote a book about what Shakespeare teaches us about empathy.
This piece is also deeply offensive because it glances at a few interesting points I’ve made before - that work has on some level begun to replace religion as a belief system, and that some people have become dependent on the workplace for their community and social life. As I said:
It is possible to make friends outside of work, but it is not easy, and it’s easier to make friends at work, or around work events, or around your work community. Similarly, while it’s possible to step outside and go for a walk, it’s that much easier when you physically have to if you want to get paid. There are other ways to make friends, other reasons to go out. Still, the convenience of the workplace makes it natural - and we have become dependent on work as a place to make friends, per a study from Future Workplace that says 70% of people say that friends at work are the most crucial element to a happy work life.
The problem is that regardless of how I feel, people still do rely on work as a means of socializing. It is hard to make friends, and it is harder to meet new people. The office gives you both something in common (the job), which theoretically means that you could make more friends at the office (though data suggests you still make work friends working remotely!). But it is not the only way, and I personally have made the majority of my friends either online or through other friends I have. One of my closest friends is the husband of a friend of my wife, as is another close friend. I’ve made several real-life friends from Twitter - including during the pandemic (Hey Noah!), and do not regularly speak to anyone I’ve worked with at an office.
I have a very sad point to make: we should not accept this as part of an argument for returning to the office. It is a form of compensation that isn’t money, and that requires you to make effort to receive said compensation. It is also not something the corporation can even promise - they can only promise that theoretically being in the same place might grow a friendship. The subhead of the Journal’s op-ed claims that “employees may need those face-to-face meetings more than their employers do” - something that is 100% certain to be quoted back to workers that want to stay remote.
It’s the latest gaslight anthem for the office - a cowardly attempt to manipulate workers into believing that their lives will be less complete if they don’t go back to the office, yet again ignoring the years in which we haven’t gone the office at all. The propaganda is always the same - that employees need the office more than employers, that this is actually about the worker, that the worker doesn’t realize that the office is so good - and the evidence is always made up of flimsy anecdotes and assumptions.
I’m not saying that having friends from work is bad, but I am also not saying it’s a good thing either. Companies that actively use this as a means of guilting you into returning are intentionally trying to dissolve your work-life balance, looking for more ways in which you can be “loyal” to the company. If you’re loyal to your friends, you’re less likely to leave for fear of inconveniencing them - and this is something a company is intimately aware of. They’re worried that a lack of physical presence weakens these connections, and thus their ability to retain you.
This isn’t a suggestion that you should cease being friends with your workmates - I simply want you to realize that every happy hour (Zoom or otherwise) and “work function” is an attempt to leverage your social life against you. Work is a lot easier and more fun when you have friendships, and that’s part of the reason that a company encourages them. It’s a mutually beneficial situation that still massively benefits your boss for numerous reasons, most notable being that they can use it as a means of making your job “better” without having to actually do anything. And, of course, they can use these friendships as a means to guilt workers back into the office - or at the very least use it as a rationalization for a decision they’ve already made.
This is why I find so many of the articles about “soft work” so disgusting. The idea that we “need” to come back to the office so that we can build relationships or “gossip” provides absolutely no benefit to the worker. These soft interactions build a substrate of company leverage - a culture that you believe you are a part of, that you are deeply ingrained in, that you “cannot miss” - that you can be removed from instantly at the whims of your boss or manager. Any corporate interest in friendships or relationships you develop on the job makes their lives easier and makes you less likely to quit the company or complain.
It also means they don’t have to pay you more. It is monetized guilt. And you’re willing to do that little bit more if you perceive someone as a friend, or if it means you’re making your friend’s life easier.
And, of course, all of this is a way in which corporations attempt to distance work from being a transaction of labor for money. Friendships cost them nothing. “Soft work” costs them nothing. And they’ll be happy to interfere with and suppress friendships that they feel are “distracting you from your work” while demanding that you get in your car and drive an hour each way because you’re not on their clock while you’re doing so.
Unless, of course, they want you to be. At that point, you have to be willing to move your schedule around for them. At that point you have to make sure you’re available because if you’re not, you’re not a team player, and you might just not be cut out to work there. But it would help if you came back to the office, because you must participate in the one-sided, company-friendly, corporation-convenient hegemony that justifies your boss’ existence.