Bosses and Managers Want A Hybrid Office So They Can Feel Important Again

Otherwise, you might ask what they do all day.
Ed Zitron 10 min read

In the “no shit!” news of the day, workers are returning to the office and finding that they’re taking their meetings on Zoom, even with co-workers in the same office. The Washington Post has reported on this phenomenon with one of my favorite “what do you mean the sea is wet?” type anecdotes:

“There’s this weird tension,” said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for research firm Gartner. “We want everyone back in the office, but we still want everyone to do work by video.”

I may be a simple country blogger, but this is one of the funniest quotes because the next question should’ve been “so why are we in the office at all?” with a sprinkle of “why do we want people back in the office exactly?” I feel like I’ve written this point a million times, but it feels as if the people writing about this subject are physically unable to ask follow-up questions. It’s so easy to do!

And check out these hilarious quotes:

“Sales meetings have moved from conference rooms to Slack and to Zoom,” Salesforce President and Chief Operating Officer Bret Taylor noted during a recent earnings call. Salesforce recently acquired Slack for $27.7 billion.

Google parent company Alphabet said during its recent earnings call its digital business tools product called Google Workspace, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, and video conferencing service Google Meet, “continues to show strong growth.”

Huh, wonder why! Probably because-

Beyond the “weird” experience of it all, Wagner says the biggest issue is when two people at the office in earshot are on the same Zoom call. If both people have their microphones on, the ambient sound creates an echo on the call. The only real way to solve it is to make sure others nearby don’t have their microphones on at the same time. “It’s an unmitigated nightmare,” she said. “It made me so crazy the first time I had to deal with it. It was like, ‘This is awful! Why are we doing this?’.

Emily, that is an excellent question! I would love to have the higher-ups ask for an answer!

The answer is that it’s being done because the people making the calls don’t do any work, and it’s awful because hybrid work makes no sense, hasn’t made sense from the beginning, and the coming months are going to prove how utterly silly it all is.

The Emperor’s Whacky Mystery is available for anyone to see, and workers are screaming “I Can See His Penis And Ass!” as their bosses talk about how well-tailored his outfit is.

It’s not simply a case that we now know that remote work is good and that many office jobs can be done outside of an office. Video conferencing software has proven itself not necessarily to be better but as good as meeting in person, which is all that is needed to become the default option. While the coverup by superiors may be that this is for “safety purposes” (which at its core proves that the return to the office is stupid for another reason), it’s likely because it’s much easier to hop on a Zoom and do whatever it is you’re doing than to walk over to a room you’re all trapped in.

The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Deighton wrote more specifically a week or two ago about Zoom’s “Room for Zoom,” a room with “soundproof walls, a heigh-adjustable desk, built-in lighting, silent fans to ventilate the space” along with a computer with the software. Hey, this sounds similar to something I wrote back in July! What the hell, Eric?

Anyway, the funniest part of this entire thing is that Zoom rooms cost $16995, and that’s before assembly and delivery. And that’s one room! It’s a room that kind of looks like it only fits one person, too! Hey, at this price, they should call it Zoom for Rubes.

But seriously, folks, we are now seeing companies freak out, because they realize that hybrid’s problem is not that it isn’t feasible; it’s that it isn’t practical. Hybrid work is somehow worse than it was previously in the office because despite what your company might be doing, other companies will probably want to speak to you on Zoom.

What’s also funny is that the Washington Post article talks about how workers sit at their desks, then pop up to talk to each other at random:

Emily Wagner, a classroom program manager for tutoring and test prep company Summit Educational Group in Newton, Mass., compared her back-to-work collaboration to prairie dog style of communicating. Occasionally she and her co-workers pop up from their office cubicles to talk to each other from across the room. But the majority of the time, she’s at work Zooming her team, who come in on different days for safety.

Do you know what that sounds like? How the office was before.

That’s because that’s what working in an office has been like for years. You sit there doing your work until you’re interrupted by somebody who wants something related to work or otherwise. You then go back to your work and keep working until you’re allowed to or feel it’s permissible to leave or because you have to go to another room to speak to someone. Now, the only difference is that you’re likely not going to another room to meet with someone but meeting with them on Zoom.

This is why hybrid work doesn’t offer any extra functionality because it is just returning to the office. The only difference is that there is now a chaotic scheduling element, where it’s not immediately apparent whether someone will or will not be at their desk. Hence, you have to message them, which you’d do if you were working remotely. The honest answer is for bosses to start making mandatory days in the office - which sucks and is terrible, and workers hate it - but that’s probably what we’re going to see happen.

What’s The Point Of Meetings, Anyway?

I think the hybrid part of this discussion can be discussed as a question of why you think we have meetings. Meetings are theoretically something we do t contribute to larger business goals - we get everybody in one place, and we all (lol) listen and then pipe up with our ideas or reports. This is (theoretically) faster and better than a Google Doc or some project management software because it allows the softer side of collaboration to rear - which I believe happens in meetings, but is not an excuse for an office - where someone hears a point that someone makes and has a sensible and useful tangent to lead people from.

I’m in this crowd - I believe that if you can have a meeting with a point to it, great.  I also believe that if said meeting can take place in 5 minutes, then it’s over. Meetings are meant to be pragmatic - more effective than an email chain or Slack message, and a chance to humanize an otherwise digital connection.

However, I believe that a large number of people, primarily executives and managers, like meetings because they give themselves a chance to be visible and seem important. They can perform in front of everybody, making it clear how hard they work and justify their job. This is less effective over Zoom, as you can’t really “command a room” when the room is little windows. Meetings aren’t there as a conveyance of work product, but as a way of professionally preening - a chance to convince everybody that you’re worthy.

It’s also an excellent chance for executives to wield power and to feel important about themselves. Verbose, self-aggrandizing speeches are far more satisfying in person, especially as people can choose not to have their camera on and be able to hide the fact that they’re not listening, versus staring through the person speaking and thinking about dinner.

Meetings are also a place for the disingenuous to pretend to be productive. Everybody can agree that a meeting “takes up time,” which naturally makes it a symbol of productivity - meetings are accepted as “work” without having to prove themselves as productive, which means that people who want to have the appearance of productivity absolutely adore them, especially when you’re there in person and everyone can see you.

Crucially, videoconferencing removes the “importance” of meetings. While having an in-person meeting would have a layer of prestige because you were physically interrupting your workday, meetings are now line items on your calendar. While there are still people that have time-wasting meetings to make themselves seem more valuable than they are, it’s simply less impressive. It’s significantly more obvious to everybody how useless someone is when you’re able to mute your microphone and keep typing emails.

While it’s very well documented that meetings are routinely bad (I source HBR here because they are generally the place that freak executives love to quote), I think that a chunk of people going remote has (like the office!) proven how many of them are just so utterly useless. In my personal experience, meetings have felt faster in the last six months - people have been happy when the agenda has been cleared and even happier to get time back on their calendar to do work.

The only people who have wanted to carve vast swaths of time out of my calendar have been people trying to sell me stuff or other PR people who want to involve themselves in my affairs for whatever reason. Maybe I’m just lucky.

Hybrid Hopelessness

Most hybrid stories I’ve read feel overwhelmingly depressing. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the “risk that remote workers will be left behind” in hybrid environments, and how companies are making new protocols to adapt to them, most notably that if one person is dialing in via Zoom, everyone will.

The idea might seem counterintuitive: More than 18 months into the pandemic, many workers are tired of video calls and eager to work in person again. But there are other factors to consider.

“We want that one person, maybe in New York or London, to have an equitable experience,” says Janet Van Huysse, Cloudflare’s chief people officer.

I cannot express this clearly enough: we do not need to know what the c-suite thinks. Asking managers about what they think is useless. Also, once again the Journal simply assumes that “many workers are tired of video calls,” with no citation needed to back that up.

In any case, the Journal in a rare moment of doing the right thing also brought up one relevant piece of information - that remote work is extremely popular with people of color:

What’s more, a 2021 survey of 10,000 knowledge workers from Slack’s Future Forum, a consortium that conducts research with a wide range of employees and companies, including prominent tech firms, found that while the majority of employees want flexibility, the option is even more popular with Black employees: 97% of Black workers surveyed don’t want to be in the office full time, compared with 79% of white workers. And amid the remote work of the pandemic, scores intended to measure “sense of belonging” were up for people of color.

Naturally, this point does not really seem to inform the rest of the story, which mostly involves mealy-mouthed anecdotes around the contortions of organizations to try and force hybrid through. I should be clear that there is even less proof that hybrid work is a good idea than there is that we should return to the office, which is saying something. It’s just a constant flow of people saying stuff about “keeping things fair,” ignoring the most obvious way to keep things fair - not making people go into the office at all.

Note: I will add that I like Dropbox’s ideal of individual work from home with a once-a-quarter meting, but I am worried about the “at least” part of that.

This article is extremely long and boring, and of course has the usual anti-remote propaganda:

Likewise, remote workers may miss the chance to develop crucial skills if they are not in the office. For instance, Lance Fritz, chairman and CEO of railroad Union Pacific Corp. , says he’s worried that remote employees will be at a disadvantage in managing workplace relationships.

“It’d be miserable to wake up three years from now, and that pool [of remote workers] didn’t have the ability to demonstrate some of the things that earn promotion, like effective conflict resolution, effective mentorship, effective apprenticeship,” he says. “If you’re not around to see it, it is really hard to know what’s happening.”

Lance Fritz is an old white man who is the CEO of a train company. He went to college in the 80s. He has, from what I can tell, been in some form of executive role at Union Pacific for two decades. I can quite literally not tell you the last time he worked a normal person job, let alone one that involved him being in a cubicle for eight hours.

This empty, CEO-laden shell of an article is somehow extremely long, but somehow fails to questions whether there’s any point in hybrid work at all. The default assumption is that we must have people in person, and thus the question to ask is “how do we do hybrid work fairly?”

The answer is “you don’t do it at all.” Hybrid work is intentionally built for haves and have-nots. It is intentionally built to deprive workers of freedom and flexibility, and allows executives and managers to rig the dice as to who they give the most attention to. It allows “hard workers” to “show they’re loyal” by going back into the office, and judging those who “just want to stay home.” Those that don’t do this are going to be twisting themselves in knots trying to work out an “equitable” way of doing things without going to the most obvious choice.

There is no value proposition - and the reason that companies are so stressed out building their “hybrid strategies” is because it sucks. That’s it. You’re finding yourself having to make bizarre rules like “everybody has to Zoom if one person is joining via Zoom even if most of us are in the office” because you know, deep down, that it’s a stupid idea to have people in the office in the first place. If it was such a smart idea, the solution would be blatantly obvious, and your business would’ve shut down when you had to go remote.

If work can be done remotely, it should be. That’s it. Giving oxygen to the arguments of CEOs that haven’t done the job of the people they’re controlling the future of is irresponsible and counterintuitive, unless your intention is to publish their opinions with the intention of controlling workers.

The hybrid office is a cop-out, chosen by people who lack the ability to articulate why the office is good and thus choose to try and placate workers in an unsatisfying, half-baked way. Claiming baselessly that “hybrid is the future” without critiquing its need to exist is so common because of the powerful interests invested in controlling workers. And that’s all this debate is about.

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