Privilege and Pro-Office Pablum

Ed Zitron 11 min read

I want to make a confession.

In the last years - since 2019, at the very least - I have worn pajamas to work almost every day. This in no way changes the quality of my work product. It never has, and it never will. The days I’ve been in adult clothes due to an obligation that requires them - perhaps a contractor is coming over, or I have a pressing engagement that will run up against my battery of calls - have had the same level of production as the days I have sat in a t-shirt that says “I have never committed a crime” that’s covered in cat hair because my cat loves to sleep not so much on me but by leaning into me.

My ability to produce work and retain clients through the production of said work is entirely based on the actual production. No client has ever asked me what I’m wearing, commented on what I’m wearing when I’m on Zoom, or made any connection between my outfit and my efficacy. The reason is that my work product, as with many people’s work products, comes from the computer and my ability to use it rather than my ability to dress a particular way.

Skeletal charlatan Malcolm Gladwell made waves over the weekend by saying that it’s “not in your best interest to work from home” and asking us, “if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?”

Malcolm, the answer is “yes,” because I can drink 11 diet cokes and blast the same Cooper Temple Clause song all day without getting in trouble. I can work at a pace that matches the task rather than worry about whether I “look” busy. Gladwell - a man who I am confident does not remember the last time he  had to do any real work - said this on a nearly two-hour-long podcast, which (like Gladwell) is very long, extremely boring and lacking in any meaningful insight.

Gladwell is rich and famous because he is the king of the self-mythologizing that successful people engage in every day. His success has come from telling comfortable bedtime stories for the rich, helping them find confusing and complex ways to hide how their success - like Gladwell’s - came from privilege and luck. And the push against remote work is just another way in which the rich, powerful, and successful are attempting to rewrite history and create a narrative that they’ve “earned” their outsized paychecks and power.

The powerful don’t want to discuss privilege because it makes them feel self-conscious about their own internal narratives of success. Privilege isn’t just about being rich, or white, or male, or any number of other conditions that make life easier by default, and one can be an incredibly hard worker and still be quite privileged. Privilege is the ability to work hard when it actually matters, which is to say that simply working hard is not enough to succeed if your hard work doesn’t lead to actual success because the right person wasn’t watching or you weren’t at the right company, or you were overlooked based on your gender or the color of your skin.

Remote work creates such powerful cognitive dissonance because it takes away the performative part of the narrative of the successful. Gladwell and his fanbase of the single least-informed executives in the world have all told themselves that their success came from being in boardrooms and saying cool stuff that makes people think. When you break down their narratives, many of these successful people were  privileged and lucky - born at a time when there was less competition for jobs, or able to borrow money from their parents (see: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos), or able to get into an ivy league school, or just happened to meet the right person (Wozniak and Jobs at HP). Their hard work is not irrelevant, nor is their intellect, but if they have to admit that their successes were a creation of them being in the right place at the right time and able to perform the necessary thing to progress, suddenly everything feels less satisfying.

It’s also rather hollow to admit that capitalism does not reward hard work, but hard work at the right time. The office allowed many people to pretend this wasn’t the case, because “being seen” was the equivalent of “working hard,” and without it, there are many other things that people start to question too. Why are we in so many meetings? Why do we have so many presentations? Do these presentations convey any information, or do they just make us feel like we’ve rounded up our ideas in a way that we can ignore in a more efficient manner? Why do we have so many people that appear to just talk rather than do stuff, and hey, what do they actually do here? In fact, what does the CEO do? What is the CEO’s day like, and why do they seem to have an easier life than me, despite them running the company?

Gladwell is a spiritual leader for complacent executive liars. He is a totem that dimwits hold up to prove they’re intellectual, a standard-bearer for those who want the appearance of work rather than to create anything meaningful. Gladwell is only attacking remote work because he knows it will help embolden the executive sect’s ability to reap the rewards of other people’s work without having to justify their own existence. He is a religious leader roleplaying as a business author, Joel Olsteen for intellectual dullards, justifying the status quo by dressing it in the language (but not the fundamentals of) research and philosophical consideration.

Of course Gladwell hates remote work, because it simmers down what you do at your job to what you actually do at your job. Gladwell is scared because a workforce that doesn’t go to an office does not involve itself in office culture, which means fewer acolytes that will buy that the successful are there because they are hard-working and “need to be around people.” He is a con artist, a charlatan, and a hero only to those who want to keep hiding how little they contribute to society. The only thing that differentiates him from Tai Lopez or Gary Vaynerchuk is that they’re more overt with their greed. If Gladwell can’t make the world complex but his solutions simple - even if there’s no proof that he’s right about anything - he can’t sell more books or go on awful podcasts.

Gladwell is Xanax for managers, a way of making telling people what to do and doing big, stupid presentations a form of labor rather than burning what little time we have in this wretched universe.

Gladwell, as with many managerial types, is terrified of a workforce that isn’t dripping with admiration for the executive sect. A Daily Mail article recently published an insane article about the “worrying job trend” of “quiet quitting,” where workers are “rejecting the idea that they need to do more than what is expected.” Hey, wait for a second - this is just another branch of cyberloafing - where “doing what’s expected of you at work rather than more stuff that you’re never rewarded for anyway” is being reframed as “quitting” in easily the single most frustratingly-worded way possible.

The article in question talks about TikTok videos of people “quiet quitting” where people “don’t subscribe to the hustle culture and mentality that work has to be your life” and includes a hilarious quote about how it could “backfire if the change in behavior is noticed by others, particularly managers.” I am mostly quoting what they’re saying because it’s so utterly, incredibly silly - words that can only be taken seriously by people so completely wrapped up in their mythologies that they believe that it’s normal to suggest that someone that still does all of their work has somehow quit their job.

It is, however, an incredibly important moment to capture, because it’s deeply connected to the cognitive dissonance created by remote work. The idea that “going above and beyond” at work is rewarded is almost entirely mythical - I have seen many people promoted in jobs who have not worked hard, or gone above and beyond the call of duty, and similarly watched hard workers get treated awfully by managers that fail to create any value but get paid more than them somehow. “Quiet quitting” is equal parts a capitalist tantrum and a managerial panic attack, where those in power are slowly realizing that they didn’t get where they got through hard work and that they can’t extract more work from someone without compensating them further.

Remote work has made a lot of managers and executives realize that they have no idea what actual work is or why anyone does it. They have never had to consider what motivates workers beyond fear and social judgment because the office was an effective hegemonic tool, creating “office culture” where nobody asked whether managers or executives were working hard. The office allowed power structures to be established and empowered by turning workers against themselves, often creating cultures of snitching about “lazy” workers or “those who weren’t working hard.” It allowed companies to evaluate outputs but not evaluate those creating them, making managers and executives think they’re responsible.

The office was the power center of workplace McCarthyism, where those who questioned why those in power did nothing were routed out as “bad culture fits.” It’s dogma pushed by people that want to believe they’ve earned respect and power they have through hard work, despite them having no interest in earning either.

Without an office, it becomes harder to police people for not performing work in an aesthetically pleasing way. It becomes much harder to get away with not measuring outputs on an individual basis, and even more so when you attempt to claim somebody else's work. And on a very simple level, building a company remotely means that you have to have managers and executives that know what’s going on, which is very difficult if you don’t know or care.

Take Edith Cooper, a former Goldman Sachs executive who runs a “membership-based community for leadership development” and also, coincidentally, thinks you should return to the office. Edith’s views - which, of course, are published in the New York Times - are poison wrapped in sugar, putting the onus on the worker to fix the office:

Staying home might seem easier for workers who, for one reason or another, don’t feel comfortable at the office, but it can also let employers off the hook when it comes to making the office more inclusive. If the social movements of the past few years have told us anything, it’s that showing up and speaking up about what isn’t working can bring meaningful change.

This op-ed - as with almost every anti-remote op-ed before, and likely everyone that will run after - is fueled by the mythology of success, and lacks any real understanding of an actual workplace. A social movement in the office? What social movement? You’re not talking about unions, so what do you actually mean? Have you ever had a bad manager, and have you ever tried to complain about them?

Part of the problem is that the collegial, purpose-driven office that senior leaders idealize feels like a myth to many young workers. Since long before Covid-19, most offices weren’t delivering the mentoring, collaboration and social fabric that makes in-person work feel worthwhile. Indeed, many of the offices I visited in recent years were desolate, open plan landscapes dotted with individuals staring at screens, headphones on.

Shut the fuck up! I am sorry, but shut the fuck up! I cannot stand this garbage. It “feels like a myth” because it never fucking existed, and you are a con artist if you suggest otherwise! One anecdotal example of a good office does not replace the tens of thousands of different offices that suck, and you can’t even come up with one! Your example is so fucking rotten that your anecdotal evidence works against the point you’re trying to make!

This op-ed - like so many others - are acts of desperation to sustain the status quo that helps sell vacuous management culture dogma. If Cooper gave much of a shit about pushing progressive management, she wouldn’t be interviewing Tim Armstrong of AOL - well-known for one of the most disastrous mergers of all time or Jen Rubio of Away, a company best-known for having toxic management.

Despite all this, I want young people to return — at least some of the time — to offices. I hope they won’t underestimate the value of actually being in a room with co-workers: the shared experience, the serendipity of talking to people not directly related to what you do; the exposure to a diversity of ideas and perspectives; the chance to look up and say, “I never thought about that.” I hope they won’t give up on the office before engaging fully in trying to create a better version of it.

If I were the opinion editor at the Times, I would also love to have asked Edith about how the office culture at Goldman Sachs was during her 26-year tenure and perhaps asked about the incredibly public and horrifying revelations about working conditions there. I would also question the management ethos of someone that serves on the Board of Directors for Amazon, another company well known for their labor abuse.

I would also imagine that someone who was the Managing Director of the Securities Divison of Goldman Sachs from 1996 to 2008 might feel a little self-conscious about the justification behind their employment, considering the massive layoffs and mistakes and the outright lie that Goldman told about not keeping any government bailout money.

Cooper worked incredibly hard to get where she did, and may indeed believe in the fabric of what she’s saying. However, what I am suggesting is that her mythologies about the office are corrupt to their core, happy little fantasies of the time she oversaw an office culture that has been widely publicized as toxic. And if you suggest that these revelations came after her tenure at the company, you have big swiss cheese holes in your brain - these things did not start the moment she left, and they certainly didn’t stop while she was there.

Pardon me for not being enamored with the ideals of a person who oversaw one of the more historic cases where the rich and powerful were safe from harm while the average worker suffered. Forgive me for not respecting the ideas of a person who likely oversaw the layoffs of thousands of people and then failed to stop a culture of intimidation, violence and abuse. If you are incapable of acknowledging the reality of where you came from, your ideas and philosophies are rotten, and your dogma is discardable.

If Cooper were to realistically reconcile with her own narrative, she would realize that the office isn’t just bad for the worker, it’s something that has been repeatedly used to abuse the worker during the time she was the Global Head of Human Capital Management. She is the one person who should know best exactly how rotten offices can be, and exactly how much damage they can cause to a worker.

The problem is that breaking the office dogma is a direct attack on every business leader’s soul. If being a success isn’t a result of simply working hard, then Gladwell, or Cooper, or Vaynerchuk’s advice is empty. If the office doesn’t exist, executives have no way of instilling their will on their workforce ambiently and understanding what people do and why they do it.

The reality is that most business leaders and management experts want you to believe that their success was a result of having learned meaningful, powerful lessons rather than being in the right place at the right time. They want their success to be teachable, because if it’s not, then it’s something that happened to them rather than something they earned. In many cases, the only thing to learn from a rich or successful person is that sometimes you’ll get an opportunity to learn something or do something or meet someone that will change your life, and if you do not have one or two or eight of those moments, you will not be successful.

It is that much harder to sell the secrets of your success if the secrets are deeply depressing and apply to a very select few.

One can create a few of these moments potentially through hard work, and there are ways of increasing their likelihood (going to a good college, having a particular friend growing up), but for the most part, they are things that happen to or around you. And they increase as you become more successful and richer, in a way that creates a deeply unfair society where opportunities are more common for those who need them the least.

I’m not trying to be depressing. I’m just tired of reading people who have already “made it” trying to make up nice little stories - stories that may get people forced back to offices for no reason - to make themselves feel better about their past and present. And I am tired of people that run companies who are divorced from the consequences of their opinions spouting them in the news.

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