In one of my first jobs, I remember the oppressive feeling that enveloped me as I walked through the door. One’s presence wasn’t simply noted, it was actively surveilled, incentivizing people to seem as busy as possible rather than actually doing anything. The practical output from this was a great deal of busywork — a constant flow of needless double-clicks and rewrites of documents to create a vacuous chain of “productivity,” where managers would send back agendas because a bullet-point didn’t look right, or because a sentence wasn’t clear. It was a deeply top-heavy company, where managers often outnumbered the people that they were managing. And the important thing to remember about this place, as with many places, is that a manager does not work — they manage.
This created a culture of performative performance and work-theft, where managers constantly talked about how stressed they were, how much they had to do, and how much they needed those below them to “work harder” to complete projects that they would produce to the boss as their own. At one point, a manager said to a room of us lowly workers that they were “not just throwing us under the bus, but driving it.”
I had assumed my experience was unique, but I was deeply wrong. Since I started writing about remote work a few years ago, I’ve heard hundreds of similar stories of management that expects the world from those below them, rewarding them with little else other than the sense that you might be slightly less likely to be fired. Large swaths of corporate America have become entirely disconnected from the process of work. Those in control do not understand or participate in the process of what makes them rich, and the result is a deeply broken and inefficient workforce driven by top-level incompetence and greed.
A year ago bosses were complaining about quiet quitting — the made-up term for doing the job that you are paid to do and not doing free work — and began to manufacture a panic around workers being less productive when not at the office, which they decided not based on actual productivity or outputs but on, well, nothing. 2023’s brittle economy and mass layoffs allowed companies to start demanding people return to the office in the name of “challenging circumstances” that never seemed to come for the management sect, blaming slowing revenue growth on remote work “lowering productivity” and worker “laziness” rather than executive mismanagement. Zoom, Nike, Amazon, and other large corporations are now pushing ridiculous three or four-day mandates to return to the office, all bereft of any proof that doing so will have any effect on productivity.
As I mentioned back in August, reporters have been swept up by recent studies that declare working from home “less productive,” citing studies that claim 10-20% drops in productivity when working from home, failing to note that the most-quoted one is a study of recruited data entry workers in India, and the other is a 2021 working paper (IE: not peer-reviewed) that measured output based on a totally-undefined “semi-annual performance metric” and employee-surveillance software that is routinely criticized for its inaccuracy. These studies are driven by academics that are similarly disconnected from the workforce, and therefore cannot speak to how one works outside of abstractions and extrapolations. These studies routinely try to crush “productivity” into a box marked “hours and outputs,” and rarely (if ever) steps into any situation that cannot be distilled based on attendance, tasks completed (with no consideration of different kinds of tasks), and calls made.
The problem is actually pretty simple: you can’t measure productivity if you’re not part of production. If you are an executive, an academic, a manager, an HR professional, or someone who doesn’t have a deep understanding of how your (or anyone’s) paycheck is funded, you are incapable of measuring the productivity of another person at your company. A “manager” or “executive” is no longer defined as somebody who plans and executes — they’re “strategists” or “big picture thinkers,” euphemisms for being in a great deal of meetings and making other people do the work.
Corporate America has become a continual paradox, where those who do the work are disproportionately responsible for the consequences of failure, while receiving very little of the reward when things go well. If they’re lucky, they might get promoted to manager, at which point they will simply stop working, because I do not believe managers actually work.
The return-to-office fight makes sense if you view it through the lens of powerful people that don’t want to do any work. Companies don’t actually want to build the systems to measure productivity because it would, when turned toward management, make it very clear that the higher your pay the less you actually create. Management wants people back in the office so that they can subtly intimidate them in the form of “quick check-ins” that interrupt your workflow, or so that managers can appear in meetings and say that they did something, as it’s blatantly obvious over Zoom who’s actually doing the work. A remote worker can’t be indoctrinated with “company culture” or pestered with managerial microaggressions. Managers and executives can’t subtly bully people when their work is recorded and/or written in text form, nor can they make you feel guilty for “leaving work early.” And an office allows a manager or executive to “show up” in a way that resembles a busy or focused person without ever having to prove they’re doing anything.
And not being in the office makes it far more obvious how little companies bother to train or mentor workers. When someone’s in the office, you can theoretically “look over their shoulder” and “see what they’re up to” in a way that feels like you’re mentoring them. Without an office, a corporation has to actually make sure people know and do stuff — and managers are crying to the media that they now have to manage the days of the people they’re managing.
Remote work is a threat to the powerful because it shows how little they actually contribute to their companies or society as a whole. As with much of society, corporate America does not reward hard work so much as it rewards opportunism — the ability to show you’re useful, even if that “usefulness” isn’t necessarily about being good at your job. The office is a stage — a place to show that you’re doing your job, but not necessarily the best place to do it — and an opportunity for people who don’t want to work to pretend they’re doing so, primarily for the benefit of people who don’t know what real work looks like.
The other problem is that even when an organization understands the outputs, they rarely consider or appreciate the process of production. An executive may know that they need to build X amount of products by Y date, but they do not appreciate the work it takes to get there other than the cost of doing so. This is part of what makes the rot economy so prevalent — the growth-at-all-costs mindset only makes sense if you don’t understand how things are made or why they are made in that way.
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The Damp at the Heart of Corporate America
Corporate America’s addiction to growth is a symptom of a grander problem where the powerful have no real connection to reality. We aspire to management so that we can manage others to do the work; we aspire to run companies so that we can deputize others to run them for us; and we reward public companies that make terrible decisions. It all makes sense if you see work as a series of chess moves to increase a number (rather than simply trading labor for money), and even more so if you believe the work itself is beneath you and that you should be entirely compensated for having ideas.
And nowhere else is this more obvious than in the boardrooms of executives crying to the Wall Street Journal that workers aren’t quitting their jobs in a year rife with societally-destructive layoffs. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman complained that “attrition has been remarkably low” and that it was “something that [Morgan Stanley has] just got to work through,” fully revealing corporate America’s deep disdain for a workforce it sees as little more than an item in a spreadsheet. While large companies arguably need to plan for attrition, this article is a gruesome testament to the American economy’s lack of humanity — that companies are frustrated that more people aren’t quitting and need to “do something about it,” even though “it” is never defined in the article.
These articles also never place the responsibility of making a company stronger or better in the hands of executives, framing every problem as a result of workers failing to do something that only benefits the company itself. At one point, an HR executive is quoted as saying that “when you don’t have enough attrition, that is when I think things start to feel stagnant, especially if people internally aren’t moving around,” something that could be solved by somebody who actually participates in the process of making the company money, but is somehow only something that can be solved by people wanting to quit — or, of course, being fired.
Again, these are symptoms of the dysfunctional nature of corporate America, where the biggest calls are made by the people least qualified to make them. Why else would we be reading articles about workers not quitting just over a year after we had articles about workers quitting too much? Why else would Amazon, a company that makes billions off of measuring the things people do, have no data to back up the decision to return workers to the office?
It’s because the powerful oftentimes are as lazy and cowardly as the workers they claim to be “unproductive,” and have little or no respect for actual labor. They believe they have “earned” an eternal paid vacation where they get to do the fun stuff — the press interviews, the ribbon cuttings, the “big decisions,” the movement of large amounts of capital and labor, decades divorced from ever actually working. While there are definitely executives out there who “work,” their experience pales in comparison to those who make them rich. And the modern manager is just an aspiring executive — a feudal lord waiting for their chance to be king, ever-vigilant for opportunities to self-promote and put their name on labor while saying that it was a “team effort” because they were CC’d on an email.
The American dream is no longer about working hard. It’s about how one disconnects oneself from reality, and how one hands off the consequences of one’s decisions to somebody else. Corporate America’s overlords want to do enough to feel smart and important, to attend enough meetings to feel “busy,” and then to be left alone — which is why rich technocrats like Marc Benioff demand workers return to the office while they happily work remotely themselves.
Theoretically, a manager is somebody who ensures that somebody executes on clearly-defined objectives, educating workers where necessary, and getting them the things they need to succeed. Theoretically, a Chief Executive should be the most highly-paid and at-risk employee at a firm — the one that shoulders the biggest burden. An ultra-manager responsible for the health of the company, accountable to everybody, with defined terms of success that, when not met, lead to their removal. Their job can be different from those which make the company money, but they have to be intimately engaged with the process. Otherwise, how would they be able to make smart decisions?
We live in a broken society with a broken corporate power structure. One where managers and management are protected by the corporate version of qualified immunity, and where failings are the result of poor performance by others and successes are a result of the grand strategic vision of a disconnected executive despot. The result is a weaker economy, a grimmer society, and a workforce that is constantly reminded that the powerful are the ones who don’t want to work.