The Flexibility Divide

Ed Zitron 13 min read

On reading Amelia Horgan’s scathing review of Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s “Out Of Office,” a point she made struck me:

This is a cheery manifesto, but it is not at all obvious who the authors expect to bring about such a significant change. OOO appears to be directed at somebody. The authors breathlessly and repeatedly invoke a “we,” “our,” “your,” without clarifying who exactly they have in mind. A very loose subject — knowledge workers which is assumed to be identical to the 42 percent of workers who worked from home during the pandemic — is mentioned at the start.

This group is so baggy as to disintegrate upon first prodding. Petersen and Warzel make it clear that working from home during the pandemic was a fortunate position to be in. This is certainly true. But besides the fact that their jobs can be carried out at home, what is there that unites this group whose working conditions run the gamut of near-total surveillance and poor pay (call-center workers) to high degrees of autonomy and high pay (management consultants, software engineers)? How could such a disparate group cohere, especially when, as the authors rightfully point out, this group of workers has a longstanding inability to conceive of itself as workers. Perhaps most egregiously, the category of “knowledge worker” lumps together workers and managers.

While I haven’t made the mistake of lumping managers and workers together, I have not elaborated on the massive class issues with remote work discussion. A lot of what I’ve written is aimed at the vague idea of an “office job” where someone comes and goes and does work, but I have definitely failed to reconcile with how it invites a whole new world of abuse for certain kinds of workers - call-center workers being the obvious choice.

For those of us who are lucky enough to work remotely without surveillance software, the idea is truly ghastly - an alien, inhuman thing to do. It’s just as bad for for those that have to work with it - and there really isn’t any choice. If you want to work for the company in question, you’re going to have to give up degrees of freedom.

Sam Blum of Morning Brew raised some alarming statistics about remote surveillance:

This trend has accelerated in the pandemic: According to unpublished research from the HR organization Gartner, 60% of companies with at least 1,000 workers that responded to the survey had adopted these technologies by the end of 2021, compared to only 30% prior to the pandemic, spokesperson Teresa Zuech said. As distributed workforces become more entrenched, data-collection practices are rapidly expanding into uncharted and largely unregulated terrain. Activities once tracked in an office are now being collected inside people’s homes.

The problematic assumption here is that surveillance is necessary to make people do their work. I see surveillance as a crutch - it is a way of making sure that someone is at work rather than doing work, and otherwise exist as a new kind of slave-driving where big companies try and milk every last minute from their workers. As a remote worker with time tracking, you very likely have less freedom than you would if you were working in an office because you’re being tracked and surveilled. The irony is that time tracking tends to increase the likelihood someone will pretend to be working, but let’s be honest - nobody is tracking time for any reason other than the fact that they like to feel they’re in control of someone else’s life.

Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, an expert in applying vision science like eye-tracking to real-world problems, previously told me how stupid a lot of these techniques are:

These tools, which are sold with the idea of “keeping employees honest,” do a fairly terrible job at doing so. According to Dr. Wolfe, “…if you don’t know what they’re looking at (hey, now you don’t just need a screencap tool recording a timelocked feed of their screen, you need their environment as well to see what else they look at), you have a bunch of meaningless eye movements….and better still: webcam eyetracking is, at best, able to tell you “user looked at this portion of a screen.”

As with everything that happens in the office, the people who will suffer the most from these technologies are the lowest-paid workers. And the real problem is that - as Horgan notes - that those who have the most significant share of voice (say, an Atlantic column and national TV appearances) seem to have no real interest in speaking to (let alone solving) the problem:

The intense digital surveillance that call-center workers are subject to in the office has transferred to their homes. Plans to use webcams for remote monitoring have already caused the Communication Workers Union to sound the alarm. Petersen and Warzel admit that the threat of surveillance calls into question the rosy picture they want to paint. They’re hopeful, however, that the time freed up for political action by flexible working will allow for “vigilance” against surveillance as well as limit the pernicious effects of an individualistic national culture. But the kind of action they have in mind is depressingly limited: paying your taxes, attempting to sway public opinion, and voting for candidates who support community infrastructure and workers’ rights.

As I have said about Warzel and Petersen before, they frame themselves as crusaders for a better world without making any effort to fight for it. They speak as if they are pro-worker but act in a pro-manager, pro-business way that suggests protecting their interests over actually educating someone. Their failure to evaluate their privilege in a single thing they’ve written means that all they’ve done is create yet another book that managers can highlight and pretend that they care, a new, ugly part of a system of oppression sold to you by two people who claim to want to help.

Horgan makes one very, very relevant point on this subject:

…the endless stream of articles about how people are tackling “productivity culture” by thinking their way out of their attachment to work tends to overstate the power of individuals who cannot imagine away objective social facts. Readers encouraged to find space in their lives for hobbies will struggle to fit them in if they do not know their scheduled hours for next week. Disentangling your identity from your work is easier said than done when a great deal of contemporary work compels their entwinement.

I will fully admit that I have made the same mistakes here as I’ve written about remote work - it is very easy to speak from my perspective as a guy who runs a company and say “remote work is good” and fail to fully conceptualize problems that regular people face. This is one reason I try to avoid being wholly prescriptive with what I’m saying unless it’s something I perceive as blatantly obvious - make your workers happy and they’ll keep working for you, for example -  or that I can actually speak to, like managing people. Nobody is perfect, but one can strive to know more about the world than what’s in front of them.

In any case, the core problem with this book is one that you see everywhere - people who are partly or wholly disconnected from labor are making claims that only make sense if you’re privileged and wealthy.

Because that’s what a lot of these people are talking about when they say “flexible work.”

The Privilege of Flexibility

Arianna Huffington, along with the “Chief Well-being Officer at Deloitte” (god damn, that sucks), wrote possibly the vaguest op-ed I’ve ever read, titled “Now Is the Time for “Life-Work Integration.” Huffington, who does not appear to have ever worked a real job, and Fisher, who appears to have worked at either a law firm or Deloitte her entire life, tells us that work and life are the same things:

The truth is that work and life are on the same side, so they don’t need to be balanced. They rise and fall together — increase your life’s overall well-being and you’ll also be more effective at work. Believing that the two can be balanced, and that when we achieve this balance we can “have it all,” is a recipe for certain failure. “Work-life integration” is a definite improvement because it’s based on the idea that when we bring our whole selves to work — whether in-person or remote — we don’t have to choose between success in our work and success in other parts of our lives.

So, my biggest issue with everything about this (other than it being borderline indecipherable) is that neither of these people has a single fucking clue about work. I’m sure that Fisher and Huffington both have plenty of “flexibility” because neither of them experiences human concerns - at least in the case of Huffington, who was a massive beneficiary of Huffington Post’s sale to AOL for $315m. And in the case of Fisher, she has a spurious C-suite title that could mean almost anything and appears to be about doing podcasts and books mostly. In short, neither of them appears to have any connection to the rest of humanity.

I have read the entire blog post several times, and I cannot tell you what “work-life integration” means. This paragraph is the closest I can get:

And in response to this collective mindset shift, forward-thinking companies are rethinking their approach to well-being. It’s no longer just a perk or something to be squeezed in as work allows. Life-work integration is about embedding well-being into the workflow itself. It’s about well-being as a set of guiding principles that we can design our day around. It starts with asking ourselves what our non-negotiables are, what are the things in our lives that are critical components of who we are and who we want to be, and that allow us to show up as our best selves.

I really want to take a second to write how  terribly written this is. I have read a lot of different articles about the future of work, or ways to work, I’d say hundreds of them, and I can’t think of one that was harder to read.

Anyway, from what I can tell, Huffington and Fisher appear to be advocating for a total destruction of your work-life balance, claiming that it “no longer makes sense.” It is a call for “more flexibility” that also seems intent on destroying the barrier between your work time and your personal time, wrapped in the sweet taste of “being flexible.” If I’m right in what I’m reading - and it is not clearly-enough written because it’s by two charlatans that could barely pass middle school English - the writers are saying that work always finds a way into our personal lives, and that by integrating it, we can…be more free?

So, I did some digging. “Work-life integration” appears to be one of the more evil concepts in the world [emphasis mine]:

“There is a difference between work-life balance and work-life integration, and it is one that many people are struggling with as we look to come out of our pandemic work situations,” said Stephen Kohler, CEO and founder of Audira Labs. “Work-life balance is focused on keeping your work life and your personal life separate, but equal, whereas work-life integration is centered on the belief that there is no distinction between the two and that both must coexist in harmony.”

What? What’re you talking about?

Work-life integration involves blending both personal and professional responsibilities. Rather than viewing work and personal time as separate entities, busy professionals can find areas of compromise. This might look like completing household chores while on a conference call or bringing children into the office when schools are closed.

The largest advantage of work-life integration is flexibility. When employees are able to properly coordinate their schedules and responsibilities, they are more likely to experience satisfaction in all areas of their life. On the flip side, studies have shown that boundary violations — when work and personal life seep into each other — can also have negative consequences. When work-life integration is out of balance, employees may actually experience decreased satisfaction and productivity in both areas.

Of all the concepts I’ve run into since I started writing this newsletter, I cannot think of one more poisonous than work-life integration. It is a concept that sees the idea of  boundaries as an inefficiency - that we should let our personal and professional lives become one, and always be ready to somehow do both at any given time.

The thing is, unless you are a boss, this system will be used against you almost constantly. I am usually hesitant to declare this, but this is an outward attempt at worker control - a manipulative, malevolent move to rip away workers’ freedom by wrapping it in the vacuous, meaningless word “flexibility.”

It is very easy for a wealthy white person to declare that we need to meld our work lives and personal lives, because the person in question doesn’t really consider work in the same way that most people do. While the average person may work 9 to 5, and then get home and get a shitty email from a manager that they have to answer, then get a shitty text from someone else, Arianna Huffington has nobody telling her she has to be anywhere.

The concept of “life” is wholly different for someone that runs a company - their experience of flexibility is not the same as someone that works for someone else. I’m not remotely worth as much as Ms. Huffington, but I am, because I run the company, able to simply stop and start work - the only person that can fire me is a client. Even my workers, who I give a fairly flexible schedule, are still expected to do things and respond within work hours.

And everybody advocating for “work-life integration” is failing to understand this:

“In the broadest sense, they both mean the same thing: how to have a life that has time for work, and time for family, care, life, joy, play, and all of the things that make life worth living outside of work,” says Brigid Schulte, journalist, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in DC.

This putrid, evil concept is one that was created either from ignorance or malevolence. Despite spending a good amount of time digging into it, I can’t actually find an application of work-life integration, because every article I’ve read talks about “the challenges and benefits” without discussing the outcomes. I did find one statement that suggests why nobody wants to write down what this actually means from Atlassian, a company run by two billionaires:

In addition, work-life integration isn’t quite as straightforward as making individual changes – particularly for people who work within a rigid schedule or have certain family obligations. For work-life integration to be accessible, there needs to be a shift in workplace cultures and a supportive family structure to support you.

It’s simple: you just need to have a supportive family that understands that your work is your life, but they are also your life, and neither of you gets priority, but your workplace needs to understand that too.

The reality is that the only people who successfully “work-life integrate” are privileged people that don’t work very much at all. That’s the only way that someone could have the amount of control over your work life that you could tear down the boundaries of your personal life. The only other option is that you are your work - you have no other personality, and thus you can afford to burn down your non-existent persona and let work fully consume it.

It’s easy to make these recommendations when you are entirely disconnected from the rest of humanity. The reason that we have work-life balance is not because most people are workaholics - it’s because companies tend to not see work as a transaction of labor for money, but as a means of siphoning off every bit of your existence as long as they pay you. Those screaming for “more flexibility” while pushing the erosion of work-life balance are those who either don’t have anyone pressuring them on either side, or those who don’t have a real personality or personal life - for example, people who are tweeting massive threads about venture capital or Web3 or investing on a Saturday.

Those working for other people do not have the option to be flexible. They do not have the ability to “re-evaluate their professional lives” - they have bills to pay. I remember experiencing “work-life integration” when I first moved to America, in the sense that I had to answer every after-work email and text because I’d be sent back to fucking England if I got fired. In many cases, if you choose to actually try and establish firm boundaries, you are met with derision or confusion from higher-ups that don’t think you’re a “team player” or “giving it your all.”

Workers want “flexibility,” but an alarming number of people talking about flexibility don’t realize that it requires an organizational understanding of human beings, something that managers and executives commonly don’t have. When you sell a concept like flexibility vaguely, you invite evil forces to fill in the gaps - for example, that “flexibility” means “I can contact you whenever, cause it’s flexible, right?” or “well I mean you went to get your kid from soccer practice so I can call you at 7PM.”

From what I understand, workers actually want an empathetic understanding of what a work day actually is. This means specific work hours that do not require you to be anchored to one specific place. This means that when the work day is done, it’s done. This means bosses and managers that understand that if there isn’t any work to do, the person should be told what to do or simply left alone until there is work to do. And it generally means that the person in question is being paid for the work rather than a set number of hours, without the stringent management of said time unless work is not being done to the quality it needs to be. While I’m sure some sort of management freak would say “they should know what to do next” or “volunteer to do something,” but unless their job description requires them to do another task, why are they doing so without extra compensation?

The massive problem with all of this is that so many things are written with the manager in mind. Warzel and Petersen mix - and I quote Horgan here - “para-psychological coinings which prioritize novelty and identification” with manager-friendly epithets about “what a good workplace should look like” with no reckoning with the number of terrible managers and executives that exist. Without reconciling with the fundamental flaws of the workforce - the reliance on time-tracking and surveillance, the amount of useless managers we have, the way in which we’ve distanced management and managers from actual labor - you are unable to really map out what needs to change.

This is partly because I imagine many of these people - Warzel, Huffington, et. al - are writing for that audience. Their work never attacks managers and management because that would potentially reduce the total addressable market for their books and blog subscriptions. Whether this ignorance is deliberate is somewhat irrelevant.

What we actually need to do is treat those who attempt to tear down the boundaries between work and home as monsters. We should treat those who fail to evaluate the actual power structures of work and use their platforms to continue to spread meaningless, empty gestures as charlatans and those who support them as accessories. And we should see any discussion of flexibility that does not include a meaningful interrogation of who the arbiters of flexibility are as structurally flawed, and likely selling you something.

I am not saying that someone can’t write on a subject if they are distant from it - that’d be hypocritical - but that they must have a working knowledge of reality and the curiosity to investigate whether they are missing part of the story. The problem is that the media continually gives a platform to people that seek to suppress workers or aid those suppressing them.

I’m deeply upset about how many people intentionally (or otherwise) miss the point about this conversation. Despite the length and number of things I’ve written about this subject, it is not particularly complex - it just requires a transparent understanding of how many organizations are failing to distinguish between activity and productivity, and how brutally that failure hurts workers in the process. Anyone writing on this subject should have an allegiance to the workers and a suspicion of management, and it is an act of ignorance and a failure of journalism to do otherwise.

And If you enter this conversation assuming that the state of work for most people was good other than our reliance on physical real estate, you are intellectually and morally bankrupt.

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