The Pro-Office "Silent Majority" Is A Lie, And The Powerful Want Remote Work To End

Ed Zitron 11 min read
The Pro-Office "Silent Majority" Is A Lie, And The Powerful Want Remote Work To End

Honk! Honk! Pull over, loyal readers. Pull way over. Keep going. More. To tell you the truth, you better clear the road completely. I’ve returned from vacation to find an absolute mess of articles about remote work - and work in general! - that I am no longer simply thinking that some people dislike remote work, but that there is an effort - if not a coordinated one - to actively work against it at scale. I’ve received a few pitches since I put out my first Insider opinion piece on the Metaverse, and unsurprisingly it’s mostly negative - like a study that said 7 out of 10 people are “experiencing discomfort with their work-at-home setup” that made me laugh so hard I fell off my chair.

In any case, we’ve seen a pair of articles in the last week or so that have melted my brain down into a paste that you could feed to a horse - not a person! - starting with the New York Times’ “It’s ‘Back to That Isolation Bubble’ for Workers Pining for the Office.” It’s the usual anti-remote dreck that the Times has been pumping out - it starts with a story that’s meant to make me feel sad but mostly just annoys me:

Before the pandemic, Roya Joseph’s days at the office were defined by interaction. She looked forward to casual conversations with co-workers, mentorship sessions with managers and periodic, freewheeling chats — known as “teatime” — in the office kitchen.

All that was swept away when Ms. Joseph, a water engineer for Black & Veatch, an engineering firm, was sent home from her Walnut Creek, Calif., office along with the rest of her colleagues as the coronavirus began spreading through the United States last year. She jumped at the opportunity to return when her office reopened to some employees in June.

But two weeks ago, the rug was pulled out from under her again. Black & Veatch shut its offices as virus cases rose nationwide, driven by the contagious Delta variant.

Let’s get this out here: people not going back to the office are not victims and should not be portrayed as such. Furthermore, “casual conversations with co-workers” and “freewheeling chats” are not things that should justify a return to the office. This introduction is meant to portray this person as a victim of circumstance - they can’t go back to the office, and we should feel bad for them because they can’t, by their own admission, bullshit with colleagues and have teatime in the kitchen.

The writer then says that there is “a silent majority of Americans do want to get back to the office,” based on a study that The Times had commissioned (emphasis mine):

In a national survey of more than 950 workers, conducted in mid-August by Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times, 31 percent said they would prefer to work from home full time. By comparison, 45 percent said they wanted to be in a workplace or an office full time. The remaining 24 percent said they wanted to split time between work and home.

Morning Consult surveyed workers from a variety of industries, so white-collar office workers were represented alongside those working in other fields, like retail. The data intelligence company’s findings echoed recent internal surveys by employers like Google and Twitter, as well as outside surveys by firms like Eden Workplace.

So, within the first few paragraphs of this story we’re immediately seeing how one injects bias into an objective piece - through ignoring studies that say otherwise, and making sure that their study is inherently biased - why do retail workers, who I imagine do not work from home, and of course no other information about the rest of the study. This is nothing short of a deliberate attempt to attack remote work - positioning those who want to go back to the office as weak and powerless, and those that want to stay remote as demanding and lacking in empathy.

The justifications are always the same - a Harvard professor who has “studied remote work for decades” (lol) and still can’t find a good justification for the office, beyond the world’s weakest argument that  “some people just dislike the screen — their physicality and their proximity to others is a big part of what work looks like.” If I was a reporter hearing that, I’d ask a simple question, if I didn’t want to attack remote work: does physicality and proximity to others, or indeed “what work looks like,” make the office better?

The piece does the usual anti-remote crap - a new Googler that’s used as scare-propaganda:

“If we don’t get a really solid foundation at this company in our first six months, our first year, what foot does that leave us on for the rest of our time at the company?” said Mr. Pantera, who lives in San Francisco. “What if that disillusions a lot of really bright, passionate, smart people from the industry?”

It probably won’t disillusion them assuming they work for people over the age of 50, because those people can communicate over Zoom and Slack and be fine. Unless it’s Google Hangouts, in which case I totally understand why he might be scared he can’t see his colleagues (a little joke there for my technological readers!).

The writer also brings in a worker with cerebral palsy, discussing how her life was better with her daily walking commute to the office (working at a musical theater company) - her daily walks “provided a form of mild exercise that helped her cope.” This is absolutely the right conversation to have - but, because the subject of the article is those that want to go back to the office, it lacks the rigidity of sourcing and argument that one would expect from a major outlet, seems to completely leave out those with disabilities that remote work helps.

In fact, I’d argue not having balanced sourcing and using a disabled person as a means of justifying the usefulness of the office without a counterargument and counterparty included is deeply irresponsible, verging on harmful.

Sidebar: The one thing I will add with this is that the writer does make a good point that there are people that can’t work remotely because they’re in an apartment with someone else, or their child interferes with their work - these are all actual, real things to discuss, tangible situations and concepts that have to be addressed on a societal level.

The work-life balance of being in your home all the time when you don’t have a dedicated work space is a huge challenge and discussion, one that I honestly do not have all the answers for. Depending on the job, people may want co-working spaces, or they may simply have to move somewhere with more space so they can work from home, all of which comes from a place of privilege - but so is the privilege of being able to live close enough to work to actually go there.

My problem with this piece is very simple: why did it have to exist? What party wanted this written, and for what reason? Did the writer simply set out to be contrarian, joining the Times in their unsubtle crusade to crush remote workers? This isn’t even both-sidesism, because it is very much one-sided, as proven by the Times’ “Remote Work Era” pieces that consistently frame remote work as a force of evil and discord.

This article is an exercise in hypocritical, speaking of the “silent majority” while using the thinnest possible sourcing to define that there is a majority to speak of. People very much want remote jobs, and the majority wants to work remotely. The idea that there is a “silent majority” is never interrogated, treated as a good thing that’s being cruelly removed, hurting people in the process. Remote work is disregarded as a surprise phenomenon with no positives - and the writer, deliberately or otherwise, accepts this and chooses to promote a very loud, annoying, and specious series of arguments from an extremely vocal minority.

And on a personal note: you can fuck off trying to blame remote work for burnout. The worst burnout I’ve ever had was working in an office, and judging by the responses I get every newsletter; I get the sense that I’m not the only one.

The Bosses Are Anxious

The Times isn’t the only guilty party, with Chip Cutter of the Wall Street Journal writing more panicked bossaganda, saying that Remote Work May Now Last for Two Years, Worrying Some Bosses. You may remember Mr. Cutter from June, where he wrote a truly vile piece (“The Boss Wants You Back in the Office. Like, Now.”) that I eviscerated for its empty-headed propaganda for some of the worst bosses in the world.

Clearly Chip was not done cutting, because this piece is one for the ages.

While it starts well, then immediately becomes a message board for people who don’t actually do any work but like seeing people in the office, publishing the ramblings of the Vice-Chair of Prudential, Rob Falzon:

Prudential plans to allow for a mix of in-person and remote work once U.S. offices reopen. But the longer people stay at home, the more Mr. Falzon worries about employees feeling disconnected. “My single greatest concern is around talent,” he said. “As individuals disassociate themselves with their organizations from a cultural standpoint, it becomes increasingly easy for them to make decisions to leave and go elsewhere.

Already, many employees are “bombarded” with messages from recruiters and friends, attempting to lure them elsewhere, he said. “When they’re in the workplace, I think they have a broader sense of connection to the platform, to the culture of the organization—their fellow employees, their teams—that makes them less inclined to want to leave,” Mr. Falzon said.

Now, if I were a journalist writing for an internationally respected paper, at this point, I’d ask “what exactly is bad about that?” and then publish the results. Perhaps the point of this article might be something about how the office is a means of control rather than getting things done, and that is what scares the executive sect! But instead, it’s mostly framing remote employees as disconnected dunderheads, unable to plug themselves into the “culture” of the company. In reality, it seems these people are saying “hey, am I getting paid enough? Is this a good job?” and acting based on that information.

The most telling part of the article is Cutter’s quote of a CEO that says that “[he thinks] that [creating a sense of connection] is going to be really important, so people don’t feel like they’re just locked in their basements.” What a fun way to dismiss remote workers! But also a thing that’s said by a guy who’s definitely not actually had to sit at his desk all day for many, many years - especially considering he’s on the board  of three different companies, not including his own. He then hits us with one of the more evil series of sentences I’ve ever seen:

“There are people who have been working from home for, like all of us, a long time, and say that because it’s habitual, we’re used to it, and change is difficult,” Mr. Bradford said.

He is sympathetic to those arguments, but also tells employees that they must think of the organization as a whole. “An individual may be very productive at home, but the new employee who is trying to learn the culture and trying to develop through apprenticeship may really suffer too much,” he said.

First of all, nobody is doing apprenticeships, and I think we need to start making a rule that you can’t be interviewed about remote work if you graduated college before the year 2000. People don’t “apprentice” anymore, and mentorship in the office is not something that is some magical unicorn that requires you to be physically next to each other. It’s also such an old guy phrase, borne of someone who hasn’t had to do real work in an actual office in some time - my man; you run an investment management firm, you are not making pottery, all of that can be done remotely.

I also want to be clear that this is another guy who is not an active participant in “the culture” he is talking about. Looking at the Conning Glassdoor, it sounds like there’s a fairly consistent problem with the company has bias toward people who are friends with management, and has a culture that’s catty, political and has “terrible management [and] communication.” It also sounds like their bizarre culture also requires you to have business formal all the time, which is fairly well documented as racially biased. I wonder if Mr. Bradford knows that his management is considered “hot-headed and narcissistic”?

The final quote is wonderful:

Many workers are still eager to see offices repopulated, said Ms. Cowger, the CEO of the law firm Schwabe, which employs about 400 people across the Pacific Northwest. Her firm delayed its mandatory office return until at least November, though Ms. Cowger said she eventually wants employees back in offices, some of the time, to help local cities recover economically and to ensure colleagues learn from each other.

“We can’t keep our office closed indefinitely,” she said. “We just can’t.”

The pearl-clutching at the end is very, very funny, especially when you read Glassdoor reviews that say that nobody knows what they’re doing, that the micro-management is horable (sic), and that Schwab has “poor leadership.” These are all recent reviews, too - easily found by, say, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. But why challenge your sources when you’re on a roll of attacking remote work?

What’s Going On?

I cannot really understand why these articles exist, other than to speak to a very specific readership that wants their stupid ideas (everyone back to the office, because of culture!) supported in the world’s most respected news outlets. These articles are framed as thoughtful pieces that interrogate the status quo, but also seem to be very much set on promoting those in power and how they want things to be. These outlets seem steadfastly dedicated to investigating and routing out all of the problems of remote work, rarely discussing the millions of people that have been successfully working remotely before the pandemic and those who have continued to do so throughout.

If I had to guess, it’s either that these articles are written with the unsaid thought that remote work is here to stay, and thus we must tell the story of those who don’t like it, or that there is an editorial remit to “investigate remote work and those who are against it.” It’s the same genus that brought us several million “we talked to Trump voters,” except with an even flimsier premise and a dark and clear-set agenda from management - to frame remote work as temporary and inferior to the office.

What frustrates me is they always frame the runaway success of many remote work companies as edge-cases, and those who want to return to the office as “real” businesses. They talk at length to CEOs and VPs who graduated college before we had WiFi connections, continually promoting the idea that office culture exists in a positive sense and that we simply can’t keep offices closed indefinitely. Remote work is continually framed as yet to prove itself, despite having done so for over a year and being the reason that many companies didn’t simply shut down.

Another sidenote: I also don’t believe that every single person over the age of 50 is anti-remote. I just believe that the majority of CEOs/upper-management people that are older are likely to not actually have a real understanding of how their day-to-day business actually functions, and likely spent a chunk of their lives before the Internet was ubiqutious.

Now, the natural counterargument is that not every article arguing for something can have a fully balanced opinion - which I truly agree with! - but an esteemed outlet like the Times or the Journal has the depth of editorial bench that this is becoming increasingly inexcusable. The Times has pushed two separate op-eds in the last two months by management about remote work, pieces filled with such poison that a lack of balance is a tacit agreement from the outlet that this is what they believe.

And perhaps they do, and that’s why these pieces keep running - an endless flume of anti-worker and pro-management propaganda that positions those in power as victims. If the argument for the office had any rigor, we’d be seeing more informed and robust takes than “we need to go back…because of culture!” and “what about mentorship?” from CEOs and Vice Presidents that don’t mentor anyone or contribute to the culture.

The good news is that the continual flow of these articles suggests that remote work is winning - these articles continue to grasp at straws, using cheap tricks and empty research to back up their arguments. Remote is winning.

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