The Remote Work Culture War Is About To Get Political

Ed Zitron 6 min read

Today’s main character is Chris Powers, a real estate investor guy who claims, well, I’ll let you see for yourself:

His general messaging is that people are going to come rushing back to the office due to a “fear of missing out,” with “more companies coming back”:

As with all of these guys, there’s always one terrifying Glassdoor review that suggests that their workplace is like living in a psychological experiment from the 50s, but the core things he’s bringing up are incredibly consistent with the remote culture war I warned you of back in June. I made one specific prediction:

…[there will be] a culture war between those that believe workers should be in the office and those who believe that there should be a “hybrid approach,” by which they most likely mean you get a few days a week at home. It’ll start by saying “oh just a day or two here and there,” but it’ll grow into either a full of mostly full return to the office.

Why? Because bosses love control, and a lot of people build companies in stupid ways that make them feel better rather than the company better. And believe me, when they say “it’ll only be a few days a week,” they absolutely mean that you’ll return to the office full-time.

While clunkily-worded (and leaving out those who wanted full-time remote work), my prediction was mostly true - remote work is incredibly popular, and those fighting against it are using culture war-esque talking points about freedom and opportunity to claim that those who want remote work are inferior, and going to realize the “superior” form of work that is being in the office.

And, as I predicted, this was going to become political - and Mr. Powers has decided to take us there:

You may think I’m crazy, but the reason I believe this is going to happen and be drawn as a progressive versus regressive political war is that the Chris Powers doctrine of “in the office is better for those of us who really work” mantra is one that naturally matches with the GOP talking points of absolutely adoring labor and small businesses without providing actual workers with a single thing.

Here’s how it’s going to go: remote work is going to be framed as a “progressive” or, to the real assholes, “left” issue - where those that want to work from home are considered weak babies that “don’t want to do real work.” What you’ll also notice is that the people making these statements are - as usual - executives at companies that claim to have a vast understanding of what makes a “high functioning team” work.

This naturally matches the GOP messaging - people don’t want to work, we love workers, but they’re lazy and entitled, and we hate authorities controlling our lives but also believe that the boss knows best for the stupid little worms that work for him. Remote work may be a bipartisan favorite, but democrats like it more, which is why I think it’s going to become a Republican talking point to go against it.

Think about it - as we approach two years of the pandemic, the Republicans have spent their time banging a drum about people not wanting to go back to work due to pandemic benefits. It’s always had one specific core: workers should want to work, and they are wrong for not going back to work. American prosperity is painfully attached to the zealotry around the morality of working, that someone is wrong for not wanting to work and even worse for not following the path of our big, beautiful bosses. And Republicans are already working against teleworking in the government.

It’s all about the optics of work rather than the actual labor, which is why so many of the pieces about returning to the office are dominated by bosses, much like Republican policies that continually put money in business owners’ hands rather than workers. If you’re not at the office, or going to the office, or returning to the office, did you really work today? Can you tell someone you “went to work” if you went to work at your computer in your house?

The answer is “yes,” but it’s less aesthetically satisfying to today’s increasingly more deranged and speciously-sourced republican. I can imagine it already - commercials and talking points where democrats are framed as lazy elites that sit around at home playing minesweeper while hard-working republicans go to the office to do “real work,” with advertisements paid for by PACs of conservative ghouls that work remotely themselves. Terrible things will be said like “farmers can’t afford to work from home” (thanks @FanSince09) along with migraine-inducing campaigns featuring “real work happens in the office.”

Think I’m wrong? Check out England, America’s atrocity tutor. Conservative minister Jake Berry said, and I quote, that “we have to end the Civil Service “woke-ing” from home,” a joke that makes less sense every time you think about it, and Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden agreed:

The following day, Tory party chairman and former culture secretary Oliver Dowden piled in. Dowden complained that there were more occupied desks in Conservative campaigns HQ than in his old department. The public wanted the Government to “lead by example” and get more civil servants “back to work”, he said.

And, of course, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “we will and must see people back in the office,” and that “a productive workforce” only comes from “face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip.” And this may have entirely come as a retort to the Labor Party’s position that workers must have a right to work from home and that flexible work should be the default.

The protestant work ethic is going to be injected into the remote work debate, where those who wish to sit at home are “not really working” (ignoring the popularity of remote work in several big red states) - and the position of believing that flexibility or remote work is a good idea will be seen as a “woke” perspective where we’re “letting people off” work. It’s the same kind of white, patriarchal logic bogging down the paternity leave debate - that Real Workers (or “Real Men” in the eyes of the GOP) Go to Work and Weak Baby Men and Women work from home.

Working from home will be a question of morality.

It’s a natural pivot from attacking vulnerable workers being dropped from unemployment insurance to finding a way to demonize office workers. The Republicans have a neat way to demonize liberal white-collar workers - to position them as “woke” because they “allow” people to “stay at home instead of working.” It’s the kind of weak, empty talking point that will energize wealthy bosses that want to see their workers in the office while suppressing the actual workers that don’t want to go back. And when these workers are forced back, the GOP will take this as a talking point to prove that they were right, and “real” workers are “going back to work.”

You know all the times I’ve talked about how harmful the anti-worker anti-remote pieces are? This is how that harm begins to manifest. You may very well think I’m paranoid for suggesting it, but it is an inevitable way in which the right and the Republicans can pretend that they support “work” - by “getting people back to work” and “getting the economy going again.” These things may not be connected to the economy, and remote work may be happening in red states, but remote work is a convenient target that naturally dovetails with the “get people back to work” messaging.

The question is whether this will lead to legislation. Counterintuitively, Republican Senator Thune has been fighting for remote workers’ rights related to taxation during COVID-19, but Unsuccessful Commercial Maker and Congressman Dan Crenshaw introduced a bill called the “Return Act” that would mandate that all federal agency heads “require the level of telework of employees of agencies to return to the level of telework of those employees on February 14, 2020.” While it does not appear to go anywhere, the ideas are still there. Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas appears to have submitted an identical bill, co-sponsored by Republican senators from Indiana and North Dakota.

In the event that the GOP regains power, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re going to push for this kind of legislation - first at the governmental level, and then at the civil level. While it will be difficult to enforce a “return to work” policy for businesses, I can imagine there will eventually be pushes - productive or otherwise - to mandate that certain large companies can’t have a predominantly remote workforce, which big companies will love because it will allow them to justify a “return to work.”

The idea of it being “woke” to work from home sucks and doesn’t make any sense, which is why it is likely to become a conservative talking point in the next 6 months. All of this logic is so offensive, so utterly disconnected from reality, built by people that love to see their underlings skitter around - and that’s before you leave congress and talk to the business geniuses that desperately want this to happen.

Maybe I’m just imagining things and none of this will happen. But I can’t see a future in which remote work isn’t used as some sort of talking point to prove that they don’t actually care about or understand workers.

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