The Return To Office Rodeo

Ed Zitron 10 min read
The Return To Office Rodeo

Readers, you will be shocked to hear that the New York Times has posted another thing about remote work, which focused on companies trying to convince people to return to the office. This three-byline epic focuses on several companies (one of them being Google) doing things like having concerts or free food to convince people to come back to the office.

It is, by and large, a boring article that includes some very strange anecdotes:

But Google employees in Boulder, Colo., were still reminded of what they were giving up when the company gave them mouse pads with the image of a sad-eyed cat. Underneath the pet was a plea [editor’s note: this link is to a deleted tweet]: “You’re not going to RTO, right?”

Other than the mild sociopathy of sending your employees weird coded messages in mousemats, the article manages to show at length exactly how far companies are going to convince people to return for the time being. As with many return-to-office pieces, this special treatment and adoration for people willing to waste hours commuting is framed as a permanent situation, where companies are now going to be treating you extra special nice for being with them in the office.

To mark its first official week back at the office, the chip maker Qualcomm held a happy hour with its chief executive, Cristiano Amon, at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees with free food, drink and T-shirts. The company also started offering weekly events such as pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group fitness classes for “Wellness Wednesday.”

Okay, so let’s do some napkin math here. Weekly events like “take a break Tuesday” - which has no further discussion nor description - or group fitness classes cost what, $500? At most? This isn’t a lot of money for a giant corporation, nor is it much of an incentive. Nobody should give these companies credit for any of this.

It’s also extremely suspect and weird how these companies are creating these temporary measures that specifically involve not doing work at the office. Companies have entered some sort of bizarro world where their best hope to get people to come back to the inefficient world of the office is to bring them there so that they can do less work, costing the company money at the same time.

“These celebrations and perks are a recognition by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as frequently as before,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s business school. At least for now, he added, companies are opting for the carrot over the stick: rewarding workers for coming into the office rather than punishing them for staying home.

Hey, did one of the three people that wrote this article think to ask Galinsky about that weird comment about punishing people for staying home? Why would they do that? What did they do wrong? Who is punishing remote workers? That feels like a more important topic to address than “companies are spending money to waste time.” Nah, moving on!

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 workers every month, said most wanted to return to the office two or three times per week. One-third never want to return to the office and prefer to remain remote.

Just by eliminating the office commute, Mr. Bloom said, the average worker will save one hour a day, so “you can see why employees are not going to start coming to work for free bagels or to play Ping-Pong.” The main draw for heading to the office, according to the surveys, is that employees want to see colleagues in person.

And now we’ve arrived at the “New York Times agenda” part of the article. Bloom’s surveys, which are linked to in the article, actually make a fairly compelling case for remote work:

It also makes a vast assumption about what “hybrid” means:

While this data could mean “most people want hybrid work,” it’s also fairly easy to read it as “most people either never want to go into an office or only want to go into the office.” It’s the New York Times quoting a Stanford Professor, so naturally, they’ve misread the data in a way that bolsters their argument. 32% of respondents want to work from home permanently, and only (I add that this is a confusingly-worded and presented chart) only 28.1% want to go in 2 to 3 days a week. It is very easy to see this - even if it’s written poorly - but I assume that the Times never actually looked at Bloom’s data and thus never asked, “hey man, why did you…lie? Why did you lie about your data?”

One can also make the compelling argument that 53% of respondents want to be in the office for two days or less - which, paired with Bloom’s data that says most people want to do so to see their colleagues, suggests that people want to see their colleagues rather than see them at the office.

I assume it’s because it’s harder to write an article that says, “most people want to work remotely, but there’s a good-sized group that wants to work from home 2-3 times a week.” It also weakens the derisive language that the Times likes to inject about people wearing their pajamas, and makes the transparent dislike of remote work on the editorial level at the Times even more laughable…so of course they’re going to resort to out-and-out lying. Why not? Why produce a newspaper that informs people when you could actively attempt to undermine workers instead?

The piece also fails to mention the anti-remote Google executive who moved to New Zealand to work remotely - I assume because it undermines the benevolent company angle - and specifically fails to talk to a single worker, spending most of the piece quoting business professors and executive missives.

And honestly, there is no greater criticism I can lay against a Times writer than not talking to a worker about returning to the office. The worker is the person affected by this. All of this nonsense party bullshit isn’t remotely relevant compared to what they think. A corrupt reading of a Stanford professor is nothing compared to having a real conversation with a real worker that’s really affected by this (something that Emma Goldberg at the Times has vastly improved on). I wonder why they’re not present? Is it because they hate this ridiculous, inefficient circus? Or is this newspaper not written for those that work, but for those that pay workers?

The Return To Office Lie

All of this pantomime nonsense is a smokescreen.

Instead of actually improving the working conditions at the office or letting people work remotely (making them happier and more productive), these companies are piling resources into hiring Lizzo to do a one-off concert. I sure hope you like Lizzo, because more than likely, Google spent millions of dollars hiring her to do a concert that you have to attend work to see, likely after hours.

What happens after these return-to-office articles stop being written and we approach something approximating normality? Nothing. That’s what happens. Nothing changes for a single person, and articles like this help empower companies to keep abusing employees. The lack of any employee commentary - and these reporters are capable of getting it - this article is just propaganda, framing the office as this big, fun, and enjoyable place where you go to hang with people and get paid.

The reality is that once the hubbub dies down, people will realize that they’ve been conned. “Wellness Wednesdays” and other temporary bandaids to con you into returning will disappear. The office will return to being a room with a computer in it that serves exactly the same function as it would if you were at home.

These articles also fail to reconcile with how much is being spent to con people into returning and how much of a huge waste of money it all is to do something that is proven to be less efficient. We’ve got plenty of derisive jokes about athleticwear and “work outfits,” but where are the nasty little jabs about wasteful corporations trying to cram people back into a room for - as the data shows - no tangible benefit of any kind? Why is there no mention of the other research that says 1-2 days a week is the sweet spot for hybrid work?

The answer is nowhere, because the Times has spent more time fumbling the ball on remote work coverage than speaking truth to power. Why is there no conversation in here with a Google executive asking them how much this all costs, and why they’re doing it? How is there no mention of how deeply unpopular Google’s return to office mandate has been? Or Apple’s crackdown on remote work?

Why is the story never from the perspective of those working for these companies? Why does it always have to be on the company’s terms? I mean, we know the answer is that journalism regularly fails to interrogate power and that it’s easiest to write the easy story rather than the right one.

Every one of these companies doing these ridiculous theatrics to attract people back should be faced with derision and venom. Every cent that’s spent trying to con workers into returning to the office is money that could’ve been spent on making their lives easier in the workplace, but corporations have been allowed to use these anti-worker, pro-hegemony cult events as positive corporate PR that makes it seem like they care.

But they do not care. If they cared, they would be attempting to make the case to workers about returning to the office, and on failing accept that they cannot convince them and try and work something out.

The problem here is that there is never a spirit of negotiation or reconciliation with companies, only a media-approved cry of “we’re doing this and you don’t like it but you’re stupid, for not doing so so come in and enjoy your treats on our dime you nasty little goblin.” These events drip with condescension and derision and are a big middle finger to every single worker at the company that wants to work remotely.

These events are are very simple statement: “the company does what it wants, even if it’s bad for the company. We do not respect you enough to do something that’s mutually beneficial, because seeing you in the office makes us feel happy, and ultimately that’s the only party that matters in this relationship. We care what you think, but only in as much as it helps us feel good about ourselves.”

Any company that is creating some sort of weird thing they’re doing to lure people back to the office should be met with suspicion (though I add, any company sending people back, in general, should be too). These events are being framed as permanent additions to make the office fun that will go the moment that media attention around remote work lapses.

What’s truly depressing and bile-inducing about these stories is how they never seem to inquire about what is being done to make workers’ lives better if they return to the office. Corporations are never asked what long-term improvements they’re making or what quality-of-life improvements they’re making, just what they’re doing as far as COVID-19 goes and what stupid, meaningless ways they’re using to con people into returning to the office.

If a company is investing money in glossy little shindigs to “celebrate” returning to the office, the only question to ask is “what’re you spending to make your workers’ lives better?” We do not need more explanations about how the office is good for collaboration, or that people love the office, or that people are excited to see their  colleagues. We need actual reporting that interrogates - not asks - the underlying beliefs that are pushing companies that have made billions off of remote work to actively reject it.

And we need someone to ask why money spent on elaborate theatrics isn’t directly being put into the pockets of workers, or at the very least spent on something that will have a lasting positive effect on their lives.

But the problem is that so much of this is written as if these things are inevitable and justified decisions. Those who want to work remotely are described as wanting to sit around in their athletic gear rather than avoiding a commute or, of course, avoiding a deadly virus still killing hundreds of people a day and burdening others with long COVID.

I wish - just once - that this level of scorn or derision was levied at the lazy, entitled assholes running these companies and forcing their workers to return to the office. The Times - as I’ve said before - clearly has a remit to attack remote work, and by proxy attack remote workers, and seems incapable of any kind of investigation that doesn’t end up with a sloppy kiss on the boot of those of power.

Let me tell you what’s actually happening here: big companies are being driven by executives that are barely in the office to have people back in the office because they want to justify their stupid, wasteful real estate and feel good about having people that they own running around the office. These executives have escaped the realm of monetary concern, and thus can only get their kicks by manipulating the time and space of those that work for them.

To view this as a “struggle” between two parties is disingenuous - it suggests that both sides have equal power in the relationship, and that both sides have reasonable arguments. The reality is that one side - those in power - has no meaningful argument to have people back, and articles like these exist only to give them more justification because they can now tell themselves that “the Times has given us good press around our return to office efforts.”

Nobody on the corporate level is acting in good faith, and they should be treated as such. There is no reason to humor their ideas, nor hear their explanations. There is no reason to write about their “return to office efforts” with anything other than suspicion and these efforts should be treated as coercion rather than celebration.

I am sick and tired of writing these criticisms. Not because they’re hard to write, but because every one of them is a stark reminder that even intelligent and well-sourced reporters that absolutely know what they’re talking about can end up being willing stooges for trillion-dollar enterprises that are making calls entirely by ego.

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