There Is No "New Normal"

Ed Zitron 10 min read

Hey, have you ever heard about this remote work thing? Wall Street has, as several firms force people back to the office in what CNBC is calling “the New Normal.” In this case, “New Normal” is a fairly blatant attempt to realign reality to what the executive sect wants it to be - that “normal” is being in the office and the “new” part is that you are aware of how utterly stupid it is you have to do be there. Famed labor abuser Goldman Sachs forced everybody back to the office starting today, and the business media is approaching climax over the idea, with the New York Times writing not one, but two “this is the end of remote work, we’re serious!”

Naturally, the Wall Street Journal’s favorite boss microphone Chip Cutter also got involved, with a title I simply must share: “Enough, Bosses Say: This Fall, It Really Is Time to Get Back to the Office*.” To be clear, the asterisk is in the title of the article but does not appear to lead anywhere, much like many articles that the Journal has published about the future of work.

Cutter’s piece - much like the rest of them - is like a greatest hits of anti-remote propaganda, featuring quotes from Slack’s thinktank “Future Forum” to come to the vaguest conclusions possible:

When it comes to primary motivators for going into the office, “putting in facetime” rose from 2% last quarter to 10% in the most recent quarter, according to a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers from Future Forum, a consortium funded by Slack Technologies LLC, Boston Consulting Group and MillerKnoll.

“That is not good,” said Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, referring to making an appearance in front of superiors as a reason for going to the office.

Workers should ideally be motivated to go in to collaborate and build relationships with colleagues, Mr. Elliott said, not because they feel itmportant for the boss to see them working.

The same survey also showed that 40% of employees working mostly or entirely in-person said that doing so was helping their career trajectory.

Okay, we are how many years in now? And this is the best you’ve got as to why people should go to the office. Collaboration? Relationship development? Are you fucking kidding me?

And the reason that people are going into the office because they’re scared about their career trajectory is articles like this! If articles like this had said “bosses need to avoid proximity bias at all costs,” they have assumed the natural position of “bosses do not have to change their thinking in any meaningful way, but employees must do so at all times.”

Don’t believe me? Well…

Marriott hasn’t mandated specific days for a return, though Mr. Capuano said he expects office attendance to grow over time—particularly as workers start to feel left out. Already, he has noticed a shift during daylong hybrid meetings. When the in-person group breaks for lunch and rejoins the meeting in the afternoon, laughing together as the meeting resumes, those at home seem to look on with what Mr. Capuano described as the same expression of children peering into a store window in a Norman Rockwell painting. “You can tell they miss some of that unofficial interaction,” he said.

Yeah, it’s a foregone conclusion that those people will now be left out, because you as a boss have decided that this is how things work now. Leaving people out is intentional after the first occurrence - once is a mistake, twice is intentionally thinking “the people on the computer do not exist.”

Let’s check out Chip’s final anecdote:

Ally Financial encouraged employees to return to its offices in recent months. Like many companies, it found that some employees stayed home anyway, said Kathie Patterson, the financial-services company’s HR chief. Ally has hired close to 2,000 people during the pandemic, Ms. Patterson said, and new employees need to learn alongside company veterans.

The company sent a message to staff in recent weeks to remind employees that office attendance is expected, and leaders are telling staff to reiterate that point. “There is a real strong push now, after Labor Day, for all employees to come back into the workplace,” she said. “We want a more consistent schedule.”

For those workers who have spent little to no time in the office, managers are reaching out to have individual conversations, Ms. Patterson said, and may give staffers a deadline to make personal arrangements to return. Further action could take place in the year ahead.

“We’re prepared to have a very clear conversation that this position is in-office,” she said. “If they’re not in the office, it could be seen as a form of insubordination, but we have not gotten to that point yet.”

Like almost every workplace reporter, Cutter seems capable only of asking questions (or including answers) that the subject wants to hear. The natural question with Ally here is why they believe they are justified in demanding thousands of people come to the office if their jobs can be done remotely. Chip isn’t doing so because I assume, his editorial side isn’t pushing him, or he isn’t bothering, or some combination therein.

This sucks - and yes, I know I’ve said this before - because the media is extremely influential. Bosses and managers look to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to understand what “right” is - or, more specifically, what “justifiably right” is. If they want everyone to return to the office, they want articles like this to shove in their workers’ faces, with pithy quotes from one worker that wants to go back sandwiched between 500 words of corporate doublespeak justifying their return as inevitable. Workers read these publications and are told how the powerful are thinking, and what to expect.

To be extremely blunt - these articles are exercises in narrative construction. If the Wall Street Journal and New York Times decided, they could easily change the bent of these pieces from “the nasty little workers are being rude and not going to the office” to “bosses are asking people to go to the office with no real justification.”

The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg, who had dramatically improved her coverage, sadly fell into the same tropes with her own “we must go back to the office” piece. There’s the quote from the Future Forum’s director of “we love remote work but we’re really funded by people going back to the office” division, along with the largest available serving size of “both sides of the remote debate.” This piece never seems to ask the boss (why would they?) about what their justifications for in-office work are:

At Credit Karma, which has more than 1,500 employees, company leaders have persistently faced resistance on returning to the office. During several full-staff video meetings in 2020, Ms. McCreary recalled, leaders spent nearly all their time fielding questions about remote work. Much of the opposition she heard came from workers who said they were productive at home, found it easier to have a personal life with remote work and saw some competitors take the leap to permanent flexibility. The company terminated two employees for working in locations where the business isn’t authorized to operate.

“It’s always, ‘Google is doing XYZ,’ or ‘Facebook is doing XYZ,’ or ‘Small start-up down the street is doing XYZ,’ why can’t we?” Ms. McCreary said. “We’re very clear this is the choice we’ve made, and if people want to make another choice there are lots of opportunities for people from Credit Karma to go work somewhere else.”

Reporting isn’t just saying what happened, it’s asking why it happened! Why is this so god damn hard? We quickly get a (specious) anecdote from a 28-year-old manager who justifies going back to the office because he “loves to trash talk people at ping-pong” and “talk about Stranger Things” - and again, why is that considered a justification? Why is there no evaluation of the underlying reasons this is happening? Why?

“I’ll get someone on my team, we’ll stop and see Scotty who hired me, we’ll take the elevator to the eighth floor to say hi, chitchat,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I’m eager to get to work just because when something happens, I have to inform them of my own personal life gossip.”

At what point is somebody going to stop and ask questions about “what tangible, business-facing reasons do you have to be - or make people be - in the office?”

The answer is “they are never going to.”

With two years of return-to-office wrangling under their belts, some managers are feeling more confident about spelling out their expectations, both to their employees and to job applicants.

“I’ve had conversations with candidates where they’re very much like ‘I would prefer to work remote.’ Then I have people at the opposite end of the spectrum,” said Ms. Dukes, 40, the director of engineering at Credit Karma.

“Sometimes there are situations where we’re not going to align with a candidate,” she added. “That happens.”

What’s incredible about this story is how much Credit Karma sucks. The hinge of this piece about going back to the office successfully is a company best known for conning customers.

In fact, let’s take a step back - none of these pieces (and I have read just about all of them) seem to justify returning to the office at all. They do not seem to ask subjects for real or even business-adjacent reasons to go back. These pieces are written as if the assumption is that the office is good, and going back is good, but workers like to work remotely, which also works but not as well for reasons that are never discussed. The Future Forum has become the Judas Goat of remote work, existing entirely to be waved in front of the reader’s eyes whenever an anti-remote piece is run to pretend it’s “balanced.” Yet not once do I see a good faith attempt to interrogate the fundamental reasoning behind business forcing a return to the office.

The reason that “the new normal” is happening is that the media is operating as if it’s real. “The new normal” is established by the media. If the media decided the “new normal” was that remote work had “won,” and that managers and bosses were having a terrible time getting people back because they can’t justify a reason to get people to go back, the story would be that remote workers have pushed bosses left, and that this is a huge deal.

Instead, the media is firmly grasping the hand of the office-loving boss and helping them write these articles. It may not be as intentional as that seems, but the effect is the same - when you let those in power lead stories about their subordinates, you categorically fail to tell any other truth than that which the powerful wants. Having one other person from Credit Karma - one that was very clearly offered up by the office-loving CEO - is not actually reporting - it’s lazy. And if that’s the one person you found, did you attempt to find another that didn’t love the office?

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy - pro-office bosses are shown that they will be given a highlight reel in the New York Times where they will never have to justify what they’re doing. Other bosses will see this as galvanizing, and they will force through their policies as a result. And yet even then they will lose, because despite how inevitable Goldberg and Cutter seem to be describing it, people want flexibility and they want to work remotely according to McKinsey, who even layered their study data with leading questions involving people reporting “not being their whole self at work.”

One of the many problems here is that still, after so many years, reporters covering remote work are still half-assing it. They believe there is a necessity in sharing “both sides” - which, by the way, almost always means that one side gets significantly more coverage - and thus they fall into lazy tropes like “I’ll talk to Nicholas Bloom” and “I’ll talk to the Future Forum.” They still, to this god damn day, still fail to talk to workers, and still fail to even try and speak truth to power.

The Rules of The Road For Remote Workplace Journalism

Let me lay out the rules of how you actually cover this if you want to speak truth to any kind of power:

  • Executives and managers are not victims. Those in power are not having “something done to them.” If you are writing from this perspective - as Goldberg and Cutter do/have done - you are publishing a press release.

  • If you are talking to a pro-office worker or executive, yes, they have to prove themselves. This does not just mean “they have to say their reasons,” their reasons have to be interrogated. This is because of my next point.

  • The Office has yet to prove itself as useful. While there are scenarios where in-person work is useful, and anecdotes about situations where being together was good, the office has yet to fundamentally justify itself from a pro-business, pro-output perspective.

    • The following are not justifications for the office: Serendipity, collaboration, “soft work,” “team-building,” “mentorship*,” “equity,” “proximity bias**” and any other vague terms.

    • *If someone uses mentorship, ask them, in detail, for how mentorship works in their workplace. If they fail to give you a rigorous, transparent explanation, print that they dodged the question.

    • **If they bring up proximity bias, interrogate them about what they mean by that and what they have done about proximity bias, and what they think causes it. If they dodge, print that they dodged.

  • “Remote work” and “Never seeing a human being” are not the same thing. Every story on some level suggests that you never see nor talk to your colleagues again if you work remotely. This is wrong.

  • Stop talking to Nicholas Bloom and the Future Forum. If everyone uses the same sources, you are not actually reporting anything, it’s incredibly lazy. Cite them if you must, but don’t default to them.

  • You do not have to interrogate Remote Work. Remote work has proven itself. If you have to make remote work prove itself, you also have to apply the same heavy-handedness to the office, which I am sure you are not doing.

  • If you speak to a boss, you must speak to two of their employees whom you find yourself. Do not accept anyone introduced to you by the executive office.

  • If you speak to a boss, you must ask them how many hours they spend in the office a week, and how many they spent before the pandemic. You must then independently investigate this. Sorry, I know it’s a lot, but if you’re a journalist you should do these things.

  • Fundamentally, you should see this as the powerful trying to get something rather than “a debate.” Bosses and workers do not have the same power, and thus not be treated in the same way. This is not a “debate” between two equal powers, but a deeply unfair battle between people with all the power and none of the consequences and those who will suffer their choices the most. You are a shill for executives if you are not writing from this perspective.

I am deeply disappointed in how this has been covered, and hope one day it’ll improve. I am not holding my breath.

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