Today's Pro-Office Propaganda: Gaslighting Remote Workers

Ed Zitron 4 min read

The latest anti-remote propaganda campaign has arrived - a study by insurance company Breeze that says that specifically evaluates 'what people would be willing to give up’ for remote work. The study shows that an overwhelming amount of respondents would take pay cuts to stay remote, and an alarming amount (39%!) would give up health insurance benefits, and of course, the media has fallen over itself to promote this study of 1000 people from an online poll with no margin of error.

It plays into a narrative that the executive class desperately wants to promote - that remote work is something that makes you as a worker inferior to the in-office worker, making you less valuable to the company. Because you can’t drive an hour and plant your ass on a chair in an office to do exactly the same thing you’d be doing at home, you’re considered a second class citizen - evaluated not just on the quality of your work or the skillset you have, but your attendance. Facebook has already said that they’ll be cutting people’s compensation if they move to a “lower-cost area,” which is equal parts confusing and insulting.

This is yet another part of the remote culture war’s propaganda arm, where the executive class is seeking to bolster their pro-office agenda by devaluing remote work itself. The strategy is simple - when you’re unable to convince people that the office is worthwhile, you have to convince them that remote work is inferior - something that will pay you less and stymie your career growth. As usual, The Wall Street Journal has already been working this angle, building a paranoid narrative out of a study that says 60% of workers think that it will hurt their career advancement if they admit they’d rather keep working remote - the one time in which I’d have wanted to have bosses surveyed.

These pieces have a fairly obvious goal - to disenfranchise those who wish to be permanently remote, by telling them that they’ll get paid less and have fewer chances for career advancement. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy - if workers don’t believe that remote work will be treated equitably, they’ll avoid going permanently remote, meaning that companies won’t actually have to adjust their policies and mechanisms to cater to remote work. It is an attempt to drain the movement of life without having to say the quiet part out loud that companies want people in offices because they like seeing their people.

The Media Needs To Dream Bigger

I believe most of the media is dropping the ball on the entire remote debate because, for whatever reason, they have no interest in dreaming big. They do not want to consider a future that’s actually remote, because it works against the traditional status quo - and thus demote themselves to arguing against it as much as humanely possible. CNN wrote on Monday that remote work would damage the economy by not having people take busses and subways, which means that remote work is bad because it affects metropolitan areas.

It’s rare that any of them make the point that things change over time and that remote work may be popular for a reason. While the media has been happy to see various industries disrupted by truly evil companies (see: Uber), they don’t seem quite as enthralled by the idea of society itself being disrupted by people no longer being married to a location purely based on their job. And, naturally, they fail to actually consider the real victims of the situation - the blue-collar workers that work in fast food joints, for example - and always talk about the vague loss to “the economy.”

The counterpoint that they also fail to evaluate is that these blue-collar workers can rarely afford to live in the metropolitan areas that they have to work in. If remote work significantly drains the number of people having to live in these areas for work, it’ll potentially lower the amount of money it costs to live there, meaning that people won’t have to work 4.9 jobs to make rent to live in places like San Francisco. But this isn’t the problem that the media seems to have with the remote future - it’s that wage-slaves won’t be buying lattes and salads, which hurts the bottom line of big companies.

I cannot express enough how irrelevant this is. Starbucks will be fine. Who cares.

And if you’re actually concerned about the workers who may lose jobs, that is a totally different argument - and not one that ends with the justification of in-person office work. Vox has a good piece on the subject, and there is a very large conversation to be had around whether remote work is going to create a societal divide between those who can work at home and those who can’t.

We already saw a version of this happen during COVID - those who were able to stay quarantined at home and those who had to risk their lives to bag groceries or serve food. There is a huge potential economic run-on effect of remote work that will take years to truly understand.

This is also a conscious way in which the media demonizes the remote worker (for not coming into the office and supporting “local businesses” predominantly owned by massive corporations) and supports the anti-remote executive. It is giving office-based work credit for empowering the economy while also placing the burden of the economy on the worker, suggesting they’re selfish for not wanting to go somewhere because of the unintended consequences of their actions.

There continues to be an association with the office as some sort of masterful hub of productivity, and that’s what drives these pieces. There are very few of them that ask what actually happens next - what does a fully remote workforce look like? Would it lead to a dissolution of what we consider “business centers”? Would we even have physical offices? What would need to change?

I’d argue these questions are rarely asked because those in power do not want to have remote work framed as the hegemonic vision of white-collar work, for the many, many reasons I’ve said before. Remote work continues to be something that is posed as an alternative and an experiment, rather than the way in which work that is done at a computer should be done. Framing it as such means that those who are in power are able to maintain said power - disregarding the current remote environment as something to tolerate rather than evidence that things need to change.

This is all an exercise in gaslighting the remote worker - convincing them that the success they see in remote work is bad for their career and bad for the economy. There is a concerted effort to make those working remote scared for their futures and return to the office for fear that they’ll be left out. The media continues to demand more of the worker that wants to stay remote and very little of the executive that wants to see them occasionally in the office, and that conversation needs to change.

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