One of the most common questions I get these days is “where are you based?” followed by, usually, some sort of positive response. I distinctly remember this time last year thinking that the adjustment to saying I lived in Las Vegas would be painful, that clients would leave, that people would not want to hire me based on the fact that I wasn’t pressing my butt onto a seat in California. But the pandemic created the right environment to make the change, as everybody was forced to make the transition to remote work at once, and accept that this was the future for, in their (and my) mind “just a few months” until this blew over. I also realize I’m writing this from the knowledge worker “do things on the computer” position.
Hell, I placed a few clients talking about this transition - saying that the inevitable consequence of all of this was that few would willingly return to a totally office-based work day, but I didn’t really think about the fact that all of this was really sort of inevitable. The pandemic didn’t so much cause this shift in as much as it rapidly accelerated people’s willingness to give this idea of remote work a go - there had been occasional considerations of people doing so, always marred with the idea of “but what if I’m treated as less of a member of the team? What if I don’t get the in-person serendipity that I think work relies on?”
The forced jump made all of us reconsider all of the things in the workplace that we considered essential, making them unnecessary, nice to have, good to lose or truly essential. I can’t really think of anything from a physical office I miss (as I have been remote since 2012), but I am also seeing other people realize how much of their day was potentially wasted on bullshit. Now said bullshit is reframed as Zoom meetings that people go into and zone out of, which is a problem in and of itself, but the amount of time that we’ve burned going to and leaving places of work and being around other people feels ridiculous at this point.
It’s extremely dependent on the job, I imagine, but even one that’s dependent on in-person presence likely has had to re-evaluate what is essential versus non-essential about the office. Does it make sense to have one? How much can be done from home? Can the office be replaced with a single weekly offsite? What does the office do? Who is it for? What does it achieve? What are we not achieving by not being in the office? Why?
One thing that’s been bouncing around my brain that I’m not sure about is team camaraderie. On one hand, I wonder if the highs and lows are missed in a remote office - when things are going well, how do you celebrate that over text? You can’t all cheer, you can’t high five, you can’t do any of that. And when things are bad, how do you commiserate and huddle together?
Saying that, though, I would remember how bad moods would truly make working in an office worse. When things were going badly, the malaise of walking into work and seeing everyone, and everyone knowing things were bad was a massive dampener. Tension doesn’t transfer from person-to-person as quickly as it does digitally. Someone’s bad mood, someone’s bad day can’t as quickly spread throughout the office and bring the mood down - not to say that it can’t spread at all, but it is isolated in the sense that there is not the physical presence of someone sighing, or looking sad, or looking angry. When the boss is on the warpath, they can’t stomp around looking pissed off and start barking orders.
This doesn’t mean this shittiness can’t be spread via email or Slack, but I distinctly remember how miserable a workplace can get - even a good one! - when someone is upset, or something bad happens. When things are going great those highs are very enjoyable in person, but for the most part, you remember the lows and feel them so much more.
“Where Are You Based?”
The ability to work remote is in many, many cases more efficient for both sides of the knowledge worker coin. There’s the almost trite calculation of lost time commuting - anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes each way depending on the state - but the mental and physical exhaustion from doing so is trying. It is one way in which capital separates us from our humanity and our industry - we are required to be places for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious, spending at least an hour going to and from a place, being around people that may get us sick, or upset us, sometimes not eating breakfast or eating dinner late because we’re so busy going to or leaving our jobs.
It’s not simply the time that was taken from our commutes and our offices, but the radioactive effects of being made to do so. Often the calculations about whether in person work is that much better are made by the people removed from the work product itself - the most privileged, the ones with the least friction between living and working, or those that see no friction between them because they’ve completely removed the line.
It’s not simply about being or not being in a major metro like San Francisco or New York, but the amount of time that we no longer have to actually enjoy living in them. Many people move to these very expensive places to get jobs in them, but don’t get to integrate with the culture and community, partly because so much of their lives is absorbed by work and the focus on work and the going to work and networking for work and being at work and leaving work and having to go into the office for work. Some of this is by choice, but in some cases it’s that there simply isn’t the time, especially in the work day. Giving people back that time so that travel between places isn’t entirely capital focused is a net positive.
The 9 to 5
The physical presence in an office is productivity’s paper tiger - I have seen some of the most productive-looking people in the world do nothing, but because of their consternation and seemingly frenetic pace of typing or appearance on the phone, they’re considered hard workers. It’s an assumption that those who turn up in a place and do a thing are better at doing the thing rather than evaluating the thing they’re doing, and conflates success with arbitrary, meaningless attendance, based off of the idea that because serendipity is possible, it is going to happen all the time.
The average office environment exists to promote hegemony and cliques, and I have never really seen a manager or CEO that has successfully dealt with this because it’s dealing with human nature. This still happens digitally, but in person the Us Versus Them feeling is that much worse. Those who stand out are more likely to be victimized, those who are different more likely to be ostracized, and, terrifyingly in my experience, those who do too well are likely to be hated.
Then there’s the basic thing of attaching our lives to our work, which is a much bigger problem than I think I’m intellectually able to satisfyingly address. But the idea of having to live in a place to go to a place to work is one that promotes entirely basing our lives, our milestones, our existence around work, and any changes (having kids, wanting more space) are seen as detracting from the thing we’ve based our entire existence on. It makes businesses less likely to hire people who are actually happy where they live, and more likely to hire people who are willing to change their lives for a job.
Divorcing work from location puts a lot more power in the worker’s hands - if they lose a job in San Francisco, they better find another one that can pay San Francisco bills, but their dollar can go further elsewhere.
One criticism I hear is that because we’re remote there’s less work-life balance, because you’re seemingly always available on your phone or email.
Newsflash! This was the case when I worked in an office. The office could get to you anywhere. You could still get texts. You could still get emails. Except there was another layer of depression that followed - the idea that you would have to physically deal with the problem in the morning after you’d left the confines of your home to deal with it.
So What Now?
What I think the natural next move is going to be is a hybrid office approach. People are going to retain offices on a smaller scale and work toward in-person meetings that are at more enjoyable or neutral places - a restaurant, a hotel event space, a co-working space - and seriously evaluate what actually requires seeing a physical person. I also think there is a large-scale negative side to remote work that most offices are going to have to deal with in compensation packages - the fact that most people do not have a dedicated work area, and if they do it’s subject to interruptions of stuff that happens in a home.
The result may be providing people with more co-working space, or, more intelligently, simply upping people’s compensation so that they can live in a bigger place, though the economics of that equation are challenging and can lead to the employer having more power over the life of the employed. The unique problem to solve is the idea of how to give people the ability to truly separate work from home, and how society and living spaces will adjust to fit this as a result. New developments may be built to specifically allow for work spaces, but this is will be a slow adjustment.
I think people, as a whole - depending on how we all leave the pandemic - are going to adjust their living expectations to not necessarily be in the office all the time or, well, ever. While it’s simple to say right now that you miss going out and being around people, how fun is that going to be two, or three, or fifteen days in? The pain-in-the-ass factor is going to be amplified by us not having gone anywhere regularly for some time, and I severely doubt the commute will remain novel for more than two trips.
Companies will have to on some level adjust, if they’re smart. Make the office a productive location - make it so that going there is an event, a place with a goal to actually get something done that you’re at for a few hours versus the dread “be there 30 minutes after commuting 30 minutes each way” meeting. Or they won’t, and people are going to get pissed off and move to companies that do.
The main concern I have for remote work is that most people simply don’t have a reserved work area, which makes relaxing tougher. And perhaps that will be fixed by having people move out of areas that they only moved to because of work - though they may have made friends there, so they may stay.
Life is a mystery, I guess.