As is too often the case, The Times has inspired me with another article - this time about the fact that people are starting at and leaving jobs without ever seeing their colleagues face-to-face. Their natural framing is that this is, if not bad, at least worrying, because it leads to “an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces.”
Before we even get into the substance of the article, I really want to make a point about the fallacy of objective writing. I realize that this is likely written in such a way as to be “objective,” one can write in an extremely subjective and negative way without being negative - by simply asking the questions - “If You Never Met Your Co-Workers in Person, Did You Even Work There?” is, in and of itself, a loaded question and making a point without having the courage to actually stand behind it. The natural defense here is that this is “only a question,” but the very nature of the question is making a point itself - it is suggesting that, potentially, never meeting your co-workers face-to-face means that you didn’t work somewhere.
We here at Where’s Your Ed At don’t subscribe to cowardice, and thus we will make our points clearly and stand by them, unless we’re wrong or it gets us in trouble.
The article itself is mostly the usual Times collection of anecdotes, with lots of stuff about not shaking hands with people and not feeling connected, and then bizarre pro-boss stuff about how remote has “contributed to an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces and created uncertainty among employers over how to retain people they barely know.”
The core concerns of the article can mostly be summarized to:
- Remote work disconnects employees from the job, and thus makes them more likely to leave.
- Remote work makes workers “expendable,” based on one specific anecdote where a guy got laid off in November from a marketing website for pots and pans.
- Remote work means that you’re “just a line item on a spreadsheet” and thus can just get fired.
- Remote work makes it harder to create “a culture of building friendships,” whatever that is.
There are so many problems with these narratives, namely that most of these problems exist in the physical office. People are laid off without warning from in-person office jobs all the time (well, they were). Just because people are physically in a conference room doesn’t mean they want to be, and as I’ve reflected on before, the reason that people stay at a job because they’re going into the office is that it’s difficult to change jobs when you’ve invested in a convenient apartment and got used to the environment around said office.
The article mostly frames these as negatives - that these are things that remote work has taken away, rather than a realignment of our relationship with the office. One of the writers responded to my criticism by quoting one line from the piece, which links to what I think is the only purely pro-remote article I’ve read on the Times from May 2020. Specifically, this part:
Other job hoppers echoed the feeling of isolation but said the disconnect had helped them reset their relationship with work and untangle their identities, social lives and self-worth from their jobs.
I should add that this is really the only part of the story that echoes that sentiment, other than a passing anecdote about a 23-year-old having “found solace in new hobbies.” The narrative is 100% focused on the idea that remote work is detrimental to people’s job prospects and happiness… and I find it sort of depressing. There is a despair and loneliness that these articles use to frame remote work that may be true for the scant anecdotes they pull together, but rarely seem to reflect the experience of the many, many, many people I know who have gone remote and are very happy.
This article, like many of its peers, also seems to frame the current system - building one’s friendships out of work and work being the center of your life - as the correct one. There is never a postulation that things could (or should) be different or that the rules you have used to judge people by are flawed in any way.
Work Is Not Your Family
I am very lucky to have co-workers that I really enjoy talking to and being around. I have also worked several places with people that I would not otherwise hang out with outside of work and did not do so with, and I did fine in those jobs too. I haven’t seen my co-workers since the very beginning of 2020, and we survived, and I’d argue got closer as a team - despite not seeing each other. When we do see each other, it’s likely to be at CES 2022 (assuming it isn’t canceled), and then we’ll at the very least go another 3 to 6 months without seeing each other physically again. When we meet, it’s extremely meaningful - as I’ve discussed before - because occupying physical space isn’t treated as an essential part of getting work done.
I have clients that I have great working relationships with that I’ve talked to a grand total of zero minutes outside of the office. I have clients that I’ve had over for dinner that have met my family. I have clients - seriously! - who I only saw the face of a full year of working together…because it wasn’t necessary. We still loved working with each other and got tons of stuff done, as I have with many other clients that I’ve talked to sparingly outside of weekly calls and work-related emails. That’s because a personal relationship isn’t necessary to work together, and it has never been.
Please note that not having a friendship with someone is not the same as not being pleasant or having a functional working relationship with them. I’ve worked with tons of people who weren’t really my friends that I got on fantastically with - and ironically, the closest friendship I’ve gained from an office job was with a guy who worked in the San Francisco office that I worked with remotely.
This article - and the many defenses of the office that boil down to “we need people in our lives!” make the false assumption that in-person communication is the only way to build friendships, and, indeed, that the office should be a place that we go to when we want to make friends. These articles are predicated that these are good things - that “nobody wanting to show their face on Zoom” is a bad thing, and that people should be doing virtual happy hours or something to get closer.
Do you know what makes people get closer at work? Working together. Doing work together and working hard together. People develop relationships based on shared experiences, and what experience is more shared in humanity than having to do work to make money? The oft-repeated idea of remote work “isolating” people is also predicated on the idea that one won’t feel isolated in an office - despite many offices isolating you based on your position at the company, or if you’re not a white guy, or if you’re dressed differently, or if a manager doesn’t like you. There are tons of ways in which the office is actually more isolating, but that would require thinking for more than two seconds about the words you’re writing on the page.
We also very rarely ask why we want people to become friends at work. It may make work more tolerable in some cases, but it also muddies the waters both inside and outside of work. While I’m not saying that nobody should ever have work friends, it is weird to want to encourage them to be friends. Surely you want them to work well with each other? Is that the goal? Does friendship make the work product better? I dunno.
The crucial thing is that these articles are giving the office way more credit than it deserves, but they are also assuming that the office should be where we grow socially. Work has continued to encroach on our personal time through a default acceptance that our colleagues are always our friends, and our work is our life, and that if we fail to do something at work it’s a personal failing rather than a professional. If we let down the company, we let down the family - and if we leave the company, we’re abandoning them versus leaving a bad situation or going into a better one.
We are expected to be “loyal” to a company, but that loyalty usually doesn’t go both ways, and is mostly judged by how willing we are to be mistreated without compensation. We, as workers, are expected to build our lives at work - to be close to work, to work at work “when we’re needed” with no expectation in most cases of overtime, to ‘get on with our coworkers’ and attend "non-mandatory” happy hours that we’ll absolutely be judged for not attending. In return, the boss may give us free food, or a computer (only for work), or a water cooler, or a coffee machine, but rarely if ever the sort of loyalty that we’re expected to give the company.
We were educated - and simply assumed - that this is how things had to be. When people were forced into remote work, things kept going, and all of the “necessary” things we used to do were now irrelevant. We did things that were necessary to get the job done, and the company kept going - and now the company requests that we return to the office for effectively no reason. I’ve said this many times in many ways, but I want to pose something very simple: what if the tables were turned? How often does a company accept something you’re doing for vague reasons, of which one of them is “it makes me feel nice”? If you, as a worker, attempted to justify something with your job that would make you take up more of the company’s resources - and more time! - to do about the same amount of work, what would they say? Would your justification of “but it’s good for culture” work?
Or would the company say that it’s strictly business, and that you have to do what they say? Unless, of course, it’s a means of getting more money out of you, of controlling you, or emotionally fulfilling management’s desires.
Remote Work Disempowers Management
So much of this remote work debate isn’t about work. It’s about generations of people - through societal education - choosing to live to work, and believe that loyalty to a company is a default moral good. We believe that company culture is a good thing - that it’s better to work in a place where you “care about the company” as if it was a friend or a family member. We have accepted the injection of paternalism and maternalism into management, adding meaning and weight to the decisions and actions of people we are subordinate to in a way that only seeks to empower a for-profit business.
All of this grew because we were effectively imprisoned as part of the conditions of our employment. We have developed strategies for dealing with said imprisonment - we make friends, we have food, we have things around the area we like - but even in cases where we’re allowed to come and go from our desk as we please, we are not allowed to leave. And even if we abide by the hours that we’re set to be in an office, we are expected to be there not simply within said hours, but at the right times to appear present to those in power. And we accepted this because it was how things always were - until it wasn’t. We have developed coping strategies - believing that we’re not alone when we’re in the office, believing that we “collaborate better” in-person, and so on - to deal with the fact that we’ve dedicated so many hours to so much meaningless, unproductive busywork.
These power structures - the “visibility” in the office, the “teamwork” that has you evaluated as to whether you’re a “team player,” the “loyalty” - are all things that have grown either as coping mechanisms to deal with bad management, or as a means of giving middle managers a way of feeling smart.
I will say that I am not sure all of these negatives were conscious. They grew as a means of coping with and dealing with the various inefficiencies of the office, and from America’s over-investment in management as an incentive rather than a discipline.
I do think that the “we’re a family” workplace mantra can be from both a place of kindness and insidiousness - the former taking the idea of having a pleasant work environment too far (and trying to frame the workplace as understanding of people’s failings and situations), and the latter in the knowledge that family is an immensely powerful tool to control and manipulate someone.
In any case, it becomes significantly harder to create a “family” environment without physical presence, and that is unquestionably a good thing. You should not be looking to work to develop friendships, nor should you be expecting (nor accepting) that your company is your family. Corporations have exerted incredible amounts of control over people by using the office to provide what people need in their lives - friends, family, food, shelter, affiliation and purpose - and desperately want it back, because it is a way of compensating people without money and controlling them without exerting much effort.