It’s hard to track all the ways this pandemic has upended “normal” life, but surely one of the most significant changes has been how and where, and even when, we work.
You might call the last year or so a remote work revolution, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, remote work wasn’t an option for most of the country. But even for the fortunate people who were able to work from home, what they were doing wasn’t really working. It’s more like a panicked compromise forged under the chaos of a national emergency.
But as we inch our way toward the other side of this pandemic — or at least the closest we’ll get to the other side of it — we have an opportunity to rethink our broken relationship to work. The pandemic was an inflexion point, and what happens or doesn’t happen next is up to us.
This is the case that Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen make in their new book, called Out of Office, and it’s the best thing I’ve read so far on this topic. In truth, the book isn’t really about remote work — it’s about work. And not just what it has meant and could mean, but also why the status quo isn’t sustainable, for anyone.
Quoting Warzel: “We don’t work from home because work is what matters most. We work from home to free ourselves to focus on what actually does.”
Sean Illing; It’s fair to say we’ve done a very bad job in this country of imposing boundaries around work and life. When you two look around the world, do you see better models of work-life balance?
A lot of the erosion of any work-life balance is, it’s so thoroughly embedded in modern culture that it’s not just that we have a hard time maintaining it or we don’t do a particularly good job of educating people about it; it’s that we value and celebrate the opposite of it. We value and celebrate the complete destruction of it.
People set expectations about when to work and how much to work and when to be in touch. And if you violate those standards or those expectations, it’s not seen as something to have a conversation with your boss about and say, like, “Hey, you’re really not sticking to the plan here.” It’s celebrated. And it’s like, “Well, why can’t you be a little more like so-and-so? They work on Sundays.” Even though the expectation is you’re not in the office, you’re not working those days.
The American work ethic is a fetishism of work, the process of work, and not of the worker. The worker is kind of collateral damage in that understanding. And within that framework, within that understanding, it can’t be contingent upon the individual to try to change that. An individual cannot protect themselves from this larger ideological force, which is that better work is always more work.
And so, the thing that I’ve thought a lot about is that instead of using this language of boundaries, because boundaries are the responsibility of the individual, they are always violated. And when they are violated, it is your fault as an individual for not maintaining them. Instead, we could think of guardrails.
In developed nations, there are guardrails on mountain passes, which are maintained by the government, by a larger entity. And they are there to protect everyone. We all pay into them through taxes to protect everyone.
And I’m not saying that federally mandated work hours, or understanding of what good work is, has to look like that. That does not necessarily have to be the solution. In the book, there are some interesting case studies in other countries, where they have attempted to mandate no email after certain remote work hours and that sort of thing. And they failed because they haven’t been robust enough to grapple with the realities of global capitalism. If you say, in France, you cannot email after 5 pm, there will be corporations, global corporations, that are always figuring out exceptions to this. People will just violate it.
So at least for the time being, until labour legislation catches up to the current reality of work — which I think is a major and an important goal moving forward — companies if they do say that they want to value work-life balance, or say that they want their workers to not burn out, to be sustainable, they have to maintain standards of what good work looks like; these guardrails.
And so that looks like, “In our company, we do not correspond after 8 pm.” If you are a person who really does good work at night and that’s how you have arranged your flexible work schedule, great. But you do not send that email. You delay sending, which is not a hard thing. You delay sending that message, that email, whatever it is, until the morning, until standard working hours. And most importantly, if you violate that standard, that guardrail, it becomes something that is actually a problem, not a low-key way to garner praise.
Take the case of the company called Gumroad. It’s a platform for creators, essentially. They went through this whole reorganization and had to change the way that their company works.
Today they don’t have any employees except for the founder. Everyone’s a contractor. And what’s fascinating is the ethos of the company is; “You don’t owe us anything but the work. You come in and you do this thing. We are not going to be friends. We’re not going to talk.” It’s extremely transactional, in a way that’s almost kind of cold and in that calculated tech way.
I’m not saying this is a sustainable model for pretty much anyone or the way the company should be run, but what’s so refreshing about it is this idea of being transactional with your company. You do a job for us; we give you money or some kind of benefits. And we get the remote labour that we paid for in return. There’s not going to be any of this extraneous guilt or commitment.
And I think that it’s too extreme, but there’s something about the transactional nature of that that is really refreshing and very helpful. And I think far less toxic than the “we are a family” ethos. Because families, as we all know, have their own problems and have their own toxic relationships that develop. And again, things like guilt. And I think that the way that we work has sort of adapted and had a lot of that kind of stuff glommed onto it.
I think that a decentered working relationship is not completely cold, and there can be some personal relationship qualities to it. But at the end of the day, it’s a transaction. You are doing a job for some people, and the transaction comes to an end at some point, and you’ve fulfilled what you need to do for that amount of time.
So, a decentered remote environment means that we’re not telling people that they have to labour in this job and also get all of their social interactions out of their job. That you don’t have to be friends with everyone in your company. And it really demarcates your life outside of work from your life inside it. And that allows you then, once you have more of a clear boundary and clear expectations, you can devote more time to what’s outside of it. And you can have a clearer sense of who you are and what you value when you’re not this person.
I’ll just say that the greatest trick that offices ever pulled was convincing office workers that they’re not workers. That they aren’t labouring. And instead of that they’re doing what they love or following a vocation, a calling. And thus, that exploitation is not something to be worried about, or to fight back against, or to understand as unacceptable.
I think there are so many conditions that office workers, and I will say nonprofit workers, in particular, have come to find acceptable because they do not think of themselves as labour. And one hope that I have, moving forward, is that office workers should think of themselves as labour. We should think of ourselves in solidarity with so many other types of labour as well because it’s good for other labourers who don’t have the privileges of remote work or of being able to labor at the same salaries, but it’s also good for preventing our own exploitation.