Magic 8 Ball, What Does the Future of Work Hold?
You may have been away this August, on a well-deserved break from all social networks, ethical debates, and news. You may also have not gone on vacation, working from your living room, your bedroom or a bathtub of chilled water, what have you, we’re not judging. In the midst of either setup, you may have missed the big debate of this summer—which seems especially crucial to us now, when we’re all coming back to work. Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker staff writer and author of five New York Times bestsellers made a bold claim that remote work is doing nothing but hurting our society.
Ban remote work? Wait, wait, wait. Are we really there yet—and will we ever be? There are people who do their best work from home, like Ed Zitron, who wrote a pungent response to Gladwell’s tirade. A century ago, another proponent of the home office wrote seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time in bed. And, let’s be honest, Gladwell himself has claimed to be a coffee-shop writer for years, proudly sporting his independence from the office space before.
No, Mr. Gladwell. Without doubt, remote work has given us a great sense of flexibility, which is a perk that’s really hard to curtail—so it’s too soon to toll the bell for it. We have been made more available to our family schedule, we have felt a strong reconnection to our homes, and our days have become more prone to all the nuances of our lifestyles. We could work outdoors, or choose our most productive hours.
It’s hard not to praise these advantages, especially with an international team like ours here at the House: since we are based in Atlanta, Barcelona, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Milan, Munich, remote work allows us to come together in ways that are less binding and obvious. We organize team meet-ups in various locations, where we take walks, go out for dinner, and play team games (one of them, our very own—dubbed Beautiful Business Conversations—is in fact going to be released very shortly!) We cherish these moments and live them beautifully, to the fullest brim. No, working remotely doesn’t make us feel unnecessary, and it doesn’t reduce our lives to a paycheck, as Gladwell claims.
You could call us hybrid, in the spirit of time. Occasionally we still meet at the office, in an apartment turned think-tank space, or around a big wooden table in a coworking spot. Look into more sustainable ways to gather for work; there’s plenty of options these days. Like this cabin in Berlin called Tiny Space, currently overlooking a park in the district Kreuzberg, which causes at least ¾ fewer carbon emissions compared to any office, and provides a great alternative to it, aesthetic- and convenience-wise.
But, in all honesty, office, remote, or hybrid isn’t the real question right now. It’s not because we switch places of work that the issues caused by work magically disappear, say Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, authors of the book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “The problems of remote work seem to be bleeding into the office, and vice versa,” says Warzel. The main question is: why are we doing the work that we do?
Come to think of it, we’re at a historical crossroads where we can decide what we want from work in our future. What kind of meaning should it hold? What kind of setting can reinforce it? How should we guard it from steering into the wrongful direction of the murky waters of self-harm? Let’s focus on these five debates to make sure we have some answers to these (loaded) questions.
The gray flannel suit era
Ok, let’s say we forgo remote work, as per Gladwell’s advice. Are we sure we’re not forgetting anything here? His argument seems to be tone death to minorities who work extremely hard for a paycheck that isn’t just a happy bonus, but a chance at survival. A full return to the office will also mean a return to the underlying injustices and discrepancies of pay, participation, and power for marginalized groups. And, unless we shift our attention to these issues, the office will further retain its toxicity. Surely, the mere option to work from home is a massive privilege—it applies to the so-called “knowledge workers,” or “portable workers,” but not to millions of workers who are dependent on the workplace, which often proves to be the office of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit era. As Dr. Lauren Tucker, CEO and founder of “Do What Matters”, writes:
The 20th-century office environment was a haven for white men who perceived the workplace as an escape from the marginal demands of domesticity. For women, the office never held such a reprieve. Unfortunately for female talent and their significant others, the complex calculus related to childcare costs and managing domestic safety from Covid’s resurgence has resulted in a 30-year low in women’s participation in the talent force.
It comes as no surprise that a survey of knowledge workers conducted by Future Forum a year ago found that 86 percent of Latinx workers and 81 percent of Asian-American and Black workers in the U.S. would prefer a hybrid or fully remote arrangement, compared with 75 percent of their white counterparts. Women are also far more likely to continue working remotely: sexism and racism are astonishingly predominant at the office. Women constantly have to monitor their behavior and tone for fear of passing as too emotional. Research also demonstrates that “white people tend to see Black women as angry (even when they’re not)” and “penalize dominant behavior in Asian-Americans”. Latina women have also reported that “they were tired of being stereotyped as feisty.”
And that’s just the surface of things. Let’s focus on making people feel welcome and comfortable at work instead of worrying about them working in their pajamas.
The martyr syndrome and “quiet quitting”
Capitalism and precarity have also created a culture of overworking that serves as a fix for anxiety over losing everything we have. The resulting “martyr syndrome” is a complete trap. “Working hours themselves have become an elite status symbol,” Warzel told Ezra Klein, “Historically the rich have taken pride in not showing how much they work, but today that’s been completely reversed, and the ‘badge of honor’ is: who is pulling more all-nighters? Who has worked more? Who worked on the weekends? The sense of self-worth is built through dedication to hard work.”
The demoralizing obsession with workplace productivity is celebrated by today’s office space. A recent New York Times article is an experiment in making the reader feel like the subject of the piece: grading reading performance which feels inadequate upon completion, the piece demonstrates how employees are surveilled by extensive monitoring software, paid only when the system detects active work that left a digital impression. Interviewed workers call it “inept at capturing offline activity, unreliable at assessing hard-to-quantify tasks and prone to undermining the work itself.”
Micromanagement—be it in the form of trackers, scores, accumulating records, snapshots at work, constant reminders, or notifications—is becoming a routine practice. So a trend known as “Quiet Quitting” comes as no surprise. Just take a look at TikTok, where it grows and thrives: Gen Z and Millennial workers promote the idea that “you’re no longer going above and beyond expectations at work,” without actually quitting. At the same time, as the name suggests, quiet quitters don’t feel as connected to work anymore. So maybe there are some alternative ways of checking in with your colleagues and employees that won’t push them away as traditional productivity measurement does?
First, sit down and ask yourself: what does productivity mean to you? What does “good work” look like? What kind of impact does it have? Is it a kind of digital or physical presence? Is it a certain set of an employee’s unique qualities? Then think about this: is there a way you can “measure” the unmeasurable, like the process of getting there, reading, reflecting, or the dedication put into work, and the elements that aren’t immediately visible, but impactful in the long term? Can you pay closer attention to what goes on behind the curtains of a stage taken by deadlines, final products, and submitted metrics?
Invisible boundaries are hardest to build
Yes, we live in an era of measurement, without fully knowing what it is we should be measuring, says Ryan Fuller, former vice president for workplace intelligence at Microsoft. And even without the surveillance software, remote work, too, poses a problem, as it often blurs the boundaries between personal life and work. One of its manifestations was the so-called three-work-peak problem that appeared during the pandemic: before lunch, after lunch, and one additional, around 9-10 p.m. in the evening. The fact that it’s increasingly becoming normal is quite alarming.
So if your company plans to continue working remotely this year, why not adopt some new gestures to help each other in setting up clear boundaries and accentuate psychological and physical well-being? Especially now, when a return to work puts so much pressure on our shoulders. It’s hard making sure your colleagues are not underwhelmed when you don’t see them, so don’t hesitate to ask them, and offer your help. And to divert their attention from office chores, create a WhatsApp group where you only share non-work related news: recommendations for the weekend, jokes, tips for shaking off a busy day.
Do you believe in the (office) afterlife?
On average, we spend a third of our lives at work (and another third sleeping) so extreme loneliness rates produced by remote work don’t come as a surprise. A Microsoft study from earlier this year, involving 30,000 remote workers, showed that 55 percent of hybrid employees and 50 percent of remote employees feel lonelier now than before. For many, the office was one of the last institutions where they could be around the same people consistently—and it’s just not the same with Zoom coffee chats. In fact, in parallel with “quiet quitting”, a countertrend known as “quiet returning” is making a hit, especially among the older generation, and not just because of financial woes. Survey data from Joblist shows that 60 percent of those retirees returning to work said they were simply “looking for something to do,” missing the social connection provided by work. Remember that movie, The Intern?
And while the age inclusivity at the workplace is a great trend, our office shouldn’t be the only place where we socialize. Petersen and Warzel—who are a couple and met at work, by the way—suggest that we should slowly begin changing the norms and the expectations of what we want out of work. “It should not be our employer who is solving our loneliness problems,” Petersen says. Even if we feel a strong connection to our workplace, it’s still a place of transaction between employees and employers. Work should not be like a family, and cultivating it that way, even with the best of intentions, can be very exploitative towards workers, and cause terrible separation anxiety and loss of connection to one’s place of work. Let’s invest in building stronger communities, “an infrastructure of care for each other”, in the words of Petersen.
Let’s gig in
Surely, to be a part of a community does resonate with many of us. We’ve grown so weary of hearing the Pew Research Center statistic: “60 percent of employees who switched to remote work due to COVID-19 feel less connected to their co-workers.” And if you think about it, the whole point of an organization—be it at the office or not—is to give people a sense of belonging to some interesting goal, some team, some process. According to a study conducted by MBO Partners, one in three Americans prefer to be part of the gig economy rather than belong to some big corporation.
But how about: instead of fighting this new dynamic, we simply accept it? Flexibility and active turnover will become more and more widespread in the near work future. Gone are the days when an employee held their same job for decades on end. And while it’s normal to feel nostalgic about it, it’s also a reflection of how today’s society offers us a freedom of choice and movement around the globe in search of the truest fits to our ever growing identities.
As we come back to work this September, let’s remember, first and foremost, to keep our minds open. Let’s not clutter them all at once with piled up deadlines, ratings improvements, and stress. If you feel like you’re not fully up-to-speed yet, don’t force it; it will come. Take a minute to concentrate on the big picture of how we want to show up to work, what it means to you and your teammates. It’s a major chunk of your life: how do you want to organize it? Maybe we can guide each other and create a communal effort to approach this year differently.