In February of 2020, I had a meeting with my boss. At that point, I’d been working from home once or twice a week pretty regularly. My job is one that can be done remotely, and I acknowledge that I have a great deal of privilege and luck in that. Not everyone has those opportunities. The majority of workers can’t work remotely at all due to their jobs. But I’d certainly put in my dues as a desk side support tech for the previous twenty years, and in many jobs before that (everything from secretarial work to flipping burgers to prepping rock samples), and didn’t feel uncomfortable asking.
The answer at the time: well, we can have a discussion with upper management, but the policy is for everyone who possibly can be on campus to be on campus, and the likely answer is going to be no.
I understood that, though it disappointed me. I held out some slight hope, while planning for the situation to remain the same. I’d make the best of it, like everyone else does every day.
Watch what you wish for, am I right?
Me: “Geni, I wish to work from home full time!”
Geni: “Wish granted!”
Me: “Pandemic? Wait, no, not like that…”
Geni: “No take backsies!”
A year later, I’ve been to the office once since March 11th, 2020. I only went in that day – a Saturday in June or July, when few would be there – to clean off my desk so it could serve as a hot seat for others who needed it. I’ve otherwise been working from home. It’s been every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped. I’ve saved a ton on car maintenance and gas alone, not to mention the mental health improvements.
Now we are faced with a long raft of articles on major news sites from “experts” who want to tell us why working from home is really bad for us and we should all get our lazy asses back to the office. When an executive for a corporate realty firm is telling you “you need to be in the office,” it’s laughably obvious why it matters to them. But not all of their reasons for writing these articles are as clear.
One of the more recent – and egregious – is a hit piece published at the Boston Globe entitled The Hybrid Workplace Probably Won’t Last. The author is Jon Levy, whose website bills him as a behavioral scientist (citation needed) and “super connector.” While I can’t find any info on his degrees or background beyond what he’s written, the super connector part is interesting. It basically means he’s got important friends and he gets them together for dinners. Wow. Much exciting. He’s a mover and shaker, he’s got influence!
If you follow me long enough, you should know how much respect I have for “influencers.” Almost none. It’s the modern equivalent of celebrity endorsements. Not worth the paper – or website – it’s printed on. They pay superficial attention to the challenges faced by working Americans while devoting their real focus to those with money and power. As long as the dollars keep flowing, they won’t change. Stop giving them your eyeballs and your cash.
But I digress.
In his article, Mr. Levy gave us four reasons why we should all get in our cars and rush right back to work immediately. And it’s the sort of vacuous bullshit that makes me wonder how he ever got anyone to listen to him. I guess it’s true, you can go far with a nice smile and nothing else. Let’s break them down, shall we?
The Allen Curve: If you don’t know what the Allen Curve is, well, neither did I. So I looked it up. Developed in the late 1970’s at MIT, the Allen Curve says that the amount of technical communication between engineers drops off exponentially with increasing distance. In short, the further away two people are, the less they communicate. Levy feels that this shows we need to be in close proximity at work in order for us to communicate effectively.
There’s three problems with this view:
1. The Allen curve was an engineering issue. This wasn’t a study of business offices, but of technical communications flowing between engineers. No similar study was done of regular offices.
2. Modern businesses have shown that they can easily outsource large portions of the employee base without any problems at all. Remember all those tech calls you’ve made picked up by workers in India or other countries? Yeah, that. If remote work is bad, that wouldn’t happen.
3. It’s no longer the late 1970’s. We have email, video conferences, chat systems, and other means of instant communications up the wazoo. I work at a highly technical organization doing research full of engineers, and we have no such problem with communications, technical or otherwise, despite having employees literally around the globe. Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Levy. Living in the past seems a particularly weird thing for a forward looking person to do.
I’d also think Levy wouldn’t need to resort to shading truths in his favor by omitting critical information like the word “engineers” and “technical” from his discussion of the principle. Strange, right? Or just typical of these types of people? You decide.
Trust: on the matter of trust, the author seems to feel you can only be trusted if he can see you in person. Never mind that we trust those engineers in India to help us fix our technical glitches, he’ll tell you that’s ENTIRELY different. In his mind, it probably is.
But trust has nothing to do with face-to-face communications. It has everything to do with leadership and competency. I work with several remote teams and people I’ve never met. I trust them because they are competent and do their jobs well. They’re also pleasant people to work with. The idea that trust occurs “more fluidly” in person strikes me as attempting to justify a personal desire to meet, not a real reason. If you find you’re unable to trust people when you’re not meeting face to face with them, you might want to figure out what’s going on with you and examine that. Because trust me (ha, ha, pun intended), the problem is you.
He pointed out building trust remotely would require a “weekly Zoom happy hour.” Stop right there. No, trust AT WORK does not require we GO TO HAPPY HOUR. That’s your personal time. That’s not work time. I do not trust people more because I went drinking with them. Hell, I probably trust them LESS after that, because I probably had one drink too many and shared more than I should have. And his further point that the “extroverts will talk over the introverts” would happen in person, too… assuming the introverts even showed up to your happy hour (they won’t… they went home, because that’s how THEY recharge).
I do not work to be your buddy and friend. I work to do a good job and collaborate as a team, and to get paid so I can afford my home, and car, and other necessities of life. Happy Hour is not required for that to happen. You’re just a massive extrovert who can’t handle NOT having friends at work. Which, fine… go to the office and hang out with the other super extroverts. Stop telling the rest of us we must do so also to appease your nature. The majority of folks just want to work and go home. They’ve got social lives outside of the job.
And this whole “friends at work” stuff plays right into the environment of sexual harassment we’re trying to rid ourselves of. Because, if being friends is good, then becoming lovers must be great. And yes, I’m pretty sure this guy has done that, too, and it’s skeevy. The more we can distance ourselves from these outdated views and learn to trust based on the work performed instead of esoteric qualities like friendship or looks, the better. The work should speak for itself.
Side note: calling work “family” is wrong and is not a sign of a healthy work place. It is too often used to mask poor pay and hostile work environments by attempting to make intolerable working conditions “fun.” People already have families. They’re called families.
Working from home can be too convenient: Whoah, boy, I’m going to have to try hard to not totally scream about the stupidity of this one. So let’s break it down carefully before I rant, rant, rant.
The author first wants us to know that a commute is actually GOOD for you. Yes, that two hours of white knuckled, steering wheel clenching, anal puckering – assuming you’re not crowded into mass transit with other people like cattle and forced to endure that assault on your being – is going to free your mind to come up with a lot of creative new ideas. You can replay conversations (neurotics like me already do this all the time, and it’s NOT good and NOT healthy), plan discussions (same), process the day.
Process? No, no one has time to “process” during the hell of their commute. The only people who are “processing” during their commutes are sitting in the backseat of their limos, or strapping into the chair in their private jets. Most people just want to get home and FORGET about the office. They don’t want to spend another two hours plus of their day thinking about it. Jesus Christ, did you ever HAVE a real fucking job????? You clearly have NO concept about what real people have to put up with every day, you vacuous piece of….
Okay, I’m ranting. Sorry.
Oh, he also wants us to know that office life gives us ways of breaking up our days, with meetings and lunches and coffee breaks, and he’s completely serious about this and I’m dying of laughter. As if people are free to go out and get coffee whenever they like, and don’t sit working through lunch at the office as well.
These days, I get up and do housework when I need to. I take my dog outside for a ball throw every nice day around lunch time. I make a lunch, and every day it’s different. I take a nice break mid-afternoon to strum my guitar for a bit. None of those are things I can do at most offices. Tell me which office will let me bring my Golden Retriever in every day if he’s not a service animal. Do you think they’ll mind my guitar playing?
In addition, when I need to make a doctor’s appointment or have someone come do work on my home, I don’t need to take a day off to make it happen. I’m here. They can just… come. Whenever! No more “I took the afternoon off because the cable guy was supposed to be here from 12 to 5, but he canceled and now I have to take tomorrow off, too, and there goes some of my vacation time.”
Again, his comments are the comments of a person who hasn’t really had to work in a typical job during their life time. With no background or history to go on, I can’t really say where this person came from, but I’m guessing a middle class or upper middle class childhood, straight to college, and straight into being a writer/thinker/influencer. Did not have to pass Go first, they already collected that $200. Clearly this is a person unfamiliar with work life for most employees.
His argument also ignores that millions of citizens have been screaming for family leave, more time off, more flexibility to be home and taking care of their lives, for DECADES. They want MORE convenience, not LESS. Working from home isn’t quite the family leave everyone hoped for, but it’s a decent alternative.
Last, but maybe not least for our author…
Belonging: The author feels that a sense of belonging is critical to our longevity. He even linked to a study proving that strong social connections provide increased health benefits. Good for him, providing science! Oh, but oops… he just never shows that means WORK social connections. Because for this guy, his work (remember, he hosts intimate dinners for influential friends) IS his social life. The two are inextricably bound.
What we have here is a person completely out of tune with working life for the majority of United States citizens. He’s likely never had to hold down a cubicle job in his life, certainly never had a plethora of middle managers looking over his shoulders. Never had to put up with wall to wall traffic during a two-hour commute from hell. He’s certainly never done tech support or engineering. He misrepresents data to bolster his opinion, and he misconstrues HIS need for intimate personal connections with co-workers with EVERYONE’S need for the same. For him, work is a pleasure and a source of deep friendships. He ignores that for most of us, work is a job and a place where we earn the money we need so we can HAVE A FUCKING LIFE.
Sure, maybe he believes some of this stuff. But the Allen Curve? Come on, how stupid do you think people are? Recent studies show the more closely proximate and “open” the office, the LESS people will interact. A technical communications conundrum for engineers from the 1970’s is laughably out of touch with modern reality.
At it’s core, this is what I think: this is an author dishing out a crappy opinion to draw eyeballs and sell his books. Because hey, what do you know, his new book was coming out a few days after this was published! Surprise!
No, not surprised at all. That’s how these people work. These “influencers.” They shill you shitty opinions so they can make money off them. And too many people fall for it each and every time. Look at me, engaging in the debate. I’m helping him get the attention he craves and can’t live without.
It’s time for us to begin addressing whatever critical flaws truly exist in remote work. There are fundamental issues with training new employees that have yet to be addressed. There are challenges with technology adoption that need to be overcome, not to mention the lack of critical, reliable broadband for all Americans. But the benefits for society – for the world – are legion. The reduction in number of commuters would be a HUGE benefit right from the start. Reduced traffic means reduced pollution AND less stress for remaining commuters, etc, etc. Less traffic means less has to go into building more highways. Money that can be pushed into better mass transit systems, further reducing traffic. Rinse and repeat.
This is the future of the world. To blindly turn back to what we were doing merely because it’s a challenge is weak and lazy. Embrace it, study it, improve it, because people are not going to willingly go back to the old ways of working now that we’ve seen the future. The genie is out of the bottle and you can’t wish it to return. Just as all those craptastic fast food companies are going to have to bite the bullet and pay a fair wage if they want people to take those shitty jobs again.
Change is here. We’re not going back. And we’re not cramming it back into the bottle.