Apparently, it’s time for everybody to go back to in-person work. Obviously, essential workers never stopped going to work in-person. And service workers, factory workers, and everybody else whose jobs cannot be done online have been physically back at work, putting their health and safety on the line for the economy, for some time now.
But office workers, people who can perform their essential functions from home while managing their wholly nonessential meetings via Zoom, have been largely able to stay at home. That time is coming to an end. In New York and New Jersey for instance, indoor capacity restrictions are being lifted on May 19. That sounds like a boon to Broadway, but it’s really a return to the Financial District. Large corporations paying exorbitant Manhattan rental prices are now free to stuff their white-collar workforce back into cubicles.
White CEOs seem thrilled. While business leaders have, for the most part, stopped arguing that workers are less productive while working remotely—there are now studies showing that remote workers are just as productive, if not more so, and happier too—they’ve found a new set of talking points. The new mantra, which is repeated so faithfully that I think it must have been emblazoned onto the slopes at Davos, is that the “culture” of a business is greatly enhanced by forcing everybody back into the office.
In a widely panned op-ed in The Washington Post, Cathy Merrill, the owner of Washingtonian, spoke for other white business owners when she said that “the CEOs I have spoken with fear erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture.” Merrill closed the article by threatening the jobs of her employees—“Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know”—having asserted that “if the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’” It’s not often you see a CEO contemplate a facially illegal tax fraud scheme in the middle of an editorial—which is what Merrill is doing by threatening to treat full-time employees as contractors—but owners really want everybody back in the office, I guess.
Near as I can tell, CEOs’ insistence on getting back their precious office cultures has crowded out the space for assessing what is wrong with office culture, or any meaningful reflection about who bears the brunt of those cultural failures. Amazingly, they seem to have gotten through a year and a half of forced white-collar diaspora and learned nothing for their troubles.
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What we do know is that normal office culture generally sucked for a whole lot of people. It’s a culture forged in the crucible of white male patriarchy and can be oppressive for those who don’t fit within its narrow margins. The proverbial water cooler, where white managers tell me so much desperately needed collaboration takes place, was actually a minefield of petty slights and subtle bullying disguised as awkward banter. I don’t think I know any Black people who enjoy being engaged in a drive-by “so what do you think about the riots… I mean protests” conversation by a white manager while they’re waiting for the Keurig.
Many white business leaders seem blissfully unaware of how office culture affects their diverse employees. Writing in The Boston Globe, behavioral scientist Jon Levy lists the four primary benefits of in-office work, as part of a general argument against hybrid workplaces. It is about the most white male normative take on office politics I’ve seen since The Office went off the air. Levy argues that offices promote “trust” and a sense of “belonging” and claims that remote work is “too convenient” and that it violates something called the “Allen Curve,” which states that managers invest more in the people they see every day.
In reality, every person of color knows that a white manager can easily refuse to see them, even when they’re sitting at the same table. We know that “trust” is a cruel joke in a corporate environment where women still get paid less than men for the same work, and that a shared sense of belonging tends to show up on company picture day and at no other time.
As for remote work being too convenient, I dare Levy to say that to a person with disabilities who no longer has to navigate a barely ADA-compliant office space or a largely noncompliant subway system. I dare him to say that to a new mother trying to find the key to whatever breast-pumping closet has been begrudgingly provided by the company. I dare him to say that to a working parent who can take the (entirely useless) meeting in the car on the way to soccer practice instead of missing one or the other altogether.
And yet, if it’s clear that office culture has many faults, and that it’s been a boon for many to escape it, it’s also hard to argue that remote work is a perfect solution. I’d like to say that remote work solves many of the problems associated with normal office culture. I’d like, for instance, to be able to write that the sexual harassment that stalks women in the office is diminished in an online-only environment. But that turns out not to be true. A study commissioned by Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit who is known for speaking out about gender discrimination in the tech industry, found that remote work leads to more gender and racial harassment, not less, at least in the tech sector. “[M]ore than 1 in 4 respondents said they experienced more gender-based harassment. That figure increased, when race and gender identity were accounted for, to 39% of Asian woman and nonbinary people; 38% of Latinx woman and nonbinary people; and 42% of transgender people.”
Part of the problem, it seems, is that remote work invites the purveyors of crappy office culture into our homes. There are more opportunities for private meetings, with no witnesses, taken at random non-business hours. Apparently, that’s all the license some men need to act like jerks. A different study found that Black employees were more anxious in the remote work environment, because the home-office setup creates new opportunities for their white colleagues to judge and stereotype them. The mask of white normative assimilation that many Black people wear to navigate white spaces cracks a bit when white people are allowed to Zoom into our kitchens.
There are less creepy downsides to remote work, too. I had my job for all of six weeks before the lockdowns came. There are people I work with closely, people who have hiring and firing power over me, whom I barely know. But I’m lucky insofar as I fundamentally knew how to do my job before the pandemic. If I were still learning the ropes, I imagine the past 16 months would have been a lot more challenging.
The goal should neither be to completely abandon the in-person office nor treat working from home as some kind of extended sabbatical from real work. Instead, we should be listening to diverse voices, understand what has worked about working from home and what has not, and try to implement those lessons as widely as possible. Do we need people in the office five days a week? Should every Zoom meeting be recorded so there’s an electronic trail of who said what and who couldn’t keep it in their pants? Maybe allowing people to be their full selves at work is a good thing and we shouldn’t require people to live in the box that is most acceptable to white people? Just throwing that out there.
But instead of all that, instead of innovating and reimagining the office and the culture that comes with it, the winners of the old normal are tripping over themselves to turn the clock back to 2019 (or 1950, in some cases). It’s the white male CEOs and middle managers who generally succeeded at the rat race who just want to point everybody back to the same moldy old block of cheese. Instead of using this experience to learn from their employees, they just want everybody back in their cubicles with a white man lurking over their shoulders.
The pandemic has been a tabula rasa for how we conduct business. As we build back up toward a new normal, why in the hell are some people so desperate to recreate the problems with the old one?