What The 'Return To The Office' Fight Is Really About

Not where we work, but how.

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On Wednesday, the New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller addressed what has become a cornerstone argument made by executives in their request to return to life as if 2020 never happened. In short: “being in the office is essential for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.”

Miller’s reporting finds very little evidence to support the Spontaneous Encounter Theory. The money quote comes from Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein, whose research found that “contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions.” Why? “People didn’t find it helpful to have so many spontaneous conversations, so they wore headphones and avoided one another.”

I was glad to see some pushback on this particularly resilient manager talking point in the Times. During the reporting for our forthcoming book (hey, look, there’s the pre-order link) we constantly heard about the Spontaneous Encounter Theory. The idea was always framed as some kind of productivity bogeyman — nobody had hard evidence, but the specter of a massive creativity drain loomed over discussions. But the fear that out of office work will destroy distinctly human, face-to-face creativity is, like other hallmarks of bad management, a two-way fear tactic. Mangers deploy it because they’re afraid of losing control — and workers believe it because they are afraid of the quality of their work slipping and generally anxious about their employment status.

When I left New York to work remotely in 2017, I bought into this idea hard. I enjoy offices and talking to people and have had chance encounters that led to stories or opportunities that have subsequently benefited my career. I figured that losing those moments would cause my work to suffer, or just lower my visibility in my company such that I might become expendable. None of my bosses suggested as much (in fact, they were all quite supportive of the move) but Spontaneous Encounter Theory still preyed on my insecurities and exacerbated my fear that the real core of my successes up to that point were not my own, but a product of my environment

None of my worries came to fruition— for some of the reasons that Miller outlines in her piece. Digital collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, or email have serious flaws, but they’re also quite good at getting your colleagues’ attention and allowing the worker to remain visible. As an employee, sometimes it is actually easier to have that important, career furthering conversation when you or one of your bosses or colleagues proactively seek it out through direct, clear communication. And for a meaningful subset of workers who express ideas better in writing or who feel more comfortable speaking up indirectly, remote work allows for more contribution, not less. Remote work can also force managers to be more intentional about their communication, instead of just hoping to do check-ins via aimlessly wandering around the office with no real plan.

I realized what I missed about the office had little impact on my ability to do my job. If anything, remote work forced me to be more organized and more intentional in reaching out to people — two traits I previously didn’t have to cultivate, because I was so naturally comfortable in the office (a true privilege that reflected my age, race, and upbringing, I quickly came to realize). So much of what I missed about the office was actually just my ability to project a bullshit type of status in my organization. At BuzzFeed, I was a somewhat early employee in the news division which conferred some ‘old guard’ status and a lot of comfort. I’m also naturally extroverted and got a lot of satisfaction from seeing people and being seen in the office. I grew up in privileged environments that taught me how to shoot the shit (or, to use a cursed term, “network”) with a certain type of career professional to the point that doing it in the office it was second nature for me. I felt comfortable joking with my bosses, even with the CEO, and had no qualms seeking those people out informally. Plenty of my colleagues did not have that privilege or comfort. Most importantly, few of those interactions had much to do with my creativity or productivity or my being a good employee — it was mostly about ego and status. Stripping that experience away with remote work allowed me to see that more clearly and to realize what culture I was perpetuating.

I’d still argue that offices can and do produce spontaneous, productive encounters. The real issue is that we wildly over-inflate their importance when considering in-person work. It’s the over-indexing for creative ideation at an imaginary water cooler that is bullshit — not the notion that a bunch of humans in a room might occasionally organically generate an idea because of some combination of proximity/boredom/free snacks and good lighting.

But I think the Offices Are Bad discourse can fall into the same traps. In some of the discussion around Miller’s piece, I see a similar blanket argument forming. For those who work best and feel the least comfortable outside an office, there’s a bit of glee at finding good data to support the claim that work spaces are full of distractions, inequitable and even drive out creativity. I get that.

But the Offices Are Good/Bad discourse misses and obscures the real point of the debates around the future of work. As Annie and I write in our book, the remote work debate is ultimately less about where we work and more about how we work. Similarly, the discussion over how much we should be in the office is less a discussion about the number of hours per week that butts are in Herman Miller Aeron chairs. It is fundamentally a debate about worker power and autonomy — and about who gets a say in designing the new rules that will govern our working lives…or whether we decide to design new rules at all.

Blanket ideas about the logistics of the future of work are almost meaningless. Every job, company, and person is unique. Some people are extroverted and thrive in offices; others hate it. Some jobs are best done in isolation; others suffer without some collaboration. Most people are going to assume that the thing that works best for them is the natural state of affairs (the biggest offenders in this category are, of course, bosses, whose jobs and outputs are less legible and much more dependent on leveraging interpersonal interactions).

If we want to have a purely logistical debate about work patterns, then Times editor Erin McCann offers a useful framework: “what is our task for the day and how do we best get it done?” If executives and managers are actually honest about their companies, they could probably sort this out on their own.

But I don’t think most people want a purely logistical debate over work. We desire something bigger — a debate at a cultural/societal/economic/political level. In Miller’s piece, Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, poses a rhetorical question about office norms: “How much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

Spaulding is ostensibly talking about the logistics of in-person versus remote work, but what he’s actually addressing is the need to kill corporate monocultures that still persist in knowledge work. A monoculture is a lack of diversity — both demographic and cultural. Every organization knowingly and unknowingly creates conditions in which a certain type of worker will thrive. In a monoculture, a very particular type of person thrives but also replicates itself through hiring like-minded and generally similar people. Not every workplace adheres to or has a rigid monoculture but many of the norms of the working world were designed by and still benefit a specific worker profile: white, male, educated, middle-class, congenial, sociable, and able to delegate obligations outside of the office to others.

Left to its own devices, monoculture will replicate itself endlessly. Well-meaning Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives will not do enough to change the experience for minority workers if they are envisioned and implemented merely as an addition atop the monoculture. What is required is a bigger change, one that is as much cultural as it is logistical. It requires asking questions like, who holds the leadership positions? When it comes to employee demographics (of all varieties) what is the difference between the percentages that make up entry level positions, management, and higher leadership? Do employees have managers that understand their lived experiences and take them into account when they set company policy?

These are questions about who has a seat at the proverbial strategy table, but they’re also about the very process by which companies begin to delegate those seats. Remote work is a tool that, if implemented thoughtfully, might help break up that monoculture by changing the norms that benefit one group disproportionally. Getting rid of the monoculture sounds like a deletion, but it’s actually an addition. Inclusion means adding voices, which is precisely where the process derives its power and value. Diversity and inclusion isn’t about ripping all status and privilege from one group and conferring it to another. It’s about balance.  

I’m a fan of the ‘tool’ analogy because the success of remote work is about how it’s used to make changes in an organization. If your plan is to let workers have a day or two per week at home and then use it as an excuse to cut other benefits or to lord remote work over employees to guilt them into overwork, then you’re not using the tool to fix anything. But companies that implement remote, flexible work as a way to create an environment more responsive to all of their workers’ goals, outside life demands, and life experiences? That might at least help to level the already incredibly uneven playing field.

When workers feel listened to, trusted, and appreciated — along with being fairly compensated — they are more likely to be satisfied and motivated. It’s a recipe for productivity, but also one for open communication: the kind that fosters, you guessed it, spontaneous communication. In the future, this sort of conversation may or may not take place in an office but it doesn’t actually matter where it happens. What matters is that it’s far less likely to happen if your workers feel isolated from the company culture or are disengaged, burned out, and jaded because they don’t trust what’ll happen if they take a risk on a new idea.

In an incisive post that covers a number of these return-to-office issues, Ed Zitron predicted that these debates will continue to increase in intensity as the country begins to reopen. He dubs these tensions “The Remote Work Company Culture War,” in part because it is, at heart, a fight over power and control. “Remote work creates a neutral geography for work,” he writes — and that scenario naturally redistributes power.

The energy around the future of work conversation — an energy so volatile it risks becoming another culture war argument — is not the product of people who merely like working in their pajamas. The urgency and energy comes from a workforce that feels mistreated or taken for granted by their jobs. It comes from workers who feel that work norms are unsustainable over the long term, to the point that they no longer ‘aspire to have a career.

If we frame the ‘back to the office’ conversation as purely logistical, we risk not clearly communicating the stakes of this moment and the opportunities presented by trying to rethink how we work. There’s a real demand for workplace change — but a small window of possibility to enact that change. And it will require us to focus on the how — and not the where.

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