In 1946, the pioneering sociologist Charles Wright Mills lamented the tragically unheroic life of the salaryman. Unlike entrepreneurs, captains of industry, and other all-American heroes of the competitive market, even the fully-realized salaryman — the corporate executive — “has never been a popular middle-class idol; he is too cold and high with impersonal power.” Living a toadying life of quiet misery, the white-collar employee clambers their way up a business bureaucracy. The office was no place for heroics.
In later decades, bathed in the twin bright lights of technology and finance capital, the office itself became, in its own way, heroic, or at least exciting. From there emerged technologies that would change everything. Money could be pulled from thin air. Lean teams of dynamic individuals strode into a future far from the petty indignities of the office hierarchy and its pen-pushing, ladder-climbing denizens. The modern office could be cool even if most of the people who went there were not. Of course, filling a sunlit loft with ping pong tables does little to address existing workplace hierarchies except superficially. Even after the cool office became passé and Silicon dreams faded like so many lines of recalled Teslas, modern managers — Mills’s salarymen and salary-women — remained marginal figures in the cultural imagination.
A new book by journalists Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen attempts to fill this gap, casting office workers as champions who can change their workplaces and even society as a whole. Former BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen is probably most well known for her viral article about “Millennial Burnout” and a book on the same topic that followed. Charlie Warzel, her partner and also a former reporter at BuzzFeed, writes a newsletter for The Atlantic. Out Of Office (OOO) is drawn from the authors’ experiences of working from home both before and during the pandemic as well as from interviews with employers and employees about remote work.
OOO’s argument is something like this: Working from home during the pandemic has shown that a great deal of work can be remote (a fact which employers have previously failed to recognize). However, working from home outside of a pandemic would be much more pleasant than during one, allowing workers to have more control over their daily lives and even having indirect positive effects on the rest of society. To improve remote work, employers would need to change a variety of workplace practices and could draw on examples of interesting ways of making such changes that already exist.
This is a cheery manifesto, but it is not at all obvious who the authors expect to bring about such a significant change. OOO appears to be directed at somebody. The authors breathlessly and repeatedly invoke a “we,” “our,” “your,” without clarifying who exactly they have in mind. A very loose subject — knowledge workers which is assumed to be identical to the 42 percent of workers who worked from home during the pandemic — is mentioned at the start.
This group is so baggy as to disintegrate upon first prodding. Petersen and Warzel make it clear that working from home during the pandemic was a fortunate position to be in. This is certainly true. But besides the fact that their jobs can be carried out at home, what is there that unites this group whose working conditions run the gamut of near-total surveillance and poor pay (call-center workers) to high degrees of autonomy and high pay (management consultants, software engineers)? How could such a disparate group cohere, especially when, as the authors rightfully point out, this group of workers has a longstanding inability to conceive of itself as workers. Perhaps most egregiously, the category of “knowledge worker” lumps together workers and managers.
Around 50 pages in, I realized that often, the “we” referred to is their most unlikely new heroes: managers and aspiring managers. Managers, they argue, have the potential to be the saving grace of work. The problem is that managers are not promoted because they are good at managing but because they were successful in their previous roles. The solution? Encourage managers to be honest, “intentional,” and better communicators, renewing trust between employers and employees, attenuating bad work practices, and ushering in a new world of higher productivity.
Perhaps most egregiously, the category of “knowledge worker” lumps together workers and managers.
Rather than the cold and impersonal power of Mills’s corporate executive, the intentional manager is warm, affective, engaging, relational, spontaneous, and receptive, a skilled negotiator of interpersonal difficulty. Managers might become a little seam of kindness in the cliff face of the firm. Using new remote-working practices developed in “collaboration” with workers, managers will create “genuine flexibility” and harness workplace technologies to free up time that everyone could better spend on taking action in their communities. This is a perfectly nice idea, but it completely ignores the basic dynamics that govern businesses.
Why do managers behave the way they do? Do they just not know any better? Managers are a stratum of employees who enforce the will of the company against workers without themselves having much power over the company’s overall direction. Some managers are pleasant, understanding and kind; some are horrible bullies; some are just indifferent. But their role within the firm is the same no matter their personality: coordination and control.
No hard-nosed business owner will give up control over workers without a fight. They’ve paid good money for it. A simple antagonism governs the workplace. Employers want to take as much as they can from workers. Workers want to have something left for themselves. Out of Office is unable or unwilling to grasp this dynamic. Companies are, in the book’s telling, “a collection of human beings” whose ability to just let each other get on with it is hindered by muddled ideas they’ve accumulated over the years, bad notions whispered in their ears by consultants with an “obsession with productivity.” But work isn’t the way it is because people are in the grips of wrong-headed ideas in need of updating. Companies are not collections of people, they’re machines for capturing value and making profit.
Because remote work requires the coordination that would normally take place in the workplace to be conducted at a distance, the pandemic has necessarily prompted a revaluation of management practices. Managers can no longer look across to the desk opposite them and see if their charges are working properly and not wasting the time the company has bought from them. New methods of coordinating and checking up on workers have been devised. This moment is often described as one in which workplace practices are “up for grabs” — but grabbing needs grabbers. Who is actually going to transform work?
The re-organization of office-based work during the pandemic has thus far been led by employers. This is the natural result of their relative power. Consider call centers. As the Financial Times reports, before Covid, only 3.8 percent of call-center workers in the UK worked from home. But in the pandemic’s wake, most call-center directors and managers expect that homeworking will continue indefinitely. HSBC has confirmed that its UK-based call-center staff will remain home permanently. Outsourcer Capita, having saved £10 million from office closures, has permanently closed 1/5 of its sites.
The intense digital surveillance that call-center workers are subject to in the office has transferred to their homes. Plans to use webcams for remote monitoring have already caused the Communication Workers Union to sound the alarm. Petersen and Warzel admit that the threat of surveillance calls into question the rosy picture they want to paint. They’re hopeful, however, that the time freed up for political action by flexible working will allow for “vigilance” against surveillance as well as limit the pernicious effects of an individualistic national culture. But the kind of action they have in mind is depressingly limited: paying your taxes, attempting to sway public opinion, and voting for candidates who support community infrastructure and workers’ rights.
Some companies are considering, often with eyes on the money saved from renting office space, changing practices around working from home, with a convergence on a hybrid model potentially likely in some sectors. This book is likely to give managers and executives in those companies a number of decent ideas on how to support new styles of working. For jobs in which the tasks are highly asynchronous, discrete, digital, and where firms compete for a relatively small number of skilled workers, these possible changes could easily benefit workers as well as firms. For everyone else, a protracted struggle is required to transform work, no matter its location, much like those that took place over the length of first of all the working day, and then the working week.
Having a dispersed workforce makes organizing workers or even finding out if you’re being paid less than co-workers that much harder. Petersen and Warzel argue that this problem is dwarfed by the barriers to organizing caused by anti-union legislation and a lack of labor protections. This may be true but the point remains that homeworkers are extremely difficult to organize. For rather obvious reasons, it is much easier for unions to organize a centralized workforce than a dispersed one, and simply pointing out the existence of larger obstacles feels as insufficient as urging readers to vote.
The authors are adamant that OOO is not a self-help book. It is. The book defaults to encouraging the reader to rethink, reconceptualize, and reimagine how they feel about their relationship to work. The authors tend to excuse themselves from discussion of politics. Politics is done by other people, who you sometimes get to vote for. It goes without saying that this move comes with all kinds of political assumptions smuggled in.
Nowhere is this anti-politics stance clearer than in the mantra-like repetition of “intentional” (“it’s going to take a lot of intentional work”; “remote workers will need to be very intentional”; “[i]n other words everything has to be intentional.”) “Intentional” is one of those new para-psychological coinings which prioritize novelty and identification (“wow, I feel so seen!”) over saying very much at all, functioning as empathetic confetti. This is not unique to OOO. The media conversation about work, the conversation conducted by the people paid to write articles declaring “we need to talk about this”, strikes a similar therapeutic tone. Its first (and all too often only) site of analysis is people’s emotional relationships to their job.
The authors are adamant that OOO is not a self-help book. It is.
Of course, there are people who have a pathological obsession with work. There are many such cases. But the endless stream of articles about how people are tackling “productivity culture” by thinking their way out of their attachment to work tends to overstate the power of individuals who cannot imagine away objective social facts. Readers encouraged to find space in their lives for hobbies will struggle to fit them in if they do not know their scheduled hours for next week. Disentangling your identity from your work is easier said than done when a great deal of contemporary work compels their entwinement.
If the way the trade union movement was organized at the peak of its activity can be said to have mirrored the practices of industrial work (mass, hierarchical, disciplined), in a farcical encore this new urge to “reimagine” work mirrors many tritely pernicious aspects of contemporary professional work. It is not enough to merely do the tasks your job involves. You must instead reflect on how you could do it better, on how you feel about your work, on your relationship to your work.
People’s experience of work, especially during the pandemic, has made many workers question their psychic attachment to and emotional investment in work. It’s a moment of high consciousness in which encouraging workers to start with their own feelings about their job is not necessarily a bad idea. Feelings can lead to action. The problem is that OOO’s constrained and constraining politics cannot and will not take anyone any further.
The authors do not need to have a ten-point plan to transform work. This is not a fair demand nor perhaps a desirable one (authors do not typically make the best political strategists). However, if an analysis of work fails to grasp the fundamentally antagonistic relationships between workers and bosses, reading it will feel like listening to someone describe the goings-on of the ocean, the varieties of different fish and sharks and whales or other sea-life but failing to note that it’s all happening submerged, in water.
There are lots of books that are being written about work now. Most of these books promise big but miss the point. Out Of Office occasionally glances against the point. It slides along the plane of the point. It doesn’t help that it can’t seem to decide whether it’s a manifesto for profound change, advice for keen-bean managers about remote working, an analysis of office work in general, or a self-help guide for changing your relationship to work. Perhaps it is assumed that there is some obvious connection between each of the things it straddles awkwardly, but such connections are not made anywhere near explicit enough.
Out of Office aims to scratch that most human itch — a yearning for freedom — expressed in terms of time and autonomy, freedom from and at work. Readers looking for a changed world, however, will struggle to find it here.
Amelia Horgan is a writer from London. She is the author of Lost in Work (2021).