return to office

What If the Office Isn’t the Problem?

Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

To hear it from bosses, the office is sacred. It’s a space where the walls practically vibrate with possibility. Apple’s Tim Cook told People last March that he couldn’t wait to go back and experience a little of that magic again. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” he said. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had.” Leadership at Hearst told Insider a similar story: Pushing people to come back to the office despite protests from their union “reaffirms our connectivity, builds our community, and helps foster an environment of creativity and overall collaboration.” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who has called remote work an “aberration” and inspired the tiniest of uprisings among his firm’s junior bankers, told Fortune in February that the “secret sauce” for the company is when younger hires “come together and collaborate” with more senior employees.

There’s truth to all of this. People like seeing colleagues face to face, like collaborating, and — significantly — like separating their work life from their home life. In-person work is often fine, it’s just that cultivating the kind of environment described by bosses in their odes to the office — natural collaboration, mentorship, spontaneous creativity — is a different project than simply dragging people back to midtown as we cycle through COVID waves. The reality of the office is often a miserable one: people stuck on long commutes only to arrive at mostly quiet offices and sit in pointless meetings; junior staffers quitting because they don’t see a career path and don’t have mentors. The fantasy many employers have of what the office was — the story of why we must come back — is currently running up against reality. The office isn’t the problem — it’s work.

When you look beyond employees protesting return-to-office policies, there are almost always other signs of greater discontent. At the root of Hearst Union’s NLRB complaint was that management was making a “unilateral change” without bargaining with employees and listening to their needs. In other words, it was a symptom of the culture that inspired workers to organize there in the first place. “It’s not that we don’t ever want to step foot in any of our locations ever again,” one Hearst staffer told me. “It’s more that the requirement being unilateral and being handed down from the top without our input and frankly treating us like children — that’s the problem.” People often cite commuting as their main complaint of returning to work, which makes sense when you consider how much time a person spends just getting to and from work. In New York City, the average commute time is nearly 40 minutes one way. Add that on top of an eight (or nine, or ten) hour work day and you’re losing virtually all of your awake time to work. Last year, a group of analysts at Goldman sent their bosses a list of grievances that included having to work 105 hours in the previous week. (It may be hard to shed a tear for a banker, but the problem of overwork is rampant.)

And as much as employers talk about interaction, the modern office is often a place where one goes to be alone among others. A study by Harvard Business School’s Ethan Bernstein in 2019 found that contemporary open offices have actually led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions. “That was a bit of a thorn in the side of many people who had claimed that they could open up offices, get greater density, and lower costs, and at the same time they were boosting revenues by getting more creativity and collaboration,” Bernstein said. For many white-collar workers based in open-concept offices, the study’s findings can feel more or less intuitive: Often, the office is just a different place to silently use your laptop, with headphones in. “It is very quiet,” a Hearst employee told me after returning to the office part-time. “And it was pretty quiet before because we mostly sit around computers anyways.” In the open offices I’ve worked at, in nonprofits and media, I’ve had all-day conversations with colleagues over Slack or email without ever speaking out loud.

When the open office does foster conversation, it can make it hard for others to actually focus. Jennifer Tsang, a chief of staff who has worked for Cisco for over 20 years, told me that when the company moved from cubicles to an open floor plan, things got considerably louder. The crosstalk became distracting. But Tsang enjoys her job and one of the reasons she’s stayed so long, she says, is because of the company’s flexible work-from-home policy. Basically, she can focus at home when she needs to. “The paradigm should shift away from, Should we be in office, should we not be in office,” Tsang said. “We should acknowledge and accept that people have lives outside of work and that it’s about finding more balance.”

So on some level, the push to return is about the preservation of certain things we have come to associate with work but are not themselves work: the grip of commercial real estate and developers on our cities, the economies that grow around office districts (small businesses from midtown to the Financial District saw a major falloff in foot traffic), and — maybe most crucially — the legitimacy of certain jobs and job functions (a tier of non-work the late anarchist author David Graeber referred to as “bullshit jobs”). “I suspect that some managers were alarmed by the manifest ability of many workers to get their jobs done better when they don’t have to interact in person with their supervisors,” Elizabeth Anderson, professor of public philosophy at University of Michigan and author of the book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives, wrote in an email. “Managers feel a need to justify their jobs, which is hard when workers don’t need them around to do a good job. Bringing them back in the office helps obscure that fact.”

Anderson, who argues in Private Government that workplaces function as little autocracies and sites of extreme surveillance, was also quick to point out that remote work does not free the worker from the bosses’ watchful eye. In many ways, the “tyranny” of at-home facial-recognition apps that track workers when they’re looking at the computer and alert their bosses when they’ve turned away, can be “worse than being physically surveilled by a human boss who can’t keep his eyes on every subordinate all the time.” Bosses can also monitor simple things like when employees log on, send messages, and make phone calls. At the real-estate data firm CoStar, for example, Insider reported that remote employees were so closely tracked by their managers that one was berated for stepping away two minutes longer than their allotted 15-minute break. (Around 37 percent of the company’s employees left last year.) Companies overall have ramped up their at-home surveillance efforts, in order to track their employees’ movements and productivity. “Tech has already been devised to surveil workers at home, and in some cases it is even more intrusive that way, as the employer gets to see what’s happening at home, with family life,” Anderson wrote.

The questions of control, and who has it, are ultimately at the root of these issues. In recent months, amid a tight labor market that’s given workers more power to leave jobs they dislike, many employers have softened on their return-to-office agenda. (As my colleague Kim Velsey put it: “The junior bankers are winning.”) Those who haven’t are running the risk of seeing their employees leave for another, more accommodating workplace. Meanwhile, many companies, in the tech industry in particular, are trying to draw people back into the office, rather than force them to, by offering bespoke amenities — free food, a private Lizzo concert, basket-making classes.

But the solution isn’t perks, or even perfecting the hybrid workspace. If work and the conditions around it continues to suck, the office will too.

Because workers have said a lot, especially in the last two years, about the conditions they find most conducive to being productive (and being happy). Instead of bosses and politicians shaming people to get back into the office, they could hear their employees and constituents’ frustration with how things work now. Cities and states could invest in mass transit to help people get to their jobs, quickly and on time, build actually affordable housing that allowed people to live close to where they needed to be, and create a universal child-care system that relieved working parents. The four-day (or three-day!) workweek could become a more typical schedule, since we already know it bodes well for productivity and worker satisfaction. Every workplace could have a union so employees didn’t feel like they were at the mercy of their bosses’ whims when it came to how they managed their time and structured their lives outside of the job.

The modern office once felt unchangeable. The pandemic exposed that for the lie it’s always been. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in The New Republic in 2017, “Employment contracts create the illusion that workers and companies have arrived at a mutually satisfying agreement.” The illusion, now shattered, asks us to consider other possibilities. The negotiation isn’t exactly where the worker is being called back, but to what. If it’s the same long hours, the same broken commute, and a fridge full of free seltzer, is there any surprise more people are saying no?

What If the Office Isn’t the Problem?