The Office Is Killing You
Meritocracy Over Bureaucracy
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Come back to the office. Now. (Please?)
We have a very fast-paced culture that needs you here (so we can keep an eye on you). If you work hard (under the fluorescent lights and carpeted walls of your cube farm hellscape), you'll eventually get noticed and work your way up to the top, maybe even become a vice president.
Sounds enticing, no?
With the pandemic seemingly coming to an end, yet, simultaneously feeling never-ending, large corporations have begun flexing their muscles trying to “force” worker bees to come back to the office, either by some sort of hybrid model or even worse yet, full time.
Just in the past week alone, Starbucks and Disney started implementing "return to office" (RTO) plans requiring workers to come back 3-4 days a week.
Reincarnated Disney CEO Bob Iger wrote to employees: “As you’ve heard me say many times, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. And in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”
It's hard to argue with some of Iger's points. However, there's a difference between companies demanding RTO because they have valid justification versus trying to pacify local small businesses, governments, C-suite executives, and investors to protect a bygone era. Many of their arguments for RTO have zero basis in factual data or they are extremely shallow in logic, and they are completely ignoring the wishes of the employees.
In a Harris Poll survey in October of 2022, 73% of remote and hybrid employees said they’d probably find another job if their company forced them to work from the office full time.
The problem is the genie has already been let out of the bottle. Once granted, these freedoms millions have enjoyed over the past 3 years will be difficult to strip away again, especially if the labor market remains resilient.
As the CEO of Zillow recently put it, people are now "wrapping your work around your life instead of vice versa. It’s not sitting in hours of traffic for a daily commute. It’s being able to pick up your kids from school without anyone looking askance at what time you leave the office. It’s having your performance judged by the outcomes you achieve, not your ability to sit in a certain chair from 9 to 5."
One of the few positive second order effects from the pandemic was this massive shift from the office to the home. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home tripled from 5.7% (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9% (27.6 million people), according to new 2021 American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
For employers currently facing the decision to ask employees to RTO, the very first question they should ask themselves is are you hitting your goals and objectives? If yes, then why risk alienating a competent and functioning team if they do not wish to RTO? If your team is not hitting your goals and objectives, then you need to determine the source of underperformance and if working in an office setting will actually fix the issue. Don't use the office as a crutch. Use real evidence and data instead. Stop copying what other Fortune 500 companies are doing. Stand out and be different from the competition and you'll attract a larger and more diverse pool of talent. You'll also find that your employees will be happier if you treat them like adults.
I won’t argue that there aren’t tangible benefits to in-person communication/training. It’s also situational. Once trained, most employees don't need to be micromanaged non-stop. Also, it may be shocking to some, but not everyone who works at a big corporation wants to climb the corporate ladder. Some just want to do the work and stay under the radar. And there's nothing wrong with that. But what many employers are trying to do now is claw back some, if not all, of the previously enjoyed freedoms.
Personally, I don’t think I can ever go back to a corporate office setting unless it's restructured from what it used to be. I'd be fine if it was in a smaller, intimate group setting where we could actually get real work and collaboration done. But going in to the office to sit on Zoom meetings all day and sit in front of a computer is just checking the box. I need reasons to come back and they're stacked against a long list of liberties.
I had lobbied for years to get my company to go to a remote/hybrid setting. We had all of the technology to do our work without being physically located in an office. This also restricted our talent pool. Then the pandemic hit and the decision was made automatically for us.
Before the pandemic I felt a falling out with my career. But over the past 3 years of working from home I’ve realized that I didn’t dislike my role, it was the office setting that I hated. The monotony of the gray walls, the hue of the long fluorescent bulbs, the fake chit chat conversations around the break room.Everything's a copy of a copy of a copy.
It gives me feelings of anxiety and depression thinking about how I did it for so long. The office is a place that crushes your dreams and sucks out your soul. Especially if you have a family or value your work/life balance. WFH has given me the freedom to spend so much more time with my family and outdoors and living an overall healthier lifestyle, which in turn has boosted my output to new highs. It's a self-fulfilling cycle if you have restraint and commitment.
Whereas the office is a self-fulfilling doom loop that you can never get out of. Waste time getting ready in the morning to be presentable to waste time commuting to waste time sitting at a desk until the clock strikes 5pm. Can't wait to hit traffic on the way home! It's surprising so many of us did this for so long. But technology has advanced so rapidly that we don't need to anymore, if we collectively choose the path that the majority want to take.
If anyone reading this is in a position with an employer trying to implement RTO, I'd offer the following talking points:
Ask your employer why you need to physically be in the office if you can do your job effectively in a remote setting. Demand real answers.
If your employer says they want more in-person collaboration/mentoring, work with them to figure out a solution. One fix is to compress all collaboration efforts into shorter durations. If you have a week's worth of meetings spread out, maybe there's a way to reschedule them so that everyone on your team is there at the same time on the same day. Or if you have a month's worth of meetings, you could schedule an entire week of collaboration. It's doable.
Show them the quality of your work product. Show them how you are more effective outside of the office.
Ask them for a raise to cover commuting costs.
If you're not worried about the potential of them letting you go for not obeying, use it as a bargaining chip for more benefits. This is a last ditch effort.
Tell them your mental health suffers when commuting or in an office. How they respond will show how much they value you as an employee. It turns out long commutes are actually bad for your health. Commuting has been linked to higher rates of obesity, stress, and depression. One Swedish study also found that it could shorten your lifespan.
The office experience was always supposed to be about the work product, a meritocracy. Over time it devolved into a bureaucratic lust for power. Don't waste years of your life letting it drag you down.