The Promise (and Perils) of Remote Work
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In 1975, fewer than three million people worked from home in the U.S., and a third of those workers were farmers. Major shifts in the economy, a global pandemic and a few minor technological breakthroughs later, that number has surged into the tens of millions, according to the Bureau of Labor. Nowadays, American tele-workers skew upper income, and highly educated. Journalists Anne Helen-Petersen and Charlie Warzel work from home, and that's where together they wrote their latest book on the promise and problems of this very phenomenon called Out of Office. When the pandemic struck last year, the couple found themselves grappling as workers with feeling caught between all deliberating and oppressive effects of tech and design. Warzel, for instance, found himself consumed at all hours by the messaging app Slack, which, by the way, was supposed to make work easier. Much like email was supposed to.
CHARLIE WARZEL Back when email was first invented and codified in the office, it was supposed to kill the memo, and the memo was that cluttering amount of paper that was always being passed around, and all this time you had to spend photocopying it, etc. And so as the whole process of duplicating and replicating became easier due to the technology, people are sending tons of emails when they don't really need to. So Slack comes along and says, Listen, your inbox is almost beyond saving and organizations are wasting all this time replying to emails, and it's not instantaneous. There's still that lag time between sending and receiving. What if we reorganize the way that we work? Ergo, Slack. And Slack is not only to kill email, but it's a big part of the marketing. Anyhow, Slack has not killed email, and I'm sure your inbox is hectic. Just like all of ours. What Slack did was it created yet another channel to check. Another thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you don't save time? [BROOKE LAUGHS]
CHARLIE WARZEL You save time in certain interactions. But people are also going to message you more frequently just simply because it's easier. We're just adding things on because people are always looking for new ways to show that they are being productive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So long before Slack, there was another efficiency trap. The gilded cage of the open office, introduced in 1958 as an office landscape, or as I like to call it: Bürolandschaft.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I'm so happy you pronounced it and didn't make me pronounce it
CHARLIE WARZEL I had to pronounce it for the audiobook and it was a nightmare.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I don't think he did it as well as you did. So I am so fascinated by the history of the open office because I think most people think that it was designed first and foremost as a good tool to torture workers. When really it was meant to make workers lives easier. The places where it was first implemented and first designed, a lot of these were very old office buildings that as they hired more people, you placed one person in this building and then another person who should be sitting right next door to them is actually across several office buildings. And so they decided like, what if we completely reorganize this, put people who are working in similar sectors and similar projects close to one another to ease the communication? And then also get rid of this sort of corner offices and the hierarchies that were very standard within offices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But there are no walls. So noisy.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN This is important to note. The original plans have these dividers that were not like what we think of in terms of cubicles. They were much more at, at odd angles, and there were plants all over the place to create natural sound barriers. So it's not the high ceiling open office that has become so standardized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's fascinating because in Germany and Scandinavia and the Netherlands, you wrote that the experience of working in the open office design was so miserable that in the 70s, local worker councils mandated their removal, but not here in the U.S.. The architecture critic James Russell, you quote, said that Americans characteristically reworked the plan into something cheaper and more ordered.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah, the cubicle. I think that companies realized that this was a massive cost-cutter, put the corner offices back in because they were allergic to not having that hierarchy in place and then had corners when it came to these dividers. And like the expensive plants that would have been used to group people within these larger spaces and they just put in cubicles, which I find to be very isolating, you're really by yourself in this open office space. It's the worst of both worlds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like being lonely in a city.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You guys cited a study that showed these open formats actually created more inefficient workers. Google was probably thinking about that when it designed a new kind of workspace that was more akin to a college campus. What issues do you think the designers sought to address?
CHARLIE WARZEL One of the founders of Google was actually trying to replicate the campus environment from, I believe, Stanford. And especially the way that the engineering students would get together, and even if they weren't working on the same thing, they would be within arm's reach, just have collaboration. The space was designed to really funnel people to work in different types of environments, right? Not everyone works really well at a desk. Some people want to recline in a beanbag chair, right? Some people like to work in a really dimly lit space with a lot of people around them. Some people just simply want to work in the bustle of a cafeteria. There's multiple workspaces, but also lots of points for people to do either solo or collaborative work. And probably the biggest part was that campus feeling. And so that idea, it is a place where you go and all of your needs are met, and that includes socialization, food, your transportation to and from sometimes even sleeping.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And working out.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah, gyms, but also climbing walls, sports leagues. Everything is right there to envelop your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Google Plex was half a million square feet in Mountain View, California. The unifying goal of the design, apparently, was self-sufficiency, but the guy who designed it, Clive Wilkinson, apparently has some misgivings about what he helped design.
CHARLIE WARZEL Yeah, I mean, it is an incredibly influential piece of architecture because, you know, obviously the success of Google as a corporation leads to so many people wanting to mimic that. And so when I kind of put this to him and said, it's a space where you end up spending all your time and essentially live at work, I don't know if it's, if it's necessarily misgivings, but I think it was a realization from him that this really could be abused. And it has led to perhaps a different culture than he imagined. A culture of extreme overwork and commitment and identification with one's job. Because it's not just that you spend a lot of time there, it's also that you make friends there. You could be sitting there having a beer in the cafeteria with a bunch of your friends, but they're also your coworkers. So are you working or are you not working? It becomes very difficult to even tell.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN The way that I often think of it is that you are pumping up one muscle in your body like, let's say, your left bicep by spending all of your time and all of your resources and all of your friend making energy, all of it is is directed towards work and people that you know from work and you're letting the other muscles in your body say your entire right arm atrophy. It's it's just there's nothing there. And what happens in that scenario is, Oh, my left bicep looks amazing, but there's nothing else to fall back on. You don't have any food in your fridge. So why would you go make food for yourself and invite people over? You don't know anyone outside of work. This, of course, really benefits the corporation that your loyalty, your identity is really caught up in them and what they can offer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what about Twitter? You cited as a company that's grappling with the dark side of the Google Plex office model, trying to formulate some sort of hybrid, which removes some of the perks of the office to level the playing field for people who work remotely and people who work on site.
CHARLIE WARZEL All these tech companies, as a way to attract talent, created the most attractive amenities environment as they could. At Twitter, one of them, especially in their office in downtown San Francisco, is an amazing kitchen, espresso bars and all kinds of wonderful things. I've been there a few times. The food is fantastic and it's all free. The people we spoke to there realized that, well, that's a big perk. And it feels, you know, if you're choosing to work from home where your meals are not paid for that, you're leaving something on the table. So when they're looking at actually trying to create a hybrid environment that doesn't incentivize people to come into the office or doesn't penalize people who choose to work remotely means you have to make work less appealing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are they closing their kitchen?
CHARLIE WARZEL This, to my knowledge, was the plan. I don't know how it's been implemented. The kitchen is one element of it, but there's other ones that are smaller but just as important. And one of them is when people go into a conference room for meetings. Everyone at twitter has to turn their laptop on so that the camera and the microphone are easily accessible because there's a number of people who've been odd person out in a meeting being remote where the camera's positioned very strangely, you can't see everyone in the room. One person is impossible to hear. And it creates this tax on people who choose not to come in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This seems uncharacteristically unmindful of efficiency or profit. Or do they just know that most of that's a bunch of bull anyway?
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I think that tech companies in particular, there's very clear expectations about what deliverables are, and this is part of the reason why many tech companies, not all, but many tech companies were pretty comfortable with people working remotely before. Because if you have clear expectations about the sort of work that needs to be performed and people are doing that work, then you don't care where it's happening. The only people who care are people who don't do that work right and whose job is less legible. And this is oftentimes managers. Their job is oftentimes just supervising. So how do you supervise? How do you make that visible? It's a lot harder, but tech companies actually understand that it is efficient to let people design their own workday and their own work rhythms and seen that borne out over the course of the pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is that why Dropbox, the cloud storage company that's based in San Francisco, decided back in October last year to become a virtual-first organization?
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN They also decided to, I think, do a pretty dramatic reorganization of how their company worked. And one of the ways that they could do that, alongside being a remote-first organization, is figure out, OK, we don't need offices where people can go every single day, but we do understand that some of our workers are going to want collaborative space. So we'll put together kind of studios in four of the cities where our workers are clustered. Some of those cities in the United States, I think one is in Amsterdam. But the really interesting thing, and I think the smartest thing about this plan is that it's not a space for just putting your butt in the seat and being present. It is specifically designed as a place to do collaborative work. So you have that space to do the the water cooler stuff that is a little bit less spontaneous, but you don't have the sort of obligatory showing your face just to show your face understanding of what work is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We focused on the architecture of the office, but this is really about work and about life and the intersection of the two.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah. One cheesy thing we say about our book is that it's not about where you work, it's about how you work and how you think about work in your life. The thing about the office historically, is it's been very good and convincing you that your life is actually the time that you spend in that office and that it is the primary gravitational pull on your life. So what happens when that ceases to be the case?
CHARLIE WARZEL There's the thing about remote work. A lot of people try to gloss over because they want it. But the truth is that it's harder. It is logistically more challenging to have a bunch of people spread out than it is to have them in one space. In order to succeed, you have to be very intentional. You have to design it with the best interest of everyone in your organization, but especially the workers in mind. And in doing that, you design something that's more human. They can only work with truly understanding who your workers are as people. I think that is why remote work is a really good Trojan horse for a lot of these bigger ideas about what is it that we value? Who do we want to be? How do we want to spend this limited time that we have, you know, here on Earth? And do we want to spend it in service of a company? We should just always be asking ourselves those questions because we only have one life here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie, Ann, thank you so much.
CHARLIE WARZEL Thanks for having us.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Thank you. This is such a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen-Petersen are the authors of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. Coming up, being a Luddite doesn't make you a technophobe, it just means you can see a little further around the corner. This is On the Media.