Maximum Office

Anne Helen Petersen predicts great contention in the back-to-the-office surge.

Quote of the Moment

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.

|  C. S. Lewis


In The Back to the Office Maximum, Anne Helen Petersen summarizes the back-to-the-office policies of various companies and then pokes at them. (I wonder if the use of 'maximum' is a nod to minimum viable office?)

Right now, most organizations are focused on the hours, days, and location of work— which makes sense, because that’s the first layer of questions that employees have about an eventual return. Smart organizations are actually listening to what their employees are telling them about what flexibility should look like, what matters and what’s lacking, what they’ve struggled with working from home and what they miss. Unsmart companies are returning to the status quo because they don’t trust their workers, they have weird fantasy scenarios about spontaneous hallway collaboration, they’re resistant to learning how to manage in ways that don’t involve direct sight lines, or they’re just straight up assholes who want to control their employees’ lives.

If companies are not leaving this decision up to the workers, a good fallback might be the 40% rule:

I work for a large public policy nonprofit, and they've been surprisingly flexible! We'll be required in the office 40% of the time (calculated by month), and how that 40% is allocated is totally up to each person. Also, once they announce a reopening date, people have three months before they have to work 40% in the office (so, no one is required in their seat on day one of reopening).

Pre-covid, everyone was basically expected to be in the office 9-5, M-F. There was no official telework policy, which meant that flexible/chill bosses would basically allow off-the-book WFH for their teams, and everyone else did not. I do think management would have had a mutiny on their hands if they tried to require everyone to work in the office full time again, but now pretty much everyone is pleased with the new policy going forward.

Although I think it should be a 20% rule, which averages approximately four days a month.

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And Petersen is dead-on about back-to-the-office-quitters:

There’s already notable anecdata of people quitting their jobs when indiscriminately forced to return to the office. Workers are deeply burnt out and frustrated with their companies; for many, a truly shitty back to the office plan (coupled with a generally good job market) is the last straw. The best thinkers, innovators, and workers will go where their work is valued and their organization makes policy that underlines their trust and respect for their workers, even if that means switching fields entirely.

Petersen predicts a two-tier workforce as those with greater demands for care-giving (women, in particular) with opt to work from home, while men will come into the office every day:

Managers who haven’t learned to recognize work or productivity save through in-person interaction will continue to promote those who work and produce in a way that’s visible and legible to them. And the people who will best equipped (and societally facilitated) to do that visible, legible work are the same people who excelled in the pre-COVID office: white, able-bodied men with fewer or nonexistent domestic demands.

She paints a pessimistic picture of what will happen over time:

The majority white managerial class’s internalized biases will reproduce a majority white managerial class. Extroverts who revel with being in the office five days a week will excel. Leadership will remain snowcapped. Disabled workers will be second-class workers. Salary gaps will widen. It will happen so gradually, so seemingly “naturally,” that it won’t necessarily be visible until the data makes it undeniable. Remote workers will be conceived of and compensated as less valuable workers, regardless of how much value they’re actually adding to the company.

She makes an appeal to goad companies into deviating from that course by thinking about the systemic changes needed to avoid that scenario, ten years down the line. I am less sanguine. I believe change will only coming from widespread defection of the most talented and determined from dumb companies and their transition to smart companies. But, as I wrote in We Need A New Work Culture,

We can’t wait for more enlightened management to show up or grow up.

Petersen ends by asking snowcapped management to live up to their purported principles:

None of this is going to be easy. But none of this was easy before the pandemic, either — and it was certainly wasn’t equitable. You can think of wrangling your employees back to the office, as many recalcitrant executives have, as herding ornery cats. Or you can think of it as an opportunity to become the diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization you declare yourself to be on your “About Us” page. If employers actually value hard work, they should do some of their own.

I'm not holding my breath. We'll likely have to wait for a generation of management to leave the building before we get there.


Profile: Anne Helen Petersen | A sampler of her other writing

George Packer's Four Americas | Are young people who demand justice forcing a revolution in business?

Overwork and the Cult of Ambition | What we can learn from Naomi Osaka.