So, What Happens to WFH Now?

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey, everyone, quick note, today’s show has a curse word. All right, here’s the show. All right, here I am, I’m outside the office. Today is Slate’s first official day back at work. I’m not really sure if I should be wearing a mask or not as I walk into this office building.

S2: All right, let’s do it.

S1: Wow, first thing I notice is the air conditioning. It’s like 45 degrees in here and completely empty. Hey, I’m Henry Garba, in for Lizzie O’Leary. Come to you with a recording from a place that has been virtually off limits for nearly 18 months on American corporate office building, specifically sleights office in downtown Brooklyn, which has been closed to us since March 2020. Lots of people have joined the company since and they don’t know the first thing about this place.

Advertisement

S3: Your I.D. should

S4: work on three doors. So it be this store.

S1: That’s Amanda. She’s giving a tour that I dropped in on. There were a few hiccups. The scanner doesn’t work. The dishwasher doesn’t work. Neither does the coffee maker. And metaphore alert. The literal water cooler is Brooke, I.

S4: I had a guy come in and look at the filter and he was just like, no one should be drinking this. Like, no one like it’s not it’s not safe. So I wouldn’t recommend drinking that. I don’t get even sick.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But everyone got to see their old colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year. Katie, how’s it going today?

Advertisement

S5: I’m really busy at McElhinney. Hi. Sorry about that.

S1: So this is interesting. Susan, hasn’t Susan moved to Charlottesville a little before the pandemic? So she hasn’t been in this office with a desk of her own. And how long, Susan?

S5: Two years. So I found a container of plastic straws that also include two metal straws. I really

S1: like to give you those metal stress

S5: you did, Henry, because I like it to chew on straws, but I’m concentrating. But now, in the years since we left the office, plastic straws have become literal and cold. So I’m really excited to get back to them.

S1: You’ve got the last collection of plastic straws in Berkeley.

Advertisement

S5: None of that garbage.

S1: It is this conversation we’d be having on Zoome. I don’t think so. As banal as this chitchat is, it’s the sound of a major pivot point in American life. Pandemic era questions about the relevance of the office are inching towards a resolution. Some bosses are calling employees back. Others are telling them they don’t have to come back at all. Months of speculation about the future of remote work are ending in corporate dicta that restore the old status quo or reverse it. And that has profound implications for downtown buildings, for the cities that depend on their property taxes, for the small businesses that depend on their traffic, for the service workers who maintain them, and for the trains and buses that make a big downtown of office buildings possible. But perhaps most of all, it has implications for the workers themselves. Many office workers don’t want to go back to a five day week in the office today on what next TBD how to make the new era of the office work for office workers.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Hey there, I’ve got it, and it’s and it’s recording, I just turned it on.

S1: This is Brigid Schulte. She’s the director of the Better Life Lab at New America, and she thinks a lot about how messed up our office culture used to be. You know, the old nine to five or nine to six or maybe seven. Forty five. Fittingly, even though this is Slate’s first week back in the office, I spoke to her remotely. All right, well, Brigid maybe we could start by having you describe your recording setup. Where are you and where’s the microphone?

S3: Well, I I’m in my home office where I have been sort of stuck for the last year. And I’ve got my iPhone sitting on top of a stack of books, all about work. So I’ve got a World Without Work by Dan Suskin. I’ve got Flourish. I’ve got Thursday is the new Friday. I’ve got scarcity. I’ve got a great place to work for all. And on and on and on.

Advertisement

S1: I love this. So we’re actually recording your argument about remote work from atop a stack of books about remote work.

S3: Basically, the the books are all about how work really doesn’t work right now. It didn’t work before. The pandemic is certainly not working during the pandemic. And that’s why this is sort of a pivotal moment. Can we figure out how to change work and our relationship to work? And is this the moment that we do it?

S1: And it seems like we’ve been talking about this for a year, the weirdness of remote work, the ways in which it’s better, the ways in which it might be worse. But this is the moment when after all these months of speculation and discussion, it feels like the rubber is hitting the road. I mean, JPMorgan brought back workers on Tuesday. Goldman brought them back earlier this month. Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will allow all employees to keep working from home. It seems like at white collar offices, this is the moment to either consolidate these changes or reverse them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: This really is a critical moment. What comes next, you know, in the next three to six months could be the start of defining what happens in the next ten, twenty years of the next generation. These are critical moments. And I have to say we’re all over the place. You know, we work. I mean, this was a little disingenuous because this is their business model. But they were saying, you know, you have to be in the office to prove that you’re a committed and dedicated worker. So you’ve kind of got those on one side, everybody back, you know, everybody back in the office. And then you’re right on the other side, you’ve got Mark Zuckerberg saying, hey, I kind of liked having more time at home. I like not having to, like, fight the commute. So I’m going to have more of a hybrid.

Advertisement

S1: I like I like having more time to ride my my hoverboard the like with the American flag.

S3: Right. You know, so you’ve got you’ve kind of got a range of companies trying to decide what to do. And I have to tell you, I’m confused. It’s all over the place. You know, there would be one survey that will say companies are there embracing remote or hybrid work and they’ll they’ll cut down all these real estate costs is going to be great. And then a few days later, a new survey of CEOs there. You know, they want people back into the office. So I think that there’s we’re in real flux. The first people out of the gate could really set the tone for what comes next.

Advertisement

S1: Right. And you don’t think that we should go back to normal and not just because you’re calling in from the beach?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, I don’t think that we should go back to the way it was. It’s not the choice of going back to the office and the way things were or having some new everybody working at home or out of coffee shops. I think the choice right now is work shaped and defined our lives before the pandemic. And it didn’t really work. If you were a professional with a college degree or more, you worked on Wall Street, well, maybe it paid you a whole lot, but it also eat you alive. It cost health that cost relationships. If you were an essential worker, what we call essential workers now, what we used to call low wage workers, hourly workers, you didn’t have enough hours. You didn’t have enough money. You were scrambling to make, you know, find other, you know, other jobs to make ends meet. So work was the dominant force in our lives before the pandemic. It’s so tied with identity and meaning. And it’s very complicated in the United States. It’s what we how we value each other and what we kind of what we do is who we are. But it wasn’t giving us it wasn’t even giving us sort of the basics. In some cases,

Advertisement

S1: Americans work longer hours than our peers. In rich countries. We have shorter vacations, fewer benefits and later retirements. And what do we have to show for it? Levels of economic inequality unseen since the late 19th century. That’s the world of work that got shut down last spring. Let me ask you about some of the advantages of these remote work policies for workers first and then we’ll get to the bosses perspective. But one thing that gets trotted out a lot is the idea of work life balance, that the commute really just took up so much time. And so on the one hand, I guess you have this promise of a more. Time spent at home, spent with family, spent on tasks you want to accomplish in your personal life and on the other may be the prospect that that commuting time is actually just getting used to work more and that without the office as a place to concentrate your work tasks, those responsibilities end up encroaching on your life at home.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I would say that the responsibilities at work were already encroaching on life at home. You know, if you look at work hours, if you look at time, use work. And again, this is pre pandemic. There was already this phenomenon called spillover, you know, work spilling over into family and home life, creating a lot of work, life, conflict to work, life tension, work, family tension and very little spillover the other way spillover of family or home demand spilling into work or taking us away from work. So the phenomenon of work already sort of expanding and encroaching on our lives was already in effect before the pandemic. And I do feel like that’s part of why so many people who are able to work remotely at home might have felt a sense of relief. You know, it’s like, oh, my God, I can finally balance my checkbook. Oh, my God, I can, you know, all of these these tasks that I load up on Saturday and then I’m too exhausted on Sunday to do anything fun, you know, all of that. There was finally time for, you know, you can write in the mornings or the evenings. You know, I think that honestly, I think the pandemic sort of reminded people just how much of their own lives they were missing.

S1: Yeah, the surveys show that people like remote working. But I guess one other question then is, to the extent that the office has continued to function as we’re all remote, are we coasting on those connections with colleagues that we formed in the earlier era before, like, you know, as a staff turnover picks up, are we going to find that the bonds that sustain this remote work period start to fray as we realize we don’t actually know or recognize our colleagues anymore?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: If you go fully remote, then that’s sort of what you’re talking about. That’s actually called distributed work. And there are companies that are like that. It doesn’t matter if you work in Utah or, you know, Bogota, Colombia. You know, they have created a culture that works and thrives because it’s distributed. And you really have to know how to do that and you have to embrace it and create those relationships. That’s really important. Like you’re talking about how you build that sense of psychological safety and trust.

S1: I was going to say so. Remote work has sometimes been viewed as a mixed blessing, like the idea that it might even reinforce hierarchies about who who shows up, who puts in face time. And that might translate into into advantages for people who continue to show up. And in that way, I think there’s a fear that remote work might exacerbate some of the inequalities that characterize life at the office.

S3: Absolutely. Right before the pandemic in most office cultures in the United States in particular, we have what’s called face time bias. And this shows up over and over again that managers and CEO’s bosses, people in power, that’s the way they work. And so then they turn around and they reward people who work like they do in the office. I can see you. You know, you’re always here. You come in early, you stay late. I don’t know what you’re doing, but I have this sense that you’re dedicated. What that does is that equates presence and long hours with productivity and commitment. And that’s not necessarily true at all. But what that did is that disadvantaged people who needed to work flexibly, who needed to work remotely or needed or wanted to, and so typically before the pandemic, that tended to be women and caregivers. And so it’s not surprising that that face time bias then just reproduced those kind of patriarchal hierarchies of largely white men in power, then reinforcing and promoting white men into positions of power. And there were surveys before the pandemic that asked CEOs around the world who is the ideal worker? And more than three fourths said, you know, somebody with no caregiving, somebody who’s always here. Well, that’s never going to be a mother. You know, as we saw women just completely hammered by all the caregiving responsibilities that that they had to take on through the pandemic.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Have you had experience with that yourself? I mean, are you talking are you speaking from personal experience here?

S3: I absolutely yeah. I remember I did go down to a four day work week for for a while after my daughter was born. And I remember EDS calling me and saying, you’re going to ruin your career. Don’t do this, don’t do this. And I worked on a project and another and one of the comments was like, wow, she did that on a four day workweek, you know, as if, like, my brain had fallen out, you know. So there yeah, I have definitely experienced that it’s just kind of this knee jerk bias, it’s like it’s actually sadly human, you know, we are comfortable with the status quo. That is what we know. And that is what drives so much of our workplace norms. Is this like, well, we’ve always done it this way. And even though people are burning out and even though our productivity isn’t all that great, it’s what we know. So we’re going to keep doing it. We’re going to double down on it.

S1: So as the pandemic ebbs and future patterns of work sort themselves, this is the dilemma that we face. Going to the office five days a week, limited our mobility and long commutes, stripped out our free time leaving the office left us isolated and letting people choose between the two seems to reinforce the very hierarchies that marked the office experience in the first place. Naturally, there are some new ideas out there.

S3: Synchrony just announced that they have got this new policy as they’re thinking about returning to work after the pandemic. Like how are they going to avoid what we’ve been talking about, kind of reinforcing hierarchy or making it worse. But they’ve come up with is that they’ve basically barred anyone from coming into the office five days a week. So they’ve they’ve agreed that they’re going to embrace hybrid work. So you can they’re going to have some in the office. They’re going to have some remote. They’re going to have some hubs, which is what a lot of companies are talking about.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But they don’t want anyone trying too hard.

S3: Well, this new policy is they’re trying to to disrupt that kind of status quo of like, oh, I’m in the office, so. Oh, you must be a better worker. Right. I’ll tell you right now, I mean, how many times have you been in the office and you’ve looked around and people are just kind of shooting the shit and talking about the football game or like, you know, there’s a whole lot of what

S1: I like most about it.

S3: All right. Yeah. And I listen, and I was the person who was working my ass off at home, but nobody could see me. You know, if you look at some of the research that’s been happening during the pandemic, remote workers are actually as productive or even more productive. But there’s a downside that productivity comes because we’re putting in more hours. We’re just working more. And the weird thing about that is that people actually feel OK about it because they’re in control of it.

S1: When we come back, how these changes might free families to move, give workers more power and lead to society wide action on child care, health care and other shortcomings of the American system or not. The. This is what next TBD, I’m Henry Goodbar. We’re talking with Brigid Schulte about what the post pandemic returned to the office might look like and what it would mean for work life balance. The sort of symbol of remote work during the pandemic has been these, you know, digital nomads, people roaming around the country in their van, getting Wi-Fi to run, you know, to to send a bunch of emails in the morning and then going for a hike in the afternoon. And it sounds like that is sort of a red herring. Like those people do not represent where we’re going as a society. It’s probably a more gentle transition. And that also means, on the other hand, that we’re not going to see people streaming out of New York City and the Bay Area into rustbelt cities in upstate New York or the Midwest.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I think it’s too early to say that that digital nomads are red herring. I just I think it’s just really going to depend on the cultures that develop and what they what they allow, what they value and ultimately what they end up rewarding. Because if you’re a digital nomad, but you keep missing promotions and you’re not getting paid bonuses and you’re not valued, well, I can imagine you’re going to get the message that even though the policy says you can do it, if it’s not working out in practice, you’re going to run right back to the office. This is why we’re at this kind of like very fragile, gelatinous moment where a lot of managers and CEOs who already have a lot of power will have a lot of power to figure out how work is going to shape people’s lives next.

S1: OK, but here’s here’s the flip side of that. You know, obviously, some of the first movers are the ones that are saying, all right, back to the office, enough of this, you know, intermediary, long intermediary period of uncertainty, talking about some of these big banks, for example, that have been leading the charge on getting getting workers back. But in The Wall Street Journal, I’m reading that some other banks, such as Citigroup, are waiting because they think that they are going to be able to poach talented people who value remote work or the ability to work remotely some of the time, as surveys show many workers do, and at firms that hold back and that have looser policies are going to be able to attract more talented people. I mean, I think that’s the flip side. And maybe now that we know that this is on the table as the kind of thing you can bargain for realistically, that firms will just have to follow, follow talented workers in establishing these policies.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: That’s a fascinating and kind of exciting thing. Yeah, the sort of the race for talent could really reshape this. But I guess what I wonder, cultures are so strong that even if you have this kind of short term competition for talent, like who can be more flexible and who can allow for more digital nomads and give you more freedom and well-being, will that last? If Citigroup and others are sort of holding back, wanting to poach talent? Well, then they better deliver. You can attract all these people who want flexible work. You can promise them flexible work. But in two years, if they’re not on the same track and they’re not promoted and, you know, you haven’t figured out how to manage and work with them and value their work, you know, you’re going to lose them or, you know, you need to do the work to change your culture to make that real.

S1: I think it’s important to that. We recognize and I know you do, how limited this conversation is to a certain and sort of elite sector of worker. I do wonder to some extent if we’re putting the blame for some society wide problems, such as the lack of affordable child care, low wages, cultural problems, gendered expectations. If we’re if we’re putting those problems onto the back of the workplace, when, in fact there are much more widespread phenomenon, and if white collar workers get to work from home, that may help them with their child care needs, but it does nothing for everybody else.

S3: Well, actually, I would argue that working from home doesn’t help white collar workers with their childcare needs because basically working from home means that you have to work and do child care in the last year and home schooling, and that’s just unworkable. But I think you raise a really important point, and that is we need to see work as part of this bigger picture. And work only works when it has all of the supporting infrastructure that actually makes it work. And that means care. And that means care for children, for, you know, schools, for aftercare. It means, you know, care for, you know, disabled family members. That means care for the elderly. And we we have no care infrastructure in this country. It’s it’s abominable. You know, we don’t we are the only country that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. We’re like one of six advanced countries that doesn’t have paid paternity leave. We have no investment. In a child care infrastructure, in the way that our advanced economies do, we do not invest in what I love. This one economist called the common genius because we have this myth of the individual here that we all create our own destinies. And so if we’re really going to talk about how to make work work, then we need to talk about how to make all those systems around at work.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, let me ask you then, Brigid, if if white collar workers are able to claw back some of their free time, some of their leisure time, some of their flexibility through advocating for hybrid work that gives them more separation from the office, allows them to take more time spent with their families, do the things they want to do and all that. How do we extend those gains to be society wide and not just to workers who who have who have the privilege of of being able to to not go into the office every day?

S3: Yeah, that’s critical. Let’s remember and I’m saying this with clenched teeth and of trying not to swear. Let’s remember that the latest data shows that about 20000 child care centers still are closed. You know, we’ve lost one in nine child care workers. We do not have the system that people can actually go back to work yet. You know, we haven’t invested in figuring out how to build that system. So, I mean, all of this talk about going back to the office is so disingenuous in some ways because, you know, yes, we have roads and bridges so that you can actually drive there. And we’ve got some public transportation. You can get there, but we don’t have the care infrastructure that would enable everybody who can and wants to come back to work. And that’s not just for the office workers. Work may not change dramatically in the next six months to a year, but it’s going to in the next 10 to 20 years. And so why not begin having these larger, harder conversations right now?

S1: Brigid, thank you so much for coming on.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Great to talk with you. Thanks so much. Now, you got me all riled up. I have to go take a walk around the block and so pissed off again.

S1: Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab at New America. That’s our show for today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks this week, were edited by Tori Bosch and Alicia Montgomery. TBD is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. If you missed it, check out Wednesday’s What Next, in which Marc Stern talks about the Supreme Court. Mary Harris will have a new show for you on Monday. And Lizzie O’Leary will be back in the host chair next Friday. I’m Henry Garba. Have a great weekend.