It's Time To Make Management Justify The Physical Office

Yesterday I put out my first piece for The Atlantic, what I’d call a general summary of why I believe that those in power are truly afraid of letting everybody go remote. The response has mostly been positive, because most people realize that if you can do your work on the computer at work, you can do your work on the computer at home. Nevertheless, the critiques - as usual - have been vague in their analysis, claiming that it’s “anecdotal evidence” to speak to this problem in the manner I have, which many, many people agree with me about, that seems to register with a multitude of experiences across a multitude of industries.

On a personal note: thank you to all the people who subscribe/read this newsletter - I have been rather burned out the last two weeks, and this has been a thin week for production - my apologies.

In any case, the most specious response has been that “this is a complex issue,” one of the classic hand-waving things someone will say when they don’t actually want to get into a debate about something. Nevertheless, it’s something I want to address because, yes, it is complex in the sense that there are things that may or may not change (or need to be changed) to make a remote work future workable, but the actual remote debate is very, very simple:

  1. If a company can work remotely, they should.

  2. Remote work does not mean that you never leave the house ever again and that you are only on the computer.

  3. If your business worked well while remote, there is no reason to return to the office.

  4. Remote work is something that requires investment and experimentation to make perfect - just like an office!

The attacks on remote work that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours are ones that I’ve seen before, usually involving attacking the use of anecdotes with more anecdotes, with theoretical office situations in which having someone physically there is “easier” than having them on Slack or email. This reminds me of my least favourite remote trope that I cited a few days ago - the magical 20-email-long thread that “could’ve been handled with a short phone call - which is used to prove that digital communication is bad, and therein lies the complexity of this issue - that remote work is good, but it isn’t able to handle the nuanced beauty of the in-person conversation.

I want to take a moment to ask anyone who is saying this a very simple question:

Have you ever talked to a human being in person in your god damn life?

The anti-remote camp’s lionization of in-person conversation is disingenuous and laughable, as if meatspace conversation is some sort of alchemy for brevity. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite - people in person do not seem more willing to keep things brief or pragmatic, and have a tendency to talk more than they would on Zoom or Slack. These conversations - especially when led by the middle management goons - tend to be fat-filled dialogues in which things are reported at length so that people can be so impressed by how smart the person is. Even when these conversations are not tangent-filled nightmares, they still have a tendency to overrun because everybody’s trapped in the same place, and people are far less likely to be the asshole in person to say “we’re running up against time.”

People are not “better” in person; they are not more likely to be brief or efficient, and in fact, are significantly more likely to go on tangents or bring up random shit. The onus is regularly put on remote work to prove itself as efficient (which it has) and “better,” but it’s far too rare that we see the script flipped - we do not hold CEOs or executives or managers’ feet to the fire and say “tell me, in detail, why I have to do this.”

The proof points around the physical connection you get from in-person work are incredibly vague. A FastCompany article from 2015 seems like a length explanation but really boils down to “people like shaking hands” and “non-verbal communication allows you to read people better.” This is all well and good until you realize that human beings judge each other in seconds, usually based on a spurious combination of physical appearance and whatever you did the moment you met them. These 500-millisecond evaluations are used to judge whether someone is trustworthy, competent, reliable, and a bunch of other shit that will colour their existence forever. While these things can also happen on Zoom, the snap judgments we make are much easier to make in-person, based on someone’s posture, their clothing, their wallet, their watch, and so on. This means that the people disingenuously arguing that they “need body language” are likely significantly overestimating both their need and ability to read it.

This is part of the diplomatic nightmare of a physical office - we have to put up multiple fronts and appearances as the day goes on so that people think we “work hard” or “care about the company.” It isn’t simply about looking busy - it’s about looking and acting in a way that’s considered hegemonically professional - which is why 1 in 4 employees have experienced discrimination based on their looks, and 73% of employees in that study believed that appearance affects competency.

The point I’m bumbling toward is that “collaborative spontaneity” and “office culture” are absolutely things that may seem real and “good,” specifically if you’re a white guy. The anti-remote propaganda campaign makes a lot of sense when you realize 90% of the Fortune 500 are white men. An aesthetically driven work environment is likely to benefit men, who are judged less on their appearance than women, women are less likely to be listened to than men, and women of color are more likely to receive workplace harassment. And while digital harassment can happen, the most common forms of harassment - sexual and disability-related (which I recognize still can happen digitally, too) - are significantly empowered by in-person space.

As a sidebar: remote work is not a panacea for toxic workplaces. A shitty in-person office will be a shitty remote office, but the shittiness may be mitigated on some level. This is not suggesting that remote work is perfect, and if you think I’ve been arguing that, you are not reading what I am writing. Furthermore, the ways in which discrimination happen will likely grow with remote work, and must be addressed swiftly.

Sure, there’re benefits to in-person communication, but even writing this out I’m not sure I can say what they are. I love seeing my colleagues; they’re great, it’s always fun to hang out with them, but I cannot sit here and tell you what would improve our work product if we were in the same place all day. Every time we have our company offsites we end up spending our days quietly at our laptops, then once work is done we socialize. The conversations we have in person that are work-related are about the same as they are on Slack or on Zoom.

I also want to return to something - the pro-office trope is the “quick chat” vs. long-email-thread argument from earlier. The reality is that these chats are usually a sign of dysfunctional communication or too many chefs in the kitchen, something that would not be solved by having everyone in person. The boogeyman of the terrifying email thread is also something that doesn’t happen often, and if it does, you have a problem that’s beyond in-person or remote work - if you’re able to solve something by going to their desk and asking them and the only other option is a long email thread, you’re likely CCing too many people or doing something else that’s awfully inefficient.

Just because you’re bad at email doesn’t mean that email’s bad, and if you’re finding yourself routinely stuck in digital quicksand, I’m going to guess that you’re not the paragon of organizational communication you think - in-person or otherwise.

So, why go to an office, then? If the answer is that it’s nice to see your colleagues and you like being around them, ask yourself - is any of that “having fun” with your colleagues actually work-related? If not, why can’t you hang out with them after work instead? The answer may be that it’s nice to get paid to dick around, which is fine, whatever, but at the same time, do you really want to have to commute to do so?

The vast majority of research I found on the effectiveness of in-person meetings is based on what people say - that “85% of people say “thing build stronger” (I assume they mean “that”), more meaningful business relationships during in-person meetings and conferences,” for example - rather than actually looking at what people do. A lot of this may be because we vastly overestimate the effectiveness of having meetings at all, but also because it’s basically the only thing that’s definitively work-related in the office that requires us to physically be there. Outside of that, we are doing the same thing that we would at home in a less comfortable way, having to worry about how we look and sound and act for fear of judgment.

The theoretical “being able to talk to anyone very quickly” thing is an empty argument - you can absolutely do this on any number of different voice or text platforms - and the vague suggestion is that if we are all able to hear and see everyone at all times, we can then uh, say and do things faster, I guess?

As Adrian Hon said on Twitter, the majority of the voices in this debate are well-moneyed anti-remote CEOs that never have to justify their positions. They are asked to describe the “why” of returning to the office in the briefest of terms, their weightless drumbeat of “culture” and “collaboration” printed without criticism, and I cannot think of a time where I’ve seen one of them asked “why do you actually think the office is good?”

I have sat at my desk multiple times and tried to write a defense of the office, drawing upon the positive experiences I’ve had in the workplace, and cannot find a professional thing that I actually felt was improved. I have many times had colleagues I really enjoyed being around, and have a few anecdotal, funny moments in my work life that I fondly remember, but I cannot think of a time where I sat around a table with someone and said “damn that was good.” I can remember many, many times that I loathed being in the office - the soft abuse of a nosy manager that would silently sneak up to watch what I’m doing “when nobody’s around” and catch me looking at something unrelated to work, the closed-door berating of a colleague for something said on a call, the snide comments made about people leaving at 6PM…all things that were enabled and empowered by a physical space you were forced to stay in.

That being said, I will say that a podcast is generally a little better in-person because of feeding off of each other’s energy, but that’s vastly different to a meeting about work. It is to me a different creative process and one that does not share the same space as marketing, or PR, or software, or sales, and so on and so forth.

While there are connections that one makes at social functions in person, I’d argue that these functions also have the same kind of discriminatory functions of the office. They also have the same gatekeeping that office culture is built upon.

A note on “young people”: There’s a school of thought that says that young people are predominantly the victims when remote work becomes more common, and I think this is totaly horseshit. “Mentorship” in the workplace is already a problematically rare thing, but the form that it takes in the office can be done remotely, and I’d argue that the many digital notetaking software products actually make it a little easier.

The whole “oh you’ll never make connections” thing may make sense in industries that are obsessed with having giant filing cabinets (I’m talking about law firms), but for the most part I have found that getting introduced to people early on in your career can happen online.

Let me give you an example: one of my most meaningful business connections I’ve ever made was to Jason Lemkin. We worked together, and I was introduced to several of his portfolio companies, for over a year before I ever met him. Of all the clients I’ve worked with, I think maybe 5% of them were due to an in-person introduction. Probably less.

I have bought a house online, I have run a business online, I have signed papers online, I have met my wife online. My closest friends are people I’ve met online. Meeting and interacting with people in a predominantly digital manner is no longer a method only associated with sex perverts and deviants - everybody does it! It’s how the world works!

This conversation needs to change from the defense of remote work to an offense against the physical office. We are far past the point at which remote has to justify itself - we must force those who are demanding a return to the office defend their corner as rigorously as the remote workforce is made to defend theirs.

It is time to force the physical office and its champions to justify themselves to the workforce. If a business can work remotely, and your boss is asking you to come back to the office anyway, it is time to ask them to defend their position at length. If you’re a member of the press asking a CEO to justify remote work, you need to ask them very clearly what it is that they do at the office and why that cannot be done remotely, and, if they bring up “office culture,” to define exactly what this and what it means.

The whataboutism of remote work is so pathetic - if the office is so much better, its defense would be definitive - productivity would be higher, sales would be higher, business would be better. The executive sect that so often talks about the “tough, necessary decisions” of layoffs and price changes seems unwilling to make easy and necessary decisions because they’re scared of not seeing their workers, or whatever other reasons they have.

It may be something as simple as elder executives feeling that they’re being left behind. Those who weren’t born digital natives likely have memories of a time when you didn’t need the computer, and thus have a misplaced belief in the superiority of seeing people in person. And while it will definite gnaw on you - as it did all of us over the last year or so - to not see anyone, remote work is not the emotional prison sentence they describe.