Office and Company Culture Are Bullshit

The piece that everybody in the world that’s written about remote work in the world is now responding to is the New York Times piece about how spontaneous collaboration is not actually real. It quotes all the greats, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture,” running a company that likes to move around the UI on their online banking constantly so it’s never possible to know where card security is on any given day. Charlie Warzel, a writer, wrote a good summary of the Times’ piece, along with adding his own anxieties that he experienced going remote:

When I left New York to work remotely in 2017, I bought into this idea hard. I enjoy offices and talking to people and have had chance encounters that led to stories or opportunities that have subsequently benefited my career. I figured that losing those moments would cause my work to suffer, or just lower my visibility in my company such that I might become expendable. None of my bosses suggested as much (in fact, they were all quite supportive of the move) but Spontaneous Encounter Theory still preyed on my insecurities and exacerbated my fear that the real core of my successes up to that point were not my own, but a product of my environment.

Charlie’s worries are reasonable, and the same justifications that most middle management freaks are still arguing about in the comments of my work from home article from earlier in the month. Everybody is terrified that the magical things that happen in an office might not happen if we’re remote, as if being in each others’ personal space is a magical force of unity.

My personal story of going remote was when I struck out on my own, creating my own agency of literally one person (me), getting a website built and then just doing the work. Specifically, I did so in 2012, a year when this was all totally possible, except that fewer people expected you to use your webcam, so your day was full of calls instead of Zooms. I got a WeWork office so that I had a physical address to put on my website, and basically ran the agency with all the trappings of a “real” PR firm without being anywhere.

I remember dodging the questions around “the office” for fear that people would consider us “not connected enough” because I wasn’t sitting in the middle of Time Square eating Sbarro. I’d say that we were an “East Coast agency” because, technically, I was on the East Coast - just in New Jersey, or North Carolina. I, somehow, was able to keep every single connection I had in New York when I moved around, and in fact found myself getting way more as time went on simply by using Twitter and occasionally visiting New York. EZPR would win business against bigger agencies with giant, stupid offices, and eventually I’d move to San Francisco and get a small office because it felt like “the right thing to do” for when I hired someone there.

It was a colossal waste of money. My colleague at the time and I would make up reasons to “sync up in person,” work for hours with our backs to each other, occasionally muttering something and laughing, then we’d go and get drinks, which was very pleasant but did not require an office. I saw no measurable benefit from having an office beyond the ability to occasionally meet a client there - and that was in one of the rentable conference rooms. I eventually let it go when I forced myself to answer two simple questions: what exactly did I do there? And what would be reasonable to do at home?

All of this took place from 2012 through 2017, years that people still remained extremely anti-remote work. I felt like I was hiding - people would ask where I was based, and I’d say “California,” or “our office is in San Francisco,” all while I sat in Danville, which is not San Francisco, but is California. The one exception was Platform.sh, a long-term client that’s fully remote, where my contact Chris Yates seemed to have an identical view on the subject - this internet thing is marvelous, and you can run entire companies remotely.

Over the years, I’d lose some business to firms that did worse work but had a better office, though this would ease as time went on, and basically stopped happening during the pandemic for obvious reasons. What defined a “full-service agency” was previously largely aesthetic - how many people you had and how impressive your office was - until the world was forced to realize that none of this shit mattered. It was the same thing that confused me when I saw companies at similar revenue rates that would hire 4 or 5 times the amount of people - I never understood what they did all day - until I realized that the entire reason they did it was to say they had “people under them.” It wasn’t necessarily about the money.

The Emperor’s New Culture

Most defenses of the office vaguely gesticulate toward the idea of “culture,” that culture can only grow in person, and that by keeping people in a room together you create a positive culture. The New York Times piece quotes a Zillow executive that I’d argue nails it:

That’s led to a lot of the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation — because that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many,” said Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, the real estate marketplace.

The entire idea of Office Culture is entirely predicated on trapping people there. It is an inefficient yet satisfying way in which executives and managers find way to extra more labor out of people, with creative measures like “nap rooms” and free food to give them more reasons to stay and work unpaid overtime. Company culture is if anything an extension of the same tools - it is a mechanism through which the company wields command over the intentions and actions of the worker to squeeze more out of them, and make them feel bad when they disagree with the company. Much like the definitions of why we need to be in the office, it’s an unwieldy blob that is dropped onto workers to tell them that they’re being bad - that they’re missing out because they’re not “in the office,” or “fitting in with our culture,” which usually ends with a manager or executive asking whether someone is “loyal to the company.”

Twitter user Quantian had a good point about this:

Company culture is generally a set of values that everybody agrees with - if you attempt to make it more than that, you are either adding more events to people’s lives or attempting some sort of weird cult atmosphere. The weaponization of company culture is just another way in which the company attempts to pay an worker in a currency that isn’t money - it’s giving them a “sense of belonging” so that they “feel good at the office.”

Let’s just be brutally honest - company culture is often management contorting itself into a pretzel in an attempt to not compensate a worker, and to remove themselves from being an exchange of work for money.

It is so thoroughly connected to the work-from-home debate, because they’re all part of the same problem - that management has created a structure that benefits management and captures the time and soul of the worker, who they believe they have some ownership over. Labor is not enough for many managers - they want to feel like they have power, which requires controlling and influencing the lives of others.

“Company culture” is simply trying to create patriotism, but for capitalism. Offices exist as the nation state that they join, where they’re expected to be and live, as if working for a company is a form of allegiance versus a way to make money. I must be clear that I don’t mean formalized company culture policies - what is and isn’t cool in the workplace and in how you represent the company - but the amorphous “culture” that is supposedly lost from being in an office, where you can be watched and evaluated in based on stuff that isn’t related to your work.

The office exists as the Company Culture mecca - the point at which we all do the work for the big boss so that the company itself is good. The expectation of office presence and evaluation of their work based on said presence is the wishy-washy quasi-religious bullshit based on intuition and anecdotes rather than actual work. It’s incredibly inefficient, but loved by middle-managers and executives because it’s a way in which they can wield power in their tiny little fiefdoms. In the same way it’s used to extra labor from workers for no extra money, it gives them compensation beyond running a company that makes more money - the satisfaction of being a King or a Queen of a tiny, shitty little country.

Office culture in and of itself does not exist. It is just a place that you go to work, and the culture that grows out of it can also be created remotely. Company culture is just the general feeling of what is and isn’t tolerable in the workplace, and what expectations are put upon the workers from management. Many further abstractions from what office culture or company culture means are usually abnormal growths from shitty behavior - that you “just get used to” certain people being awful, or unrealistic expectations are “just how it is.” Company culture oftentimes becomes a layer of industrial scar tissue, where people have been hurt but the hurt has been done so often that it’s now become the norm.

The big push back to the office - and the many, many, many people I’ve had contact me saying they don’t want to go back - is only about control. Company culture is industrial guilt - it’s “just what we do here” - and without an office, it becomes significantly harder to wield, because there isn’t an easy way to wield power over a distributed group of people. It’s hard to feel like you’re a fancy King that people fear the wrath of when you don’t have an office to trot around, with middle-management Lords that also get off on the authority of power and draw little satisfaction from actual work that rewards you with money.

People stay loyal to a company that compensates them and makes their work day pleasant. The challenges they face at work should be engaging and their difficulties at work should be based on the execution of the work versus those around them. They should enjoy the people they’re working around too, but that should not be the only reason they stay working for you, and if it is, there’s likely an issue within your company, either with the work or the money you’re giving them.

What we are seeing in the slow broil of middle managers and executives is a fear of losing the real reason they have a company - power. Sure, making lots of money is part of it, but money doesn’t make you feel good if you don’t actually enjoy anything. If what makes you happy is the idea that people are subordinate to you, controlled by you, influenced by you and dependent on you, then the idea that they won’t go back to your office is terrifying. It’s your kingdom, with the people that you own, that you can show off about to your dickhead friends, because of an implicit understanding that they have to be there because of you. It isn’t about work getting done - it’s about work getting done for you.

I have had a lot of people in my comments who disagree with me about stuff like this, saying that I’m overreacting, or that the magical world of the office is good, or that middle management is necessary. Their arguments are mostly informed by the same imagined, anecdotal, intuition-based fantasies that management uses to convince people that remote is bad - that we’re losing some magical aura of corporate success - and that we need these weights on people to make sure work is done.

Here’s an idea: if someone does good work and the work is good, keep paying them. If the work is bad and it’s their fault, fire them. If their work is bad because of poor management and poor education on what they were meant to do, fire the person responsible for managing and educating them. Stop trying to create artificial reasons to keep people in buildings if they’re doing good work from home. Stop trying to make up reasons that you want to see people in person beyond “it’d be nice.” Really evaluate what it is you think that you’re doing in an office, and then feel free to tell me why you’re going back at my email address at DontCare@EmailAccount.Biz.