Remote Work Is Causing Malfunctions In America's One-Sided Workplaces (And The Religion of Work)

I wrote a piece last week about how Office Culture and Company Culture basically don’t exist, and I was forced to return to it by Auburn University graduate Tim Cook, who is now CEO of Apple. Apple had previously stated that they’d be expecting in-person work “at least three days a week,” and a coterie of employees wrote a long letter to Cook and the C-suite at Apple about how these policies needed to be flexible, autonomous and case-by-case, and also (fairly) asked for Apple to present real information to justify the decision, along with an environmental impact study and clear plan for accommodating those with disabilities.

Apple has claimed that they’ll be "taking it on a case-by-case basis” but effectively declined to do anything else. Their current plan is that employees will be asked to come into the office Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that “certain teams will be required to return to in-person work four-to-five days a week.” Why Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays? Who the fuck knows! It definitely seems like the kind of thing chosen by someone who read a few management books and said “sure, those sound like good days.” It’s not like Wednesdays and Fridays are off? I don’t know.

Anyway, Charlie Warzel also raised an interesting screed by career bootlicker Jon Gruber, a guy who has worked remote for at least 15 years, if not more, because he writes as blog. Gruber’s short missive comes from Gruber’s usual place as a guy who has been his own boss for decades and has absolutely no connection to the real world, in that it is totally dismissive of any and all concerns and problems, and treats the people writing the letter like whiny babies. He even adds that he has “…never once heard of Apple not doing whatever it takes not only to accommodate employees with any disability, but to make them feel welcome,” which is usually the thing that someone says when they hear one of their friends has done something shitty.

Gruber’s entire framing reflects a considerable amount of corporate America’s belief - and my previous statement - that once they hire someone they own them, and must adhere to their “culture.” Gruber’s statement about how “companies are not democracies” also echoes the larger corporate belief that you should be grateful to work somewhere, and that it is entirely a one-sided transaction, and, indeed, is not a trade of money and benefits for labor. This is the reason that companies are continuing to struggle against people that want to work from home - because corporations have always seen employment as ownership rather than exchange, and that workers don’t have options.

The reason Gruber (and others) are so frustrated by this letter is that they see employment as single-sided. We are hired by a company to do a job, but once we are hired, we have agreed to the terms and conditions of it, which includes not simply doing the work, but how the work is done. It echoes what I remember of my Maths education - I want to see how you got the answer, so that I know you’re doing it “the right way", even if you got the correct answer. The difference is that in education, you want to see how someone got to an answer so that they’re able to handle future problems - in the case of the work environment, if the output is good, and the work is done, there should be no reason to give much of a shit about where or how it was done unless it is actively harmful to current or future processes.

Apple’s approach, claiming that “in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future,” suggests four things:

  1. This work could not have been done remotely.

  2. That working remotely means that we can’t ever meet in person again.

  3. That there is no way to have an event that is both remote and in-person.

  4. That there is such a thing as “workplace culture.”

Workplace culture, as I reflected upon last week, is mostly an assumed series of tolerances and expectations in a workplace that are either not specific enough to write in a handbook or are actively abusive, and thus can’t be written down or really “enforced.” You are simply used to the way things are in the workplace, and if you don’t like it, to use Gruber’s parlance, “you are not a good fit [for Apple].” Usually when someone says that somebody else is “not a good fit” is means that they either won’t tolerate a shitty environment, that you current teammates don’t like them (because of personalities or because they’re defensive/territorial), or that they themselves are shitty. “Culture fit” is also regularly used to not hire and/or suppress people of color, and suppress those who might disagree with the way a business is run - oftentimes because the business is run poorly! To quote the author:

I’m sure I’m missing a stage or two and they don’t always go in order. And there are definitely cases of toxic employees of diverse backgrounds who really should be fired. But the point is that there are brilliant and highly-qualified professionals, and the concept of “cultural fit” has been used to shut them down and maintain conformity, and our sector and community pay for it. Many POCs’ blood runs cold whenever we hear “cultural fit,” and for good reason. It more often than not speaks of a set of unwritten rules designed to maintain the dominant culture.

Culture fit and “company culture” only exists to create a monoculture, which is built not to do business well but to sustain current power structures, which naturally leads to shitty work and shitty people in power. It is built to manipulate a specifically capitalist cultural element of people “wanting a purpose,” which almost always refers to people wanting a job that they get good at and can make a lot of money from. The problem is that this isn’t particularly satisfying to say out loud - culturally, at least in America, we push people toward a fiscal and social goal (money, house, kids, etc.) with a cultural onus (our “purpose,” “what you’re going to do with your life, etc.”) - we, ultimately, are tasked with both succeeding at our jobs and “finding ourselves” through.”

This is why the idea of company culture is so thoroughly vile - it is built to manipulate, suppress and control, and make you think about how your company rewards you in greater terms than “I do work and I am fairly paid for it.” It is, as I’ve said before, a way to pay you in a currency that does not involve money, compensating you - hilarious, considering the subject matter - by offering you a “company culture” of people around you that you may or may not like, an office that makes you feel important (without paying you more), with fringe benefits that feel like compensation but do not, as people found out during the pandemic, translate into actual dollars if you’re not in the office.

The nebulous structures that companies have built to compensate (or not compensate) people are much harder to enforce without people regularly being in the office. Outside of the office, your work becomes your work, and your compensation becomes your compensation - and if your work can be done just as well at home, it becomes far more obvious when too much is being asked of you, or if your pay is less than the labor is worth.

The physical office is a focal point for the “cult” part of company culture. In a negative environment (like my first job), company culture is used to enable and excuse bad habits - “oh, he’s just like that,” “that’s just how things are,” “that’s just how we do things,” and so on. In a positive company culture experience, it’s still manipulative and cult-like. Phrases like “we’re all in this together,” “we win as a team” and other phrases are used to excuse unpaid overtime, extra work that isn’t part of your actual job description, and having to work with people who are actively poisonous.

These aren’t things that magically disappear via remote work, but they’re significantly less effective, because you’re on your own turf. The poisonous moods of shitty people in the workplace don’t bleed quite as powerfully into Slack or Zoom, and when you’re chewed out by a manager, there’s no ceremonial walk of shame both into and out of their office. The intimidation of physical presence is so much less effective - the contagious bad moods of managers, the high school shakespeare dramatization of problems in the workplace, and so on - without trapping everyone there to see it.

A common complaint about going fully remote is that we’ll lose the “visibility.” This is yet another management tool to separate a worker from their work, because it is specifically evaluating someone on something that isn’t about their actual work. If someone’s contribution isn’t evaluated numerically, there should be a direct report that they regularly talk to that evaluates their work, and that evaluation - and the performance of that person - should be reported to those that make hiring decisions, if it’s not the person evaluating their work. If there are clear-set expectations of a person’s performance, there should not be an issue with visibility, because the work itself is the visibility.

“Visibility” should only be an evaluation in the workplace if the person’s job is to be a fucking crossing guard. When visibility is brought up in the workplace, it is only an indication of the failure of management to create clear-set goals and metrics to evaluate their people, and an indication that they don’t truly understand their work product. While there are soft success factors that people rely upon - contribution in meetings, good solutions for problems and so on - these should almost always manifest in the actual execution of actual work. If someone’s work product and road to success is so poorly defined that “visibility” is a necessary metric to evaluate them on, then there is a significant managerial failure - one that does not adhere to reality or actual business success.

Company culture is only about control. It is about a borderline religious set of rules that people abide by not because they’re fair, or good, or reasonable, but because The Company Said So. They are bordering on faith-based orders - that if you work hard, you’ll get more money, and suffer less, because of all of your hard work, and your tolerance of the bad stuff. It’s eerily close to Irenaeus’ Theodicy: you were chosen to be here by the company, you will learn and grow with us, and the suffering you deal with here will make you better at your job, and you will be rewarded in the end. The bullshit that “culture” justifies is all part of the soul-making theodicy of work - that you will suffer through this and win in the end, because work is suffering.

Naturally, one can ask the same questions of Irenaeus as they would their employer - if the company knows something is bad, and they can fix the bad thing, why won’t they do it? The answer is usually “just work through it, it’ll get better, we win as a team.” The answer is that it’s usually difficult to deal with actual problems in the workplace like shitty managers that have been there forever, and far easier to just make everyone work around their shittiness. You know, tolerating a universal belief that things need to be the way they are for no reason other than “this is the way things are.”

And, like a lot of theology, the rules of the company that are established are oftentimes applied in a capricious, confusing manner that seems to suit the company.

This is why so much of company culture is entirely optics-driven, and why so little of it really matters. If a business functioned as well or better remotely, there is no logical reason to force everybody to return to the office other than “we like to see our little puppets dance.” Working from home has on some level realigned many people’s understanding that work is something you do for compensation rather than a vocation, and that no boss truly owns you or your time. People who are working remotely are now realizing that they can just do their jobs in whatever time it takes to do their jobs, and that their pay should be connected not to hours, or optics, or “culture,” or “visibility,” or “being a team player,” or “managing up,” but in doing stuff that makes the company money, and hoping to be good enough to get paid more to do more.

The growth of company culture theory is cancerous - it is a symptom of corporate culture somehow moving away from pure capitalism and more toward an autocratic or theocratic organization. Companies have found ways to extract more labor through social constructs, and creating acolytes within their organization to spread their grotesque ideologies that, when boiled down, mostly just mean “accept the bad stuff and give me more work.”

The only good thing company culture can mean is that your colleagues and work are at least tolerable, you’re given the means to do your work as easily as possible, and you’re paid a fair amount for doing it. The problem is that those that bang on about it, that cry about remote work “destroying culture,” really just mean that they are losing the ability to control you, or manipulate you, or hurt you and justify it as part and parcel of the human experience.

And like many abusive situations, the abuse becomes significantly more obvious when you are removed from the situation itself, in this case the office. And where the situations aren’t abusive - where they’re just tolerable - why make that a reason to go back? If the work is done, who cares?

We all know the answer. It’s the people that love control, that love to wield and play with power, that have grown their careers through stealing other people’s work and who, ultimately, want to have the sense of accomplishment of doing something without having to do it.