Returning To The Office Is Creating The Great Reckoning
Despite years of proof that remote work is both productive and a net positive for workers, Google is demanding a good chunk of employees return to the office at least three days a week. This is a sentence I typed on Substack, in Google’s Chrome browser, which I have sat next to a window that has Gmail, Google’s electronic mail service, which has allowed me to run my business for a decade without having a physical location. 2 billion people use Google’s G Suite to run businesses without the need to be somewhere physically, and one might argue that of all the companies in the world, Google has the greatest awareness of how little one needs a physical location to do stuff.
Google’s policy seems to be inconsistently applied (for example, an executive is allowed to work remotely from New Zealand), leading to some understandable discord in the company. To quote Protocol’s report:
Employees raised their complaints at a company all-hands last Thursday, submitting questions through a system called Dory. Two popular questions involved remote work, according to Insider.
"Google made record profits through the pandemic (and WFH), traffic has already increased (at least in Bay Area) with gas prices at record high, and people have different preferences for WFH vs work from office," one question said. "Why is the RTO policy not 'Work from office when you want or when it makes sense to?'" Another submitter said some teams "blanket ban" remote work, with Google rejecting applications "even if managers are supportive."
The other app I use to communicate with just about everybody is iMessage, made by little-known trillion-dollar computer company Apple, another company that is demanding people return to the office:
Apple’s return-to-office policy is far stricter than other big tech companies — and some employees say they plan to quit in protest.
While Meta, Google and Amazon are letting at least some employees work remotely forever, Apple CEO Tim Cook is ordering all corporate employees back into the office at least one day per week beginning on April 11. The mandate ratchets up to two days per week on May 2 and three days per week on May 23.
I cannot think of a more bizarre pair of companies to reject a true hybrid or remote solution. Other than the massive amounts of money that Apple and Google have made due to remote work, they also have intimate experience with exactly how possible it is to run a company without having a physical presence. These companies have both pioneered one’s ability to have a geography and device-agnostic digital life - my iMessages are the same on my phone, my laptop, my computer, and any Apple computer I buy in the future, and the same goes for my documents and desktop files - they’re just…there. And if I have my Google Docs login, I can access anything that I need to run my business.
I’ll cut to the chase - Apple and Google are hypocrites with disconnected management that doesn’t understand how their actual company works or what actual work looks like. They are making calls based on their imaginary version of what “good work” looks like, which is a condition that grows from a lack of any actual contribution to the company. And guess who actually gets to work remotely?
Workers told Insider that Google's remote work policies felt arbitrary. One employee said a colleague was barred from remote work even though their manager was allowed to work from home.
While MarketWatch claims there is going to be something called “The Great Return” - a forced return to the office by bosses who are furious that they haven’t got to stomp around and intimidate the people they’re paying - I believe there’s going to be a far bigger, meaner, and more meaningful change: The Great Reckoning.
Woe Unto Thee
A lot of the themes I’ve been writing about for the last two years have crystallized around a disconnection between the forces creating value in a business and those that receive the benefits of said value. Despite the endless pablum about “leadership” in business, those who lead - bosses, managers, and so on - by and large are not the ones doing the work, to the point that many of them have only the most tangential understanding of the tasks they’re demanding other people complete.
Having an office meant that these people could establish their value by existing - they were present, accounted for, always on the phone or behind a closed door, or perhaps in a meeting where they’d talk a lot. It was hard to question their contribution because their contribution was that they were there, and in the case of many managers, they were able to suggest that your success was theirs because they were there “keeping an eye on you.” In the same way religious zealots take every positive action as somehow influenced by God, your manager’s existence in your proximity was proof that they had value - assuming you were succeeding. And if you weren’t…well, they were there the whole time - why didn’t you ask them for help?
Similarly, the office never really had to prove itself - while you may have theoretically been able to do your work at home, you had to go in, so there was no qualitative assessment - it was just how things were. Yes, you went to the office to log onto Slack and go on Zoom calls and do a bunch of stuff you could do from home, but you assumed, as many did, that going there had some sort of greater purpose. Everybody else did, after all. And hey, sometimes your cool boss would let you come into the office late or go home early and finish your work there.
If this sounds like you were scammed, it’s because you were.
The office is a way for organizations to sustain the status quo and hierarchy. If an organization has to start considering whether the manager you have actually does anything, they have to start asking if the executive level does anything. Meaningful contributions to an organization can be measured, and oftentimes the higher up you go, the less tangible and meaningful these contributions may be. An executive may have a particular way with a big client - which may have fiscal value - but otherwise not contribute much other than consuming oxygen and glowering at lower-level employees.
The same goes for middle-management (and management in general), which has become a form of incentive rather than any meaningful driver of value in an organization. As I’ve written before, we need significantly less managers, and those managers need to actually do something (say, manage people) and be held responsible for the production and happiness of others. The problem is that management as an incentive almost exclusively attracts selfish narcissists that burn out young people.
To be clear, I do not think that this is news to any organization - it’s just such a significant problem to reckon with that it’s easier to ignore it altogether. If you start considering management as a skill, you also have to create a matrix through which you evaluate managers and the people they’re managing, and deal with the fact that you may also have never created any way to evaluate anyone’s performance.
And when you create that matrix to evaluate performance, you create a problem I’ve previously hinted at - the evaluation of the executive’s contribution compared to their outsized salary, status and freedom.
No company really wants to reconcile with this, because of the crushing truth - most executives did not work to become the head of the company so that they’d have to do more work. A “leader” in the modern business world has begun to resemble an Instagram influencer without the honesty of being famous because you’re funny or interesting. It is God-Capitalism, where the CEO isn’t expected to do anything significant but is given credit for all creation, all because he or she sits at the top of the totem pole.
The core of this problem is the hypocrisy of fairness and equity in business. You are consistently told that you exist in a meritocracy - that those that contribute the most receive the highest rewards, but this is very, very rarely the case, and in the case of many managers and executives is completely false. This is difficult in part because there are roles where measuring contributions isn’t linear - for example a customer support rep may not have a way of articulating a fiscal contribution to the business, but they absolutely have one - and additionally in situations where you’re measured based on the whole of something rather than your separate part (say, in marketing). As a result, people are regularly promoted not based on any meaningful metric or contribution but based on who they’ve made happy in any given day, or whether they resemble the people above them.
The thing is, none of this is insurmountable - I am not describing monoliths, but challenges that a business can and should overcome. The problem is that this isn’t just a case of evaluating who’s really contributing, but evaluating those who are not, and evaluating the reasons they were kept employed for so long. As I’ve hinted at, this becomes exceedingly difficult when you start applying this pressure upwards - because business is sold as a meritocracy right up until you start questioning the people at the top.
The office has become a third rail issue because, unlike many deranged executive proposals, they actually had their hypothesis tested. When an executive pushes an organizational change - layoffs, restructuring, and so on - these things are usually accepted because there is no alternative offered. In the case of remote work, executives were forced to close offices, and workers were shown a win-win scenario where the boss got to get the same amount of productivity for a lower cost while also making workers happy.
As a result, there really isn’t a logical reason for people to come back to the office. And in place of the usual pragmatic managerial language - tough choices, efficiency, productivity, profitability - workers have been met with flimsy justifications that wouldn’t pass muster with a client or, indeed, in an argument with their boss.
What Do I Pay You For?
Not having to go to the office also gave the average knowledge worker the same flexibility that the executive enjoys on a daily basis. An executive doesn’t have to report in, nor do they have to keep track of hours, nor are they going to be fired if they’re not “seen enough” at the office. Furthermore, they’re not actually expected to work eight hours, because they’re that important - they’re just expected to perform in some sort of nebulous way.
Without an office, the average worker can just focus on doing their work in whatever way gets it done to the quality and deadline that’s required in exactly the same way the executive does. Except I believe that there are many executives that believe they’ve “earned” this right - that their flexibility is a result of their hard work, rather than a perk that comes from being on top. Sharing this flexibility with others makes them feel self-conscious, but also triggers their condescension and superiority toward the lower-tier workers - after all, they’re “below” them and might not “know how to run their days.”
More specifically, flexibility also terrifies executives who thought they were getting the better side of the con of salaried work. Salaries exist as a means of not having to pay someone hourly, assuming that the net calculation at the end would be cheaper than whatever the hours worked would be - with the unsaid part being “I can make you work unpaid overtime whenever I want and there isn’t anything you can do about it.” Without an office, it’s much harder to trap someone and make them work those extra hours - either through positive coercion (company campus benefits like gyms and catering) or negative coercion (“be a team player”), and thus much harder to guarantee that you really “own” that person through those hours.
It’s not enough to get you to do things for them to make them money - they must have complete control and industry over your lives as long as you work for them.
With remote salaried work, you have absolutely no way of guaranteeing if that person is working “the whole day.” And I believe there are many companies that see salaried work as a form of ownership - a means of trapping someone and manipulating them for a certain amount of hours a day, rather than purchasing their talent and ability to produce. Without an office, it’s hard to push manipulative corporate cult mantras like “we’re a family” because, well, you can’t guarantee everybody’s watching.
This, to me, is the core of the Great Reckoning - as workers realize that companies want to own them, and want to make them do stupid things for stupid reasons that aren’t anything to do with their work. Corporations that have spent decades crowing that businesses take tough decisions to succeed are now acting like entitled children, making unreasonable demands so that they don’t have to take responsibility for their rotten organizations.
In short, I believe white-collar workers are realizing that a lot of corporations are full of shit. While it’s been obvious for a while that no single executive at a corporation has ever worked harder than the average blue-collar worker at one of their factories, it’s always felt plausible that an executive in a white-collar business could still “do” something and understand the world of those beneath them.
The Great Reckoning is about both a lack of appreciation of labor and the entitlement of capital. Despite treating workers as disposable and replaceable, they expect to be treated as special angels that must be catered to for the pleasure of working for them. And despite the continual demands of workers to adapt to changing business conditions, organizations continually fail to adapt in any meaningful way - even if said adaptation would retain talent and make the business stronger as a result.
We could see any number of things from the Great Reckoning, but the biggest is going to be a talent drain from companies like Apple and Google. I’m not saying they’ll shut down, but when you’re competing for extremely talented engineers or the brightest young minds in the world, you are going to be competing with companies that will pay them just as well to not go to an office.
Those same companies will likely pay market rates rather than trying to save money making specious arguments about how they shouldn’t have to pay you as much because you live in the South.
The real irony of all of this is that all of this kvetching and forcing and antagonizing of people that want to work from home is both woefully inefficient and a huge waste of money. People that are happy at their jobs work harder and will stick around for longer, and people appreciate it when you do nice things for them - such as not making them go into a building and helping you feel better about your stupid real estate decisions.
The funny part is that this situation will only get worse for companies that won’t accept remote work. Young people love working remotely, and are increasingly less tolerant of believing in things just because that’s the way they were always done.
As the workforce ages, companies are going to find themselves increasingly finding the workforce considers the office the equivalent of sending a fax - an antiquated way of doing business.