The Many Lies That Executives Tell Themselves About Work

When I started my agency, I remember making one specific rule: no hourly billing. It was partly because I hate calculating hours and partly because I think that it gives the wrong kind of incentive for the type of work I do, where you start doing stuff to bill more rather than doing things that do stuff. The real reason is somewhat connected, in that I don’t believe, and never have believed, that human beings actually work for eight hours a day, nor that a solution to a problem is always “more hours.”

Studies have suggested that the ideal workday is three hours long, and that people can only really stay focused for about 20 minutes at a time, and most people have only about 2 hours and 23 minutes of productive time in their day. I’ve been fascinated by this idea for a few days because I am burned the hell out. I am so burned out that I am finding myself less productive every day toward the Thanksgiving break, likely because I’ve been sleeping terribly and this year has, despite being better than 2020, still been a lot on me (and I don’t have it hard! What’s wrong with me?).

In any case, I think that the idea of “full-time” employment and the 8-hour workday are central to a lot of the problems that we’re seeing with remote work. The malfunctions in bosses’ brains that we’ve seen (and the injection of nightmarish surveillance software into remote workers’ days) may be about control or power, but it’s also around millions of powerful people realizing that despite paying people “full-time,” they have no real way to guarantee they’re “getting their money’s worth” beyond having people at an office.

Conceptually, we hire people to do a job for us and be available within certain hours. If you’re not someone with a big piece of rebar instead of a brain, it’s realistic to understand that they are not working that entire time, and that, indeed, you are not paying them for their hours worked but for their output - an exchange of money for labor. Philosophically, I believe that many bosses have never really thought about what they’re getting from the person they’re hiring beyond a job description and the guarantee of a certain amount of hours’ worth of effort, and any further consideration of said hiring is about whether they’re “doing a full day’s work.”

You see people working two jobs at once because there are plenty of jobs that can be done without working an entire “full-time” workday. The pearl-clutching by bosses and journalists around this idea is because they haven’t considered what they’re paying someone for - as I’ve discussed before, I believe that many bosses believe a salaried job is a form of ownership. When you hire them, you have their soul for the allotted time you agree, and you expect them to be working that entire time - the actual “work” in that case should, of course, be the consideration, but it frequently isn’t - the “if you can lean, you can clean” mantra that says every moment of your working day must be optimized For The Business (TM).

The problem is that what we consider “working” in the office is incredibly theatrical. Managers that love to be in meetings and constantly seem busy or frustrated were often considered “good workers” because they were evaluated based on the pantomime of work rather than their actual output, as many bosses are utterly disconnected from the actual output of the work itself. Removing the office - and yes, I know I’ve quite literally said this before - removes one’s ability to appear like you’re working.

But the nuance here is that the office was a way to fill time. By being in the office, you were showing your employer that they got value from their investment - there you are, doing something on the computer, and thus you are “working full-time.” Remote work (without surveillance software) isn’t particularly good at showing whether someone is working or not - because we have societally decided that “working” is “being at the office and doing something.” Society has disconnected “work” from “production” because it’s significantly less satisfying for bosses to pay someone for a service rather than paying to, on some level, own that person physically and mentally.

The Trouble With Full-Time

The real question is what is full-time employment? The idea of a salary is/was meant to be that it was a guarantee of a certain amount of pay regardless of the hours worked, with job security and benefits that went with it. Specifically, salaries exist to pay people who may have jobs that are wrong to enumerate in simple hours - executives and managers, for example - or where the output is not a sum of hours invested but in the ability to use one’s expertise to create a specific outcome. In many cases of specialized employment, people are actively trying not to pay hourly - either because the amount of hours involved would be more than a salary, or because the expertise of the person could be such that an hour’s work is worth a great deal more than you’d want to pay them hourly.

This confusingly-worded paragraph is central to the problem that remote work is causing. The frustrating back-and-forth about wanting people to be “collaborative” and “spontaneous” with their colleagues is a symptom of the many, many businesses that simply do not know what they specifically want from a person, and don’t have (or want to create) a way to enumerate their actual work product. As a result, they consider the office as a way of proving that someone is “working” - if they’re in the office, there’s a social construct that says dicking around on their phone or playing Dark Souls 3 all day would be bad, and thus they can be assured that work is actually done.

It’s also because (as I’ve said repeatedly) there are so many layers of managers that are fancy hall monitors. When you have a substrate of people that are not doers but monitors, it’s very difficult to justify their existence rationally without having an office - and people are promoted to manager in many cases as a reward rather than for company-related reasons. Without getting into another anti-manager piece, this is just another example of how so many things have been created that really only made sense in the office - just like the idea of a “full day” of work.

The cognitive dissonance you’re seeing in the newspaper about “getting back to work” is a result of so many people simply not thinking about why companies exist and what people are meant to do at work. While we want to believe that we’re focused on “doing work” by being in the office, the reality is that many people build illogical companies every day based on things they assume they have to do. They have 10-person companies with four or more managers or make “Work From Work Wednesdays” rather than thinking about what they do, because thinking about things pragmatically hurts. In short, people often build companies and hire people based not on whether the end result is profits, but because “the way to build a company” is to scale, and have lots of managers, and have an office.

So many things are done by companies because they think they have to - because they’re following what they feel is the right thing to do rather than what actually might work. While it seems counterintuitive to workers, I truly believe that there are executives that would rather have a company that made $1 billion and had everybody working 8 hour days than make $10 billion with everybody working 3 hour days, because they’re so obsessed with the aesthetics of success.

Sidenote: In my case, this is one of the reasons I’ve never had more than five people, and never had a real office space. People would tell me that I had to “scale up” to “deliver more for clients,” but clients seemed happy, and the people I had were doing good work. I am confident that nobody who has ever worked for me works for eight hours a day, and I do not care, because the clients are happy, and the work is done. I am not a paragon of business, nor even a sort-of-smart man, but I ignored many people because I am somewhat resistant to peer pressure and, honest to God, I have run into maybe eight people since 2012 I’d actually hire.

The reason that so many of the recent remote work articles are anti-worker is because they are written for and sourced from people that do not actually do work. They are executives who have reached their current position not by thinking about what people do or understanding their companies but by delegating work to people who delegate it. To remove the office is to remove their ability to conceptualize what their company is - and if they have to start admitting that people don’t work exactly eight hours a day with their eyes glued to their computer, they may have to start admitting that they’re ignorant. And there are, of course, the people that take satisfaction from being able to vaguely gesture to an office full of people, or to stomp through there when they’re in a bad mood with the knowledge that those around them with scatter out of fear of facing their wrath.

This conversation is also a deep point of vulnerability for many executives. They want to believe that they are participating in a meritocracy where their hard work has rewarded them with vast riches, when the reality is more that they may have done work, but their privilege and a great deal of luck led them to where they were. While there are exceptions, the vast majority of successful people (myself included) are a product of privilege and happenstance. As a result, when a self-conscious CEO doesn’t see tons of people working in the office, they are reminded that they too didn’t necessarily work a full eight-hour day to reach where they did, and that makes them feel sad. They may have also simply lied to themselves about the amount of hours or the difficulty of their corporate ascension - that it was because of their intellect, their genius, their fastidiousness, their grit, and all of those many hours of hard work.

It’s also because so many bosses simply don’t do any work. They are not active participants in the actual output of the company that enriches them, and it’s dreadfully uncomfortable to think about. Being physically in an office and in meetings has so much more pomp and circumstance and can give the appearance of activity where very little actually exists. In fact, they may realize that they have very little power outside of the office that they created - despite being important, well-paid and successful, they are, without the office, ultimately just another person walking on the street, even if they have nice shoes or an expensive haircut.

Ultimately, all of this is why people are so vague about why we need to be back in the office. They can’t attach any tangible business goals to the idea of physical presence because there really aren’t any. Once we had a full suite of cloud-based tools that let us send messages instantly or talk to someone instantly wherever they were in the world, it became ridiculous to have offices, but it also became obvious that executives had many reasons to have an office, or have people there eight hours a day, that were nothing to do with making the company money or doing any work.

And it feels bad for many people to admit that they didn’t pay people to do something, but because they wanted to own them and their time and their thoughts and their abilities for eight hours or more a day.