The Pandemic Was Office Culture and Middle Management's "God Is Dead" Moment
A few years ago, I got asked by someone why I don’t have an office. They were confused that I didn’t have one, despite having four people in my company. It was a bewildering conversation full of sentences like “but you should have an office,” with no further substance other than questions that looped back to “how companies work.” I kept a WeWork with an address for many years simply to use their conference rooms, and found that nobody asked whether I had an office anymore, because they assumed that having a conference room meant that I had a room upstairs, which I neither had nor needed to have.
Similarly, I’d get asked why I didn’t “hire more people” and could never seem to satisfy anyone with “I don’t need to.” There is a professional-cultural trope with companies that your success is attuned directly to the number of people you have and the amount of real estate you occupy, and that is the matrix through which your business is measured. I can understand where that came from - most companies (my own included) don’t want to share revenues, at times because they’re bad, at times because they don’t want to give any ammo to their competitors, and at times because they just don’t want anyone to know their business.
In any case, the pandemic forcing every office-based company into remote work has ripped the bandaid off with most of the skin, making some companies realize that going to a building to use the computer to do work was remarkably similar to using one at home. It also bruised the idea that those who are “worthy” of working from home are some form of a magical self-starter, above the crop of regular people who must be herded into the office and whipped by managers to keep going. Companies didn’t immediately implode because they didn’t have people in the office, work still got done, customers still paid, the world went on despite expensive pieces of real estate sitting empty. And they still are, with office vacancies growing across the country.
While these are relatively obvious things to say, it’s not been remarked upon enough how serious this problem is, not just on a fiscal level, but on the cultural level of what modern work is and how it happens. Many of us were raised to believe that the important work happens in an office, and on some level that important work can only happen in the office - it is the mecca of money, the church of capitalism, the place where we had to go to synthesize and synergize our work to produce for our corporate overlords. While some of us (myself included) questioned how useful any of this was, managers and executives continued to insist we’d come in, saying that the only way to succeed was to rub shoulders with our colleagues.
A large part of the reason we tolerated it is because we had to - it was a hard argument to win because we’d never proven at length that it was possible to do things remotely; we simply had the intuition that we were able to successfully do our job when we traveled, or when we had to work from home because we were sick (which sucks, by the way). We couldn’t endearingly say that the business could run totally remotely because there was the continual fuel of managerial whataboutism - well, what about MANAGERS, could they MANAGE remotely? - with no body of work to point at and say “yes, they could,” or “no, they couldn’t, but that’s because they’re bad.”
The Inefficient, Inessential Office
There is a certain dogma to what we have considered essential for the office. We considered going to the office and working with colleagues essential, we considered having managers essential, we considered conference rooms and all hands essential, we considered our commute essential, and then, through the pandemic, got a forced reckoning with what was and was not essential to make a business run. So much of the assumptions of managerial structure are deeply rooted in physical presence and attendance, and thus removing the ability for people to attend forced just about everybody - even those who would rather not have - to consider what was and was not essential.
I think that this has the potential to, in time, uproot everything that management has been built upon. Middle management, in many cases exists as a hall monitor - to make sure people are at work and to make sure that they’re working (versus, say, doing work) - and has been the default way to promote people in an organization. The stigma of middle management is symptomatic of tying management to career progression rather than seeing management as both a skill and an organizational function, which is why so many awful managers exist. It’s something that exists because of the office and because of the many, many, many bad CEOs that see their workers as possessions that must be monitored - how can the CEO know what’s going on without having hall monitors to inform on them? What use is having all of that power if you can’t wield it, even by proxy?
We’ve assumed so many things have to happen for no good reason. Our corporate progression has been tied to becoming increasingly distant from the work that got us there. Middle (and upper!) management, while theoretically something that should happen in larger organizations, has become something for people to aspire to so that they can remove themselves from the workforce and become the “strategizer” who is given more credit than the laborer because they ‘managed’ them. Culturally, we applaud those who are in management because they “quarterback” winning teams, but we very rarely refer to the star players on those teams because the manager is considered the driving force behind them, regardless of whether that’s true.
All of this falls apart when you have a remote workforce because once you’re distributed, management can only really exist as a guiding force rather than a force of power. The soft methods of abuse of managers - giving someone a talking to in your office or conference room, “leading a meeting” where everyone has to shut up and listen, the dread that they spread when they’re in a bad mood - becomes nigh-on impossible to do remotely and doesn’t seem to have any function to it. When you remove physical space, you remove the function of management as a correctional officer or drill sergeant and force them to actually…do something. And if that “something” is literally reporting other people’s work with no actual contribution of their own…why are they there? What does management do? Is management a singular function that someone should only be paid to do, or something that software can replace?
The reason that large companies are fighting the remote future is that to accept remote work is to accept the vast inefficiencies they’ve pumped money into and written books about. If they have to admit that remote work is the future, they have to admit that they have promoted people to or hired people to be managers that, when you remove the office, do very little. They have to admit they’ve spent a great deal of money on beautiful real estate that, deep down, actually provides minimal function, other than making people more tired and more annoyed.
All of this comes back to a core problem - that management has become separated from the work product, and thus created an unwieldy ball of decisions that they’re terrified to remove them from. It’s the larger, messier version of the open-concept office - a decision made entirely to benefit the hall monitor class that hurt productivity and morale because the people making these decisions are very rarely people that have to do the job every day.
Ironically, most of these masters of business like to use sports analogies to describe themselves, but very rarely learn from successful sports teams. Successful teams scout (IE: research!) and pay well for talent, and give them whatever they need to be the absolute best that they can be, specifically so they can win games, which attracts fans, which makes the team money. Conversely, corporate America is obsessed with forcing people to go places and do things that don’t contribute to the bottom line, because assuming responsibility for poor decision-making is terrifying. It’s also much harder to convince old, stupid, decrepit investors that you’re a big company if you don’t have a large office full of people you’ve forced to be there.
This is a moment in professional culture where the old guard is getting deeply upset about how obvious their inefficiency is. Instead of using this as a true moment of change, people like Jamie Dimon and Tim Cook are taking the opportunity to double down, which will likely lead to a drain in the talent they’ve got and the talent they’ll be able to get in the future. And you know what? They fucking deserve it.