The Remote Culture War Has Begun, And Executives Are Pumping Out "Back To Work" Propaganda

In one of the more bizarre op-eds I’ve ever read, the New York Times again chose to empower the forces against remote work, running an insufferable op-ed by the co-founder of a law firm. The screed is exactly the thing you don’t give space to if you’re looking to give a balanced view on a subject, telling the tale of a group of lawyers that were forced back to the office in May 2020. It includes some incredible anecdotes - workers encouraged to drive in as they “wanted [workers] driving to work and supporting [their] many energy-sector clients,” anonymous clients that allegedly were jealous of their in-person office - and reads entirely like something that was published specifically because the New York Times couldn’t actually get a reporter to have a researched opinion that was anti-remote work.

It’s almost as if the organization itself wants people to return to the office but can’t find the evidence to do so and thus has turned to their opinion page to justify it with anecdotal bullshit. One might say I’m paranoid if the Times was not also hiring a “Back to Work” newsletter writer:

This position, while potentially able to provide a balanced view on the subject, is already steeped in executive propaganda by using the “back to work” phrase. While seemingly innocent, the phrase suggests that everyone working from home has been on some sort of vacation with their laptop rather than doing work, and that only by returning to our big, beautiful offices can we fully work again, and see “the value of face-to-face communication.”

This culture war that I’ve been warning you about hinges on the fact that many of these people cannot find a real justification to go back to the office. The law firm in question justifies their decision to not go remote based on an entire five weeks of seeing if it’d work (and, apparently, several lawyers had already been going in!), proudly boasting about how “companies in energy, health care and tech….jealously applauded [their] decision in private conversations.”

Nevertheless, this is the fuel that the executive class is pumping out - that a big, successful law firm went back to the office and that there are many more people that wish to go back to the office being cruelly silenced, one might even say, “canceled” for saying that people should be able to work remotely. The person writing this op-ed also says that these companies “feared being second-guessed by stockholders and worried about problems that could arise from reopening offices.” And, of course they had a record year, which proves that remote work is stupid, and they are smart.

I want to be clear that this is exactly how a culture war begins - someone powerful intimates that they are being oppressed by a non-specific force, usually for doing something that sucks for a specific group of people that have less power than they do. People ally with them because they are non-specifically mad at other things and see anything that involves someone being cancelled or oppressed as something that they must jump into. In many cases, these people also have a great deal of power and connections and are doing something shitty because they want to do it.

As I said:

This all sounds like a conspiracy, but I truly believe, just as we’ve had companies boldly claim they’re “remote forever,” that we’re going to have a few that are “in-person forever.” They will frame those that don’t go to the office as lazy or privileged - that those that care about “getting shit done” are going to be the ones that commute into the office and do the same work they’d do at home in person, and also appear in meetings where everyone is pretending to be taking notes but really looking at Twitter.

“Back To Work”

The “back to work” movement is gaining momentum because it sounds nice, and it’s vaguely connected to the end of COVID-19 (which is currently very much not over). It’s also something that well-moneyed executives love to hear, because without people in an office, they feel like people are just at home dicking around, as opposed to when they’re in the office, a place where nobody dicks around ever, especially not me. The Wall Street Journal’s “The Boss Wants You Back in the Office. Like, Now” is yet another piece of this propaganda that frames remote work as a perk rather than an efficient way to do work, quoting Mat Ishbia, the president of a mortgage company, saying:

“I don’t need to be wishy-washy,” said Mat Ishbia, president and CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, which went public as UWM Holdings Corp. earlier this year. “I have never wavered on this. We are better together. If you have an amazing culture, and great people that collaborate and work together, you want them in the office together.”

Naturally, their glassdoor describes a winning culture where great people collaborate, describing an “Underwriting environment [that is] is fairly toxic,” “easily bulliable positions,” and more worryingly describes them as “NOT A FIRM ITS A CULT [punctuation and grammar theirs],” where they “…sell you on a work/life balance and you have none (rise and grind 11 hr days is not ethical).” I imagine the reason that (quoting the Journal article) “there has been little resistance from his staff to returning full-time” is because his company bullies their people. And it of course ends with the return-to-work dog whistle -

“They’re waiting for companies to lead,” he said. “They don’t want to make a decision. When you’re the leader, you actually have to make a decision.”

Finally, we have the professional version of “well somebody had to say it!” from a guy who clearly either has no idea or doesn’t give a shit about his culture, backed by a reporter who was quite comfortable making sure there was appropriate photography of the “toxic culture [with] no work/life balance [and] leaders who micromanage your entire day,” quotes and research that took me a manner of minutes to find.

This is workplace copaganda - framing management as virtuously trying to get people back together for the sake of their “culture” and “success,” with the media and others happily quoting them without critique because it’s a much more palatable story to tell their advertisers and shareholders. Fifth Third Bank claims in the article that they can’t be a great company working remotely,” justifying it by saying that people can’t track of what one department is saying to another, and that projects ground to a halt because people were distributed, and that the problem was remote work, not that the organization was bad at it.

There are so many of these big picture stories about these large companies because their executives are actively pushing a narrative to back up their stupid old-school delusions about the office. CenterPoint CEO Dave Lesar told the journal that in-office “promotes greater collaboration between our employees, and positions us to execute on our new long-term growth strategy,” at which point the reporter decided to stop thinking about it and move on.

While the article - as they always do - eventually moves into the realm of pretending that remote work can sometimes be good, the volume of research and care that goes toward the remote side is flimsy at best. In most cases, as with the journal, it mostly frames remote as a counterpoint to the norm - which is returning to the office - versus a viable alternative. The entire framing of remote is done using the classical statistics of people who will quit their jobs because they’re not allowed to keep working from home - and is rarely, if ever, frames these companies as anything other than outliers.

I have repeatedly said that this is a generational thing, and I stand by it. While the writer, in this case, may be young, the editorial forces behind him and the subjects of the article are all older generations and executives. The executive sect wants to push people back into the office and intentionally frame themselves as victims of a liberal demand for remote work, justifying the return to the office as good for a culture that they do not participate in or have to do deal with the consequences of. These articles do not exist to tell an actual story, but to help suppress white-collar workers, and make them return to the office based on spurious, anecdotal bullshit.

This propaganda is coming from a management elite that feels themselves losing control of workers, which is the only reason that they had them in the office in the first place. Without the office, workers might begin to question whether they’re getting a fair deal, or evaluate whether their managers and teammates actually do anything. In the office, it’s much easier to instill company problems as a personal failing - but when you’re at home, it’s significantly easier for you as a worker to view things objectively.