A year ago today, I began writing this newsletter as a means of intellectual stimulation and, honestly, finding my way through various subjects that were interesting (or annoying) to me at any given time. Three hundred six thousand six hundred eighty-seven words and 188 articles later (well, 189 when I post this), and I’m exceedingly grateful to my readers and those who have supported me (my wife, my friends, my colleagues, this song) directly throughout the process.
The one thing that’s struck me from the responses is the amount of anger there is. I don’t mean aggression, petulance, or attacks, but seething anger and frustration at the world around us. I have written this newsletter as clearly as I can because that’s one of my core frustrations in writing - I hate it when people don’t ask the very specific questions that a source requires or pull their punches for fear of being seen as “mean” or “antagonistic.” They’re afraid of arguments, of alienating some unseen person, or even just to be seen as “critical.”
Let me be perfectly clear: you have every right to be angry, and being critical is not a bad thing. Being transparent and forthright with your frustrations and critiques also isn’t a bad thing. And people are frustrated and angry because the pandemic (after all, this newsletter was born out of the pandemic) has made it even more apparent that the powerful are either against the average person or wholly disconnected from them - or perhaps it’s both.
You know this is going to be a New York Times remote work piece, come on.
My least favorite ivy league-Oxbridge hybrid writer is back with a piece about how “hybrid work” and “flexibility” give people the worst of both worlds. You may remember this writer from her article about 37-year-olds being afraid of 23-year-olds - a waterboarding of young workers entirely from the perspective of three or four CEOs full of flimsy anecdotes left open for interpretation. This particular piece commits similar sins by focusing entirely on HR people and CEOs, telling a story about how hybrid work isn’t working, leading with this anecdote:
Recently Brett Hautop, head of workplace at LinkedIn, sat in a conference room listening to a pitch from a global vendor. The firm wanted to sell its services to LinkedIn to help facilitate effective hybrid work. But the people making that pitch had turned their back to the video camera, so the LinkedIn employees joining by videoconference couldn’t see them.
“Hybrid is most definitely tougher than completely in person or completely remote,” Mr. Hautop said. “It takes a lot more forethought, and none of us, or anybody else at any company, has figured out exactly how it’s going to work.”
If hybrid is a challenge for even the people of LinkedIn — the gurus of connectivity, the maestros of professional networking — where’s the hope for everyone else?
Before I go any further: I refuse to believe this happened. This sounds made up. I imagine at one point they covered the camera and then fixed it. Nothing else happened. Sorry.
While this may be my usual standard evisceration, I want to hammer home why people are so angry at these pieces and why they’re so harmful. This writer - a product of two of the most esteemed universities in the world (Yale and Cambridge), who appears to have gone from college to the Times - is so utterly disconnected from the world, and you can tell from this anecdote. If you are someone who does work in the real world with real people, you would not believe for a second that LinkedIn was a maestro of professional networking. It’s a bloated, ugly, broken product that’s grown into a hub of self-promotional sociopathy. It’s pretty bad at connecting people in that it tokenizes the idea of “knowing” someone and equates it to them having met you once.
In any case, these people know sweet diddly fuck about professional networking, and this anecdote only proves that a vendor doesn’t understand how to use the computer. I’m pissed off reading this because people are informed by the newspaper and believe things based on what the newspaper writers say. The newspaper of record seems conceptually and practically unable to actually write something from the perspective of someone who lives in the real world.
Talking of software that sucks and barely works…
Asana, which makes collaboration software, recently gathered its executives for a discussion planning for the office’s official reopening. Half the participants were at the San Francisco headquarters, and the other half joined by videoconference. The remote workers, including the company’s chief executive, started to lose patience as people in the room talked over one another and made side comments.
“We were joking that if we didn’t like what somebody was saying on the screen, we could just mute them,” said Anna Binder, the company’s head of people.
“We all had such a terrible experience that we made a decision at the end of that meeting that all executive meetings going forward will be in person,” she continued. “Or they will be fully remote. We’re not doing the in-between.”
I have done “hybrid” meetings before the pandemic, and they work just fine if people think about it for two seconds. In any case, the reason this paragraph pisses me off is that it’s separate from a crucially important anecdote from the bottom of the article:
And after acceptance comes decision-making. So Asana chose to label itself “office-centric hybrid,” with bosses articulating that at some point most people will be expected back at their desks.
To be clear, Asana is a piece of cloud-based software for project management that is truly awful to use, just total garbage, and is meant to be used from anywhere in the world. More importantly, it seems that nobody at any point thought to ask them to elaborate on what an “office-centric hybrid” means, especially given the idea that bosses (which bosses? Managers? No need to quote who told you that I guess) have “articulated” that “most people will be expected back at their desks.”
An “office-centric hybrid” sounds like the actual worst of both worlds. Perhaps the writer didn’t decide the title or think about anything while writing it. Still, the least-equitable, most anti-worker hybrid relationship is one where the company is “office-centric” - it is a clear-set statement by the company that sells software to be used in the cloud that remote workers will be left out, that those in the office are king, and that remote work is inferior. And, of course, nobody seems to have been asked how long they were in the office before or who they interacted with - why counter the narrative? Why bother giving anyone real clarity when you can spew the agenda of billionaires and pencil-pushers in the newspaper of record?
The article does include a hilarious quote:
Court Cunningham felt that sense of unease recently as he toured New York buildings to lease a new office for his online home-buying company, Orchard: If just 15 percent of his employees were working from the office, was the rent worth 2 percent of revenue? He went back and forth. Then he signed a new lease in October, making a bet on some future where people will want to be in the office.
So, if I was writing this article and I heard this anecdote, I’d ask some very specific questions: where did that 15% number come from? Did it come from your employees? If it did, why did you make this decision? What was the “back and forth,” and who did it involve?
The reason people are so angry is because of situations like this. It may seem like a very anecdotal thing to hang the entirety of a generation’s anger on, but this is such a great example of both a person in power that doesn’t care and a person with the power to interrogate them ignoring their duty to do so. When we choose to read a particular piece of content, we want the person in question to enter into it in good faith - we want them to treat us with the respect we deserve and represent things as directly as possible. What the writer in question here does - as she has done before - is intentionally fail to do anything other than print what those in power want - that the best decisions are made by the powerful, even if they’re decisions that don’t affect them and do affect those they’re making them for.
Then there’re quotes like this:
Meanwhile, the experts helping companies navigate this period are hopeful that the pains of hybrid work aren’t permanent. Or at least that they might be manageable: Some advise their clients to be explicit with their staff about whether to prioritize the needs of office workers or remote ones, especially when it comes to facilitating meetings.
“Back in Vietnam the prisoners of war who accepted that they had no idea when they would be saved were the ones who survived,” said Mr. Sullivan, chief executive of the coaching firm Velocity Group, reaching for a reference — what’s known as the Stockdale Paradox — far from the circumstances of the office water cooler. “The companies that accepted that this is going to be difficult and communicated that clearly to their teams, they’re going to thrive. There’s no more hoping for Christmas, hoping for Easter. Let’s just accept that this will be hard.”
Ah, shut the fuck up. I wanted to write something more eloquent here but shut the fuck up, dude. You are a myopic and whiny cretin, incapable of understanding anything beyond the rich fucks you coach. To compare the struggles of prisoners of war - who had no power to do anything and are very much there at the behest of the powerful - with the “struggles” of rich, powerful assholes who are having to make decisions based on their whims is the height of ignorance, the very precipice of stupidity.
This is another reason people are angry - because those who are not suffering are being framed in the same terms as those who have suffered or will suffer. This is not some frightful war where brave CEOs have to work out the way to go - there are fairly direct solutions to most of these problems, and to include this anecdote is a dog whistle for the elite to say “ah yes, our struggles are worse than those we employ, they’re bigger.”
The people suffering here are the people working for CEOs that arbitrarily decide on “office-centric hybrid environments.” Believe it or not, actually having an office doesn’t really matter to any of these creeps - they simply like the idea of seeing people scuttling around - and their frustration is that they remember a Zoom call that didn’t go right and now have decided to change the company’s entire direction based on their vague understanding of how the company works.
It’s not hard to imagine all of the ways remote workers might be undercut: muted in a heated discussion, shut out of lunchtime bonding. But Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who has surveyed hundreds of hybrid companies, said that at many workplaces the in-person employees felt just as neglected.
“It’s the American-in-Europe rule,” Mr. Bloom said. “When an American is traveling abroad, you look around the room and everyone is speaking English for your benefit. If there’s one person working from home, everyone in the office dials into the meeting.”
I’ve been the British person in Europe that doesn’t speak another language, and I’ve generally seen people catering to my language as extremely kind and thoughtful. Is the suggestion here that everyone has to learn to speak one language? I’m so confused.
We need to stop speaking to professors about stuff like this. Literally zero value add.
I’m not going to dig into more of the article because my point is relatively simple: the frustration that lots of people feel is that their voices are not heard, and those in power do not care about them. Journalism in and of itself is meant to be an analysis and interrogation of the world, ostensibly due to a level of intellectual curiosity and ability. Outlets like the Times are very, very important - they are influential at the executive level and thus have a responsibility to use that power wisely.
The reason that these articles are such a profound nexus for power imbalance is that they are a problem that workers face that is entirely told from the perspective of those that control their fate. The last two years have profoundly demonstrated how much more powerful and wealthy bosses are than their workers, and yet these conversations - which are predominantly about the experiences and futures of workers - are entirely told from the perspective of those who don’t work.
Take this quote:
“Imagine people could choose whether they drive on the left side of the road or the right side,” said Mr. Bloom, the Stanford professor. “There’d be accidents all the time. You need coordination.”
The problem isn’t that he’s wrong - you need a consistent policy to do things - but that this entire article fails to ask what workers want, how this affects workers, or anything to do with actual work. It’s a quote that suggests that the CEO knows best, and the workers, if left to their own devices, are too stupid to do things properly and must be herded like animals.
These articles are written for the powerful by the powerful specifically to build a future for the powerful where they can keep using people. The Times has the resources and the ability to hire people that don’t go to Ivy League schools or Oxbridge, and they have a strong enough editorial team to read this and say “how does this make any sense without talking to workers?” The problem is that they don’t want to.
We’re at a major moment in history where the balance of power between workers and bosses is ever-so-slightly shifting, and my anger is at the fact that there are major media entities that aren’t simply participants in the discussion but actively working with the powerful to make their voice heard and to publish their ideals as the truth. This is not a good-faith debate about both sides of an issue - such a thing would require you to address both sides and give them equal footing - it is, in fact, choosing a side very specifically and giving it an overwhelming majority of your ink.
You can represent “both sides” without actually giving them an equal voice (as the Times is doing here, and as many workplace columnists have done before them) by talking about both of them while only quoting one of them. The mirage of balance is created by discussing things as happening to workers - like this:
“If you give people full choice about what they do and where they work,” Ms. Binder said, “women are more likely to take advantage of that work-from-home flexibility. Which means they, in turn, are going to be less in the room where it happens.”
This may make it seem like the article is concerned with women in the workplace but, again, views workers as organisms in a petri dish that have no cognitive presence beyond their interaction with the bottom line.
All of this is makes me so angry. It fills me with full of rage. I read these things multiple times, trying to find a way to see where the writer may have been going and only finding more reasons to be angry. And I think others are angry too, because there is such a nasty, thorough and vast body of work specifically built to suppress workers, masquerading as an analysis of a moment in time.
One day I imagine I’ll dig through old workplace articles and find this is a pattern rather than a new event, but seeing it in real time is truly upsetting. I like writing about these things and find the analysis intellectually stimulating, but I also absolutely hate every person involved in this process. When I started writing about these workplace issues, I saw each one on their own as some goof - that these were just moments in time where someone had done a half-baked analysis - but now have reached a point where I well and truly believe that there are editorial remits to create more and more content that stops explicitly remote work from becoming standardized.
And the one feeling I can’t shake is that it isn’t because of money - it’s because decentralizing a workforce makes it harder to crush and manipulate. The office is built to suppress and contain, and to establish power dynamics - you are here because I tell you to be here, and you will be here as long as I or my wards tell you to be. None of these people care about collaboration or difficult meetings - if they did, there’d be articles where they’re talking about people talking over each other in person or micromanagement or any of the actual real problems that the office creates.
These are not reasonable considerations of the good and bad of remote work - they are deliberate attempts by the powerful to try and bring order from the perceived disorder of remote work. They do not want flexibility, or hybrid work, or remote work, and hell, if they had a way of absolutely controlling people without having to see them without being judged by others, they’d probably not even care about the office.
This may feel like a petty grievance, but I think it all comes back to my dislike of bullies and bullying. I see a world of opportunity, with workers being able to live where they want and work where they want, and I see people who have nothing to lose from them doing so attempting to stomp out a better future. My anger, and perhaps your anger, may not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but someone has to say something - someone has to have a record of these things being done, so that at the very least these evil, cruel people are held accountable on even the smallest level.
I really do appreciate you reading this, and not everything I write will be quite this angry and depressing, but I also feel like part of my whole thing is being angry at this stuff. Even if it’s just me.