efore Covid-19, a recent US census estimated that 5.2% of US workers (8 million people) worked from home. I’d personally say that number likely increased by a factor of 10, based on Zoom’s daily active user growth (10 million in December 2019 to over 300 million in April 2020), the world forced by disaster into an almost fully remote workforce for many sectors, including the entertainment industry and services like yoga and personal training. As companies like Salesforce and Twitter make working from home permanent, many are already dreading our remote future.
Kevin Roose of the New York Times recently warned that remote work leads to isolation, and removed the serendipity of the office. Nick Martin of the New Republic warned against the push of people to be “more productive” working from home – that we should not be expected to use the hours of commute time that we’re saving to do more work, but live healthier lives, a sentiment echoed by Roose’s colleague Taylor Lorenz.
And they’re right. Hustle culture is poisonous: the idea we must endlessly strive for personal and professional productivity is degenerative to society. But to assume it’s entirely tied to tech-based work is missing a larger problem of the corporate workforce – the religious attachment to work, that work should give our lives meaning.
The “best” of us aren’t necessarily the hardest workers, but those who excel in our careers – lauded, appreciated, and rewarded for our work beyond money. We uproot our families to live closer to work. We fear losing our job, because then we can’t afford the house we need to live close to work, a house that costs so much because everyone around us is trying to live close to work too. We forgo time with friends and family for work happy hours, where we need to be seen to know that we’re dedicated to our work and maybe even get a better position at work. Much is sacrificed for our work, much of which is because we have to physically be there. Work becomes our personality, who we date, how we dress, how we look – so much of that is tied to having to physically be there.
The table stakes for any conversation around removing the office start with the average commute of an American, which last year hit over 27 minutes. I haven’t met many people with a commute under 45 minutes, and a recent report said that commuters wait an average of 54 hours a year stalled in traffic. An estimated 128 million of the 150 million working Americans commute to work in a car, the rest predominantly using a lackluster public transport system. Intelligence firm Inrix showed a 30% or so drop in cars on the road in America from Covid-19 – with Italy showing a stunning 65% drop in traffic. This significant drop in transportation will likely have a part to play in the fight against global warming, and we now have a rare chance to take significant numbers of cars off the road by seeing the office for what it is – a paper tiger with assumed importance and effect on productivity.
The concept of face time is used to keep us in the office, with managers believing remote work dilutes people’s work to numbers and documents – a sanitized and creativity-free wasteland. Ironically, that same appearance at the office is often used to evaluate people based on whether they’re “nice” or “productive”, which usually means someone looks busy or stressed out. An excellent piece by Michelle Ruiz of Vogue referred to Bill Gates’s creation of the obsession around face time, citing a survey where employees at large American companies spent 54% of their time on email, meetings, administrative tasks and “interruptions”. She calls face time “a mirage, the symbolic appearance of working (going to meetings, chatting with co-workers) but not actually getting much done”.
The physical office reinforces the expectation that you’re white, attractive, from the right school, that you’re dressed the right way and that you do the things that your gender or race (or both) are expected to do.
In a world where 86% of employees believe physical appearance matters – with 73% believing it affects competency – removing physical appearance as a factor of evaluation is incredibly valuable. Appearance continues to be exacerbated by race, with women of color continually left out of executive roles and experiencing more sexual harassment and bullying than anyone else. When we’re all reduced to squares on a video chat, where nobody has great angles or perfect lighting. We’re all unified by how imperfect we look – it’s refreshing, and a lot fairer.
A world where the office is obsolete is more positive, more communal and more productive. It’s one that reconnects us with our neighbors nearby and grounds us in personal principles rather than professional achievements.
There is a place for a physical office to exist, but it should be an optional space for employees to choose based on preferred working style. Working from home’s stigma has always been around a perception of a person being less relevant to the bigger picture, or a remote company being less significant. Now that we’ve got Apple, Google and Facebook going entirely remote, it’s obvious that the office is somewhat of a farce – a temple of assumed importance.