Go to Work? Outside?

Let's Talk Telework

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in a lot of ways. That's not really a shocking statement as we all know it. Stores closed. Franchises died. People had to huddle in their homes to avoid the world. People stopped going to their offices. And that, of course, caused other things to spring up, like the rise of food delivery services and big tech teleconferencing start-ups. It was a weird time for a year and a half there, and even now, the remnants of that time can still be felt as the world looks at whether it's even worth going back to "the old way."

While there's no doubt the pandemic time was stressful in a number of ways -- you can't leave the house so if your life was lived out, with friends, doing things, suddenly you had to adjust to a completely different lifestyle -- but it did reveal one thing to so many people: working from home was really nice. Get up right before your shift, roll out of bed and onto your computer, and just work. No commute, no stress in dealing with co-workers you don't like. It might not have been great on all fronts but, man, telework was revealed to be the ideal situation for a lot of us.

Now, I won't try and argue that everyone was happy. There are people that like the structure of the office, of being able to go in and say, "this time is my work time, and the time at home is my personal time." That's legitimate and everyone has their own way to work. If the office is good for them then more power to them. But here's the thing: what works for one person doesn't work for everyone, and any policy that says, "everyone has to work the same way," is doomed at this point after everyone got to experience life in a different way.

This comes up because I read so many articles about businesses trying to get rid of telework altogether. It's most prevalent from businesses never would have expected: big tech. These are the same business that proclaimed the power of empowering their workers, finding new ways for them to work to get the best output from them. When the pandemic hit, they championed telework solutions (because they could sell them to other businesses and line their own pockets). Now, though, those businesses all want their people to come back to the office. Two days a week, three days a week, sometimes all the time, telework is dying at major corporations and the question is: why? What changed for these businesses to make them sour on the very thing they were selling.

Frankly, it's a combination of factors, all of which are stupid and only make sense if you're upper management trying to think about your own jobs and your bottom line:

"It's better for collaboration!"

This is one of the biggest reasons given, and it's held up like a security blanket to ward off any arguments against a return to office. "How can you collaborate with someone if you can't see them?" This assumes, of course, that the best collaboration occurs in meetings, when people are face to face and can see that the other person is paying attention. "Let's waste an hour discussing this thing so that everyone knows we collaborated." Anyone that has sat in a meeting knows they're boring and about as far from "collaboration" as you can get.

My job is run Online, out of my email and on Teams. You need something? Shoot me an email and I'll get it done. You have a question? Send me a chat on Teams. Want to discuss some features for a web page that you like? Send me the examples so I can explore them and come up with ideas. Forcing me to sit in a meeting so I can listen to you drone on about a web page doesn't help me understand a thing better than if you just sent me a description and an example and let me tinker. Trust me, I've already understood your request five minutes into the meeting. The other 55 minutes are you just masturbating to your own idea while I sit there bored.

"Collaboration" is a buzzword that means, "we just want to see you so we know you're working." As far as the actual employees are concerned, it means nothing. It's a hindrance.

"It justifies my own job!"

You know this is what managers are actually thinking. When your entire job is making sure other people are doing their jobs, it's harder to say, "yeah, they're working," if you can't see them working. It's not really about keeping track of you; it's them worrying that without you under their fingers you'll realize you don't need a manager to get along. Which you don't. If you were hired to do a desk job it's because you're good at that task and you don't need someone looking at you to handle your job properly.

If you're like me, you've had a succession of bosses that don't legitimately understand what you do. They know, "yeah, that's a thing we need." Then they expect me to magic it up somehow. Whether that takes me three minutes or three hours, they have no clue. The thing happens, they saw I was around, and they think, "yep, I managed them good." Sure you did, buddy. Now go grab a juice box and take a nap in your office. I'm better off at home doing my job efficiently without someone feeling like I have to be in front of them to justify their own existence.

And, of course, that really means if they can't justify their existence without me why the hell do they exist at all? They don't need to, and that's why so many managers demand we all come back.

"Our buildings are expensive!"

If you work in the city (or, really, if your office is in the city, whether you go there or not) then that means that the business you work for is paying out the nose for that prime office space. Depending on who you work for it might mean an expensive lease to the office building owner for office space, set at a specific amount for a number of years. Or it could be that the lot, and the building, are owned by the business which then leads to a massive mortgage they have to pay on that space. Whoever it is, they have to justify owning that space and having it sit empty because all their employees are at home in their pajamas fails to justify the expense.

Make no mistake, this is basically the same reasoning as the above point. "It doesn't matter what you want, we have to justify this or that or the other." There are all kinds of studies out, thanks to the pandemic, hat clearly illustrate employees were more efficient (by large margins) working from home than they were in the office. Managers and building owners don't like this, and when they try to explain it they just say, "no, we're more efficient collaborating in our expensive offices overseen by useless middle managers. We can't explain why. We don't have any data to back this up. We just know it's true."

But when you have a massive expense on your books and nothing to show for it you have to do something. So the buildings have to get populated by people that were perfectly happy not being there, doing their jobs at locations that cost them less to rent or buy, all while reaping the salaries they were promised by their contracts. That's what corporations are fighting, and it's why they aren't getting.

People don't want to go back into the office and they're letting it be known.

There is a common refrain in management circles: "people just don't want to work." We do, and we're happy to do so, but the pandemic illustrated that we want to do it on our terms. We don't need managers keep and eye on us all the time, we don't need to commute in from our homes, wasting time and money on a pointless drive. We don't need to leave our houses to do our jobs in this increasingly interconnected Internet world. And if you try to make us do that, we will go look for jobs elsewhere.

People are retiring earlier when their jobs say, "you have to come into the office regularly." People are quitting and taking jobs at smaller companies that offer competitive wages and more telework. People are saying, "your return to office policy is bullshit and we're just not going to take it." The businesses that pivot and let people telework at the ones that are getting employees. For the rest, you aren't paying enough and you're demanding too much. That won't last.

The pandemic was awful in a number of ways but it was also a watershed moment that helped put more power back into the hands of employees. And if that can continue, and grow, and the movement can expand, maybe we can take something back from the oligarchs that run America's capitalist society. Little steps to big change.