Out of Office

by Charlie Warzel & Anne Helen Petersen

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Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 0-593-32010-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 260

Buy at Powell's Books

Out of Office opens with the provocative assertion that you were not working from home during the pandemic, even if you were among the 42% of Americans who were able to work remotely.

You were, quite literally, doing your job from home.

But you weren't working from home. You were laboring in confinement and under duress. Others have described it as living at work. You were frantically tapping out an email while trying to make lunch and supervise distance learning. You were stuck alone in a cramped apartment for weeks, unable to see friends or family, exhausted, and managing a level of stress you didn't know was possible. Work became life, and life became work. You weren't thriving. You were surviving.

The stated goal of this book is to reclaim the concept of working from home, not only from the pandemic, but also from the boundary-destroying metastasis of work into non-work life. It does work towards that goal, but the description of what would be required for working from home to live up to its promise becomes a sweeping critique of the organization and conception of work, leaving it nearly as applicable to those who continue working from an office. Turns out that the main problem with working from home is the work part, not the "from home" part.

This was a fascinating book to read in conjunction with A World Without Email. Warzel and Petersen do the the structural and political analysis that I sometimes wish Newport would do more of, but as a result offer less concrete advice. Both, however, have similar diagnoses of the core problems of the sort of modern office work that could be done from home: it's poorly organized, poorly managed, and desperately inefficient. Rather than attempting to fix those problems, which is difficult, structural, and requires thought and institutional cooperation, we're compensating by working more. This both doesn't work and isn't sustainable.

Newport has a background in productivity books and a love of systems and protocols, so his focus in A World Without Email is on building better systems of communication and organization of work. Warzel and Petersen come from a background of reporting and cultural critique, so they put more focus on power imbalances and power-serving myths about the American dream. Where Newport sees an easy-to-deploy ad hoc work style that isn't fit for purpose, Warzel and Petersen are more willing to point out intentional exploitation of workers in the guise of flexibility. But they arrive at some similar conclusions. The way office work is organized is not leading to more productivity. Tools like Slack encourage the public performance of apparent productivity at the cost of the attention and focus required to do meaningful work. And the process is making us miserable.

Out of Office is, in part, a discussion of what would be required to do better work with less stress, but it also shares a goal with Newport and some (but not most) corners of productivity writing: spend less time and energy on work. The goal of Out of Office is not to get more work done. It's to work more efficiently and sustainably and thus work less. To reclaim the promise of flexibility so that it benefits the employee and not the employer. To recognize, in the authors' words, that the office can be a bully, locking people in to commute schedules and unnatural work patterns, although it also provides valuable moments of spontaneous human connection. Out of Office tries to envision a style of work that includes the office sometimes, home sometimes, time during the day to attend to personal chores or simply to take a mental break from an unnatural eight hours (or more) of continuous focus, universal design, real worker-centric flexibility, and an end to the constant productivity ratchet where faster work simply means more work for the same pay.

That's a lot of topics for a short book, and structurally this is a grab bag. Some sections will land and some won't. Loom's video messages sound like a nightmare to me, and I rolled my eyes heavily at the VR boosterism, reluctant as it may be. The section on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) was a valiant effort that at least gestures towards the dismal track record of most such efforts, but still left me unconvinced that anyone knows how to improve diversity in an existing organization without far more brute-force approaches than anyone with power is usually willing to consider. But there's enough here, and the authors move through topics quickly enough, that a section that isn't working for you will soon be over.

And some of the sections that do work are great. For example, the whole discussion of management.

Many of these companies view middle management as bloat, waste, what David Graeber would call a "bullshit job." But that's because bad management is a waste; you're paying someone more money to essentially annoy everyone around them. And the more people experience that sort of bad management, and think of it as "just the way it is," the less they're going to value management in general.

I admit to a lot of confirmation bias here, since I've been ranting about this for years, but management must be the most wide-spread professional job for which we ignore both training and capability and assume that anyone who can do any type of useful work can also manage people doing that work. It's simply not true, it creates workplaces full of horrible management, and that in turn creates a deep and unhelpful cynicism about all management.

There is still a tendency on the left to frame this problem in terms of class struggle, on the reasonable grounds that for decades under "scientific management" of manufacturing that's what it was. Managers were there to overwork workers and extract more profits for the owners, and labor unions were there to fight back against managers. But while some of this does happen in the sort of office work this book is focused on, I think Warzel and Petersen correctly point to a different cause.

"The reason she was underpaid on the team was not because her boss was cackling in the corner. It was because nobody told the boss it was their responsibility to look at the fucking spreadsheet."

We don't train managers, we have no clear expectations for what managers should do, we don't meaningfully measure their performance, we accept a high-overhead and high-chaos workstyle based on ad hoc one-to-one communication that de-emphasizes management, and many managers have never seen good management and therefore have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. The management problem for many office workers is less malicious management than incompetent management, or simply no effective management at all apart from an occasional reorg and a complicated and mind-numbing annual review form.

The last section of this book (apart from concluding letters to bosses and workers) is on community, and more specifically on extracting time and energy from work (via the roadmap in previous chapters) and instead investing it in the people around you. Much ink has been spilled about the collapse of American civic life, about how we went from a nation of joiners to a nation of isolated individual workers with weak and failing community institutions. Warzel and Petersen correctly lay some blame for this at the foot of work, and see the reorganization of work and an increase in work from home (and thus a decrease in commutes) as an opportunity to reverse that trend.

David Brooks recently filled in for Ezra Klein on his podcast and talked with University of Chicago professor Leon Kass, which I listened to shortly after reading this book. In one segment, they talked about marriage and complained about the decline in marriage rates. They were looking for causes in people's moral upbringing, in their life priorities, in the lack of aspiration for permanence in kids these days, and in any other personal or moral failing that would allow them to be smugly judgmental. It was a truly remarkable thing to witness. Neither man at any point in the conversation mentioned either money or time.

Back in the world most Americans live in, real wages have been stagnant for decades, student loan debt is skyrocketing as people desperately try to keep up with the ever-shifting requirements for a halfway-decent job, and work has expanded to fill all hours of the day, even for people who don't have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Employers have fully embraced a "flexible" workforce via layoffs, micro-optimizing work scheduling, eliminating benefits, relying on contract and gig labor, and embracing exceptional levels of employee turnover. The American worker has far less of money, time, and stability, three important foundations for marriage and family as well as participation in most other civic institutions. People like Brooks and Kass stubbornly cling to their feelings of moral superiority instead of seeing a resource crisis. Work has stolen the resources that people previously put into those other areas of their life. And it's not even using those resources effectively.

That's, in a way, a restatement of the topic of this book. Our current way of organizing work is not sustainable, healthy, or wise. Working from home may be part of a strategy for changing it. The pandemic has already heavily disrupted work, and some of those changes, including increased working from home, seem likely to stick. That provides a narrow opportunity to renegotiate our arrangement with work and try to make those changes stick.

I largely agree with the analysis, but I'm pessimistic. I think the authors are as well. We're very bad at social change, and there will be immense pressure for everything to go "back to normal." Those in the best bargaining position to renegotiate work for themselves are not in the habit of sharing that renegotiation with anyone else. But I'm somewhat heartened by how much public discussion there currently is about a more fundamental renegotiation of the rules of office work. I'm also reminded of a deceptively profound aphorism from economist Herbert Stein: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

This book is a bit uneven and is more of a collection of related thoughts than a cohesive argument, but if you are hungry for more worker-centric analyses of the dynamics of office work (inside or outside the office), I think it's worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-12-27

Last modified and spun 2021-12-28