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BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, over the past two years, we have grappled with how the pandemic is changing traditional working norms, and maybe, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. With countries such as Iceland and Scotland now trialing for a four-day work-week, journalists Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel believe the 9:00-to-5:00 routine is a relic of America’s past. Their new book, “Out of Office,” examines the revolutionary potential of working from home. And here they are unpacking their ideas with Hari Sreenivasan.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Bianna, thanks. Charlie Warzel, Anne Helen Petersen, thank you both for joining us. Charlie, what is it about the presence of work, especially in jobs that don’t require it? Why have we felt the need to be in person five days a week 40 hours a week? How are we going to look at it?
WARZEL: I think the reason that setup has persisted is because it’s most comfortable for executives and managers because their jobs are, you know, in a way, so much fuzzier than the jobs of workers. You know, if you have direct outputs, right, sales figures or, you know, a presentation or whatever it is, you can quantify that. The job of a lot of management is really presence based. And so, those people are more comfortable, understandably, when they’re in an office. They can reach over and they can tap somebody on the shoulder and get their attention, or they can just observe from afar and sort of, you know, intuit or pick up on different trends and pieces of the company culture. But I think, as we’re seeing, that might work great for a very specific type of manager set in their ways. But when you go over to, you know, the way that people actually work in the workforce, a lot of people don’t work best in office. And it’s full of disruption or it’s full of anxiety because they don’t — you know, they’re not comfortable in that environment. So, I think we think of the office as this sort of neutral place, and I think that that’s a fallacy.
SREENIVASAN: Why has the 9:00 to 5:00 clock persisted so much even though we are increasingly in a kind of multinational world?
PETERSEN: You know, the 9:00 to 5:00 is a relic of a time in American history when the vast majority of people going into these offices were men who had someone to stay at home and care for children. And we’ve held on to this understanding, like so many things in American society, you know, we still are organized around this understanding that there is a full-time caregiver in the home, and that’s just not the case for the vast majority of families. And I think, you know, a lot of the parents that I know have figured out a really good rhythm of, you know, one of us works early in the morning and then someone drops like our kids off at school or care, and then, you knok, we stop our day at 2:00 or 3:00. And we pick up the kid and we spend some time together and then, maybe there’s more concentrated work after that. Like there’s nothing that said work has to happen between 9:00 to 5:00.
SREENIVASAN: Has this pandemic changed the power balance between employers and employees?
PETERSEN: That’s a good question. I think that it feels like employees have more power in terms of the capacity to leave and seek out new jobs if they want them. This is, certainly, I think different than, say, 10 years ago. Millennials, in particular, I think a lot of us, myself included, started the workforce — started in the workforce at a time when it felt like we had no power, when you were told, you are lucky to have a job and you should be grateful every day no matter how you are treated. And so, coming to terms with this feeling of, like, oh, I think if I really hate how this job is organizing our schedule moving forward, maybe I could look for a different job, right. So, if organizations want to keep talent and want to recruit top talent, they have to be thinking about how to meet the needs and demands of the workforce.
SREENIVASAN: You two are writing about this period as this one with great potential before we go back, and are people aware of that? Are they pushing back enough? Are they asking for different types of concessions before those policies roll back out?
WARZEL: I do think there’s a bit of a generational component to it in the sense that I think there are a lot of people who are, you know, older, who can sort of indoctrinated into this way of how we have to be in the workplace and what it means to work and have so tied their sense of understandably so, right, because the culture makes you want to do this, have tied their sense of self-worth to their job performance or to their, you know, job title even. And that makes it very difficult. I think what you’re seeing from younger generations coming in who, you know, have either had to deal with, you know, graduating into a financial crisis or observing that, observing, you know, their siblings or their parents dealing with all of that thought and now, coming and graduating into a pandemic job market with, you know, financial crises baked in there as well, I think you’re seeing a completely different understanding and reevaluation of the idea of a career in saying, I don’t know if this standard bargain of you give your entire self to your employer for 30 or 40 years, everyone else gets, you know, whatever is left of you. And then, at the end of your life, you have this little period where you get to do things for yourself. I think there’s a lot of people who are looking at that and saying, that’s a terrible deal. I don’t want to take that.
SREENIVASAN: One of the things you’re advocating for is to build in pad (ph), essentially, to hire maybe more capacity than you need at the very moment. Why should companies think that way?
PETERSEN: I’ll answer this one because I feel very strongly about it. Understaffing is a burnout machine. It is how you burn through your workforce. It is how you have high turnover. How you have employees who hate working there, right? You have employees too who feel like they can’t take any time off or can’t even take paternity leave longer than, say, a week or two because there’s no cushion to take up, you know, the slack that is created if someone has to leave for any amount of time. And I think that it’s a hostile way of thinking of the workforce. And ultimately, whatever the short-term profits are, you’re losing in terms of turnover and low creativity, low precision, you know, all these other things that happen when you have an adequately staffed workforce.
SREENIVASAN: So, how should employers be rethinking and not necessarily equating quantity of work with quality of work?
WARZEL: There is so much performative work that is out there. One of the most interesting things we saw in this book, in our reporting, was we surveyed roughly 700 workers and we didn’t ask this question but the answer just appeared in a lot of the survey results. People just kind of confessed that, you know, I kind of get most of my work done for the week in like a three-hour burst, after my kids go to bed. It was this interesting sort of, hey, you know, I feel bad saying this, but like, the stuff that is actually deliverable in my organization, the thing that I’m getting kind of graded on, I kind of get that done in this really small sprint. And I think that just speaks to the fact people are performing, you know, this corporate kabuki all the time and I think that it’s really important that organizations understand that. And so, what we’re seeing, you know, experiments across the globe with the 48-work week show that less work is often better because of the fact that is gives us the time and space to not just recharge in the sense we’re tired but to actually, you know, have our brains process some of the things that we’re stuck on and in that sort of rest mode. It’s a really interesting phenomenon, and I think we’re starting to see the science catch up a little bit with that and I think there is — you know, we’ve been — as Anne said in the very beginning of all this, this is — there’s no set reason why we have to clock in and clock out at a certain time. These are all things that, you know, we humans created and we can change them, I think.
SREENIVASAN: Anne, you’ve heard this from CEOs of banks and so forth saying, listen, there is something to be said about the mentorship and stuff that happens in the hallway, where culture is kind of handed down, where you learn the corporate ethos and that can’t happen over Zoom. I need people to be present in a physical space together if I want them to succeed in this career.
PETERSEN: First of all, there’s a real myth of like the water cooler, you know, culture generation. I do not know a lot of people who have had creative sparks at the so-called water cooler. Like most offices no longer have a water cooler in the first place, right? And there’s actually really good and interesting data about how little collaboration and creative, you know, inspiration happens in these random meetings at offices. It’s usually much more directed and, like, it happens in spaces where people have to create a space to come up with ideas. But I also think that this idea that company culture is only passed down through presence and only passed down through, like, you know, happy hours after work is an extension of an understanding of the office that is really masculine in terms of like, you know, who is able to stay after work and do this sort of work. And also, pretty white (ph), right? Like it is an understanding of who is comfortable in the office always. It’s also really — I mean, it preferences people preferences people who like to communicate and be around other people in that way. It is discriminatory against people who are disabled, right? There are so many ways to create culture in a virtual sense and also, you know, assisted by periodic in-person meetings. And I think this addiction to in-person culture creation is really just laziness.
SREENIVASAN: So, Charlie, what about the possibility here that we try to recreate in this hybrid world without really adjusting what went into the equations in the first place? Then we just kind of have the same problems but now we have it both at home and at work. If the e-mails don’t stop, if the texts, you know, keep coming, what of your home life, essentially now, work is completely invaded back, whereas, before, perhaps I could leave some of it in a different physical space?
WARZEL: I think we are living that, you know, potential version of the future right now, and I think it’s why a lot of people have looked at the sort of, you know, the remote work movement as it’s been and said, that’s not for me. I don’t want that. Because what — you’re exactly right. You’ve poured all of this sort of problematic elements of work culture and put them into your home, and it feels like a total invasion of your space, your privacy, your personal life in all those ways. And I think that’s a very real possibility here because of the fact that a lot of people are treating, you know, remote work as either some perk that you can just sort of grant to people and then, you know, lord over them and they just have to deal with it, or because, you know, people are just, again, lazy in designing this. And by people, I mean employers. Remote work, I think a lot of people who are advocates for it, like to talk about how amazing it is and how it kind of use words like it’s easy. But remote is not easier. It’s actually harder. It is — and that’s because it’s more intentional. There’s more friction involved when you take people out of that one communal element. But what that friction allows you to do is to be far more intentional in the way that you work in general. A lot of times, it means figuring out the way your co-workers work best and trying adapting to that and looking at them as human beings and not just, you know, nodes of productivity that you have to either get around or use in some way.
SREENIVASAN: On a personal level, people made work a part of their identity. I mean, they — we have used, for decades, things like, well, this is a calling, this is a vocation, this isn’t, you know, something just transactional. We’ve also collectively had this notion that it is part of our national fabric. It is what leads to a nation like the United States being where it is globally, economically, that it is responsible for the innovation — innovations we’ve come up with. Is there some merit to that?
PETERSEN: So, I think that one thing that’s really difficult for us to get our heads around, because in the United States, in particular, there’s just this idea that more is always better, right, in every single capacity. But there are limits to productivity. I know that when I sit at the computer for 10, 12 hours, at some point I’m just twiddling my thumbs. I’m just going back and forth between browser windows, you know, like endlessly. I’m not being productive, but I feel like I need to be sitting at the computer in order to show that I’m working in some capacity. And so, I think when we talk about lowering hours, we’re not talking about becoming worse workers, right? We’re not talking about becoming lazy workers. It’s more — we’re talking about becoming better workers because if you do better work when you’re more rested, when you have better ideas, right, when your brain is given that time to restore itself, we’re going to have more innovation, right? This is the thing that’s hard to just wrap our heads around, but I think it’s really important.
WARZEL: I would also say too that, you know, this is a long game, right, and I think that the modern, you know, capitalism and the culture its created is so focused on quarterly earnings and short-term, you know, metrics and also, just growth. Growth for growth’s sake, right? And while that’s obviously important and we’re realists and wee understanding the world that we live in and the global nature of the economy, it doesn’t seem like a long-term — like a savvy long-term play to grind your workforce into a pulp, and to just sort of sacrifice, you know, their happiness and their lives outside of work for that. And I think you’re kind of seeing the bill come due right now from years of working this way. I think you’re seeing that in, you know, great resignation-style frustration among workers in all areas of the workforce. And I think that’s an important thing to think about and I don’t think that executives really take that into account in the way that they should.
SREENIVASAN: The book is called “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” co-authors Anne Helen Peters and Charlie Warzel, thank you both.
PETERSEN: Thank you so much.
WARZEL: Thank you for having us.
About This Episode EXPAND
The pandemic has undoubtedly brought permanent change to traditional working norms. And this may be a good thing, what with such countries as Iceland and Scotland now experimenting with a four-day work week. Journalists Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel believe the nine-to-five routine is a relic of America’s past.WATCH FULL EPISODE