As you have probably noticed, there is a debate raging in the US about the future of work. Some companies want their people to be in the office five days a week, the Delta variant is damned. Others (ahem, tech companies) have chosen to offer their employees a permanent remote option, risking that flexibility will help attract and retain talent. A third category includes all companies that take part in the headache-inducing dance of setting a start date for a hybrid WFH / office sitch – just to postpone the new schedule indefinitely.
And the media paints the two camps of debate with the broadest lines, with millennials and zoomers on one side of the aisle insisting on their right not to wear real pants again and boomers on the other claiming “real pants.” Work “can only happen in an air-conditioned cabin.
But enough shouting on Twitter about the joys of not using hangers – does working from home even work … still for us? Cosmopolitan asked Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, who is currently writing her next book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home on the subject. Here are the highlights from our conversation, and long story short, there is no ideal workplace that is suitable for everyone. But one thing is certain: Management should offer employees flexibility and not just think about the needs of the company.
‘Out of Office’ by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen
Yes, sweatpants are great, but is working from home accessible to everyone?
That depends on the individual job and your life situation. Working from home is so much harder when you’re in a tiny New York apartment that you share with someone who also works from home. When you are at home all the time, it’s not even the small size that makes it difficult, but the lack of discreet spaces.
Permanent internet access is also a big problem. There are still many places where it is difficult to get reliable internet. It may be hard to imagine for people in cities, but it’s very true in more rural areas – even in places like New York State, for example.
Can you talk a little about working from home as a disability rights issue?
When you speak to disability rights activists there is actually a lot of frustration that we have moved so seamlessly into working from home when they have been trying to figure out how to make this an option since the pre-pandemic. It is important to acknowledge that disability rights activists have campaigned for work from home for so long, but no one has listened.
Permanent flexibility is a great way to enable a wide range of people to work who can’t go to the office nine to five every day. These can be people who suffer from chronic fatigue or who cannot sit up straight all day, but it can also be people whose parenting or care plans require them to be home part of the day as well. To reiterate some of the disability experts I spoke to, it’s all about universal design to make work more accessible to more people.
Considering this, why didn’t America offer flexible options before the pandemic?
I think a lot was indolence. Until someone – or something – forces the status quo to change, it’s like piloting a giant barge that takes forever. What seemed to happen overnight during the pandemic was essentially just an accelerated change that was already happening very slowly – whether it was people working from home on Fridays or people with more flexible hours in the morning.
Claire BrodskyGetty Images
Losing your way to work is great, but rolling out of bed and going to the office on the couch can definitely blur the lines of maintaining work-life balance.
This is a huge problem! It was especially difficult when we were in the middle of the pandemic and people weren’t very busy. I use the term “an endless Wednesday”. There was no bumper between starting work and the start of your work day or coming back home and the room where you can mentally detach yourself from work.
But now that we all have a clearer understanding of how working from home works, and most offices have flexible work options, people need to start figuring out how to set boundaries. Additionally, companies need to figure out how to encourage and incentivize boundaries because people become worse workers if they work all the time.
What do you think of the argument that people who work from home are not so “productive” because they are not in the same headspace as they are in the office?
This argument is made by people who believe that the only way to get workers to work is through surveillance. There’s overwhelming evidence that productivity has increased during the pandemic, so that’s not the problem. The problem is that now, after this activity surge, people are trying to deal with the effects of burnout which are reducing productivity.
People are also figuring out how to keep working from home fairly so that men don’t go to the office and women keep working from home for things like childcare or only managers going to the office. There is concern that we will step back from years where women have made successful progress in terms of promotion and equal opportunities in the office. That’s what it’s really about – not productivity.
Do people who have WFH permanently lose the social element of work? Hanging out with colleagues, going out to eat, that sort of thing.
One thing that companies have encouraged in the past is you work so much that your only friends are the people you know in the office – which is really just a sneaky way of getting you to do it all the time work.
But working from home doesn’t mean you have to work alone all the time – you can have friends with you, you can work in common areas, you can go to the library. That wasn’t working from home in December 2020. I work with my friends all the time – this is the way I socialize and be with people, just not necessarily with my colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with being friends with your co-workers, but it allows me to cultivate the friendships that I’ve always felt I otherwise didn’t have time to cultivate.
Claire BrodskyGetty Images
Friends of mine fear that they will be left behind in their careers if they continue to work remotely. Is Facetime with your manager a must if you’re looking to get a promotion or a raise?
I think it’s hard for people who are just beginning their careers or who have just started a new job, but it’s not impossible. All it takes is a conscious company setting up new hires to communicate with other people and have access to mentors. Companies should consciously couple people with mentors and not leave it to a buddy system, and they should give people the space to actually lead this mentoring relationship.
There are some concerns that working from home puts older workers at a disadvantage. Is that true? Do younger people find it easier to work from home?
I think it’s really much more about your position in the office and less about your age. I think millennials are more comfortable working from home just because we’re more digitally native. That is the real sticking point – whether or not you are comfortable with digital communication. For me, I know how to communicate in Slack messages as I have communicated in group threads for years. And before that, I knew how to use AOL Messenger. These tools and communication styles are very familiar to Millennials and Generation Z, as well as some of the younger Generation X’s. But these things don’t feel as familiar to older Gen Xs and boomers unless they’ve been specifically looking for them. I’ve also seen older people like to work from home, so I think it loses some nuances to call this the generation debates. Much revolves around familiarity, power, and management versus non-management.
Okay, now to the big question. What should we as individuals do when we know all of this? Are you looking for companies that offer the work lifestyle that best suits us?
People need to figure out if they have the flexibility to change jobs, or find a new job, or even change careers (see, for example, people who are academics and are in pretty shitty situations when it comes to getting back) in the classroom without a mask or vaccination requirement). You may not just be able to quit your job and spend months looking, but you could start looking while you’re still in your current job – for jobs with more flexibility, jobs that enable a hybrid scenario, jobs with managers who seem to listen to the wishes of their employees.
This, of course, is a privilege for people doing the kind of work that can primarily be done remotely. But in this day and age, your job is probably more than just a 9-to-5 job – it will set the rhythm of your life. What do you want? How do you work best? How can you try to find a job that better suits these desires? These are the questions that employees have to ask themselves.
This interview has been edited and shortened for the sake of clarity.
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