Last year, Anne Helen Petersen set out to write a book about working from home, as a follow-up to her critically acclaimed book on millennial burnout.
The book, co-authored with her partner Charlie Warzel, ended up encompassing much, much more than the day-to-day concerns of the home office (or the hastily improvised laptop-on-kitchen counter setup, depending on your situation).
Drawing on extensive interviews with employers and employees alike, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home proposes nothing less than a complete transformation in our attitude to work and the way it fits into our lives.
Ahead of the book's release this month, The Async Review asked Petersen all the most pressing questions about the past, present and, potentially, brighter future of work.
Anne, when you and Charlie pitched the book, you thought it would just be about working from home. What did you ultimately realize the book wanted to be about?
When we started looking at the history of how work got to be the way that it was, it seemed very clear that we weren't just thinking about how the office was broken. It was more that, work is broken. That more holistic, 360-degree view of work — not just where we were doing work, but how we were doing work — was very clarifying.
Books about the future of work, as you admit in your book about the future of work, often turn out to be wrong. But you stand by your hope that remote work really could make the world a better place?
We're working harder, for more hours. We're more exhausted than ever before. There's something wrong with this. Work ought to rotate around our lives, instead of our lives rotating, in all ways that are important, around work.
That's a huge, difficult shift. Especially for knowledge workers who are salaried instead of paid by the hour, and for Americans and people who are from countries that have a similar Protestant work ethic and ideologies. It's just really hard to not orient your entire identity around work.
But what if we figured out a way to move away from that?
“Remote work and flexible work — truly flexible work — invites us to rethink how we work.”
Part of that rethinking might be a shift away from the individualism that has defined the last 20, 30 years, and finding a sense of collectivism. There's a potential to change the way that we think about society and our responsibility to one another.
How is the office broken?
There are problems in any situation where we do things just because it's the way that we do things. The old rules of the office are no longer a good fit for the way that we live.
The seeping of work into all of these other crevices of our lives is an expression of that. Work was overflowing from the office. We just kept on going into the office and working at home.
“People were working at home before the pandemic. It's just that they weren't working at home necessarily during traditional office hours.”
There's that persistent myth of the office, that creative magic occurs when colleagues from different departments collide. Has the idea of the serendipitous encounter been overhyped?
We need to move on from the notion that bumping into someone on the way to the bathroom is going to lead to next great idea! When you think about who those serendipitous moments privilege, they are certain kinds of people — the people who are walking around the hallways, starting conversations...
A lot of the people who love the office, who feel very at home and comfortable in the office, are white straight guys. This is something Charlie has written about before, because he really likes the office. The office always felt like a space that was made to feel comfortable for him.
And the thing that people are increasingly realizing is that the office was the status quo — but status quo for who? Who was it engineered for?
“These spaces have been dominated by men, and white men in particular, and white men whose brains work in a certain way, who are very extroverted and neurotypical.”
Getting away from the office might make the culture of work more available for people who haven't been privileged by the office. Refiguring what office bonding looks like, so it's not just drinks after work, will benefit a lot of people.
Can we spark creativity when working remotely?
There are ways to serendipitously come up with ideas even when you're not in the same physical space as other people. A lot of my idea generation happens online, just through chatting. A conversation starts one place and ends up in a totally different space.
Are we talking Zoom happy hours?
It could be Zoom, or it could just start with someone Slacking you and asking, “Did you see this link?”
A lot of companies are adopting a hybrid model, with on-site workers and remote ones. Is there a problem with that approach?
You're going to see equity issues come up. You're going to see people who are able to put in more face time in the office getting preferential treatment.
“The best way to prevent equity issues is to think about how we can foster inclusion for people who are remote.”
For example, setting a maximum on the amount of time that people can spend in the office.
Or doing what Twitter is doing? Actively disincentivizing workers from coming into the office?
It's a great idea! The underlying thing is that this is going to take a lot of work and thought, and it's going to have to change and be dynamic.
This might be a good time to mention that you and Charlie met as colleagues, in fact, through the kind of after-work drinks tradition you interrogate in the book. Is there something to be said for the loss of the friendships and relationships we might develop when we share a workspace IRL?
I love the friends that I have met at work. I live with my partner who I met at work. But the thing is, when you cut down on excessive work culture, it opens you up to make other sorts of friends, and explore other means of making friends. There's new space to cultivate other networks.
“Subtracting those really life-swallowing work cultures, which are oftentimes incredibly toxic, does not mean that suddenly you are an island unto yourself. It means that you are opening yourself up to making friends that are not contingent upon a workplace.”
Having written extensively on burnout, including your own, have you fixed your relationship to work in your own life?
Charlie and I talk a lot about how difficult it is to ever really "recover" from burnout — that it's like therapy, insomuch as your therapist never says, “Oh wow, look, you're good, don't need a therapist anymore.”
Burnout behaviors and postures are really difficult to leave behind, because they're so intertwined with our understanding of work. Which is a long way of saying that I'm constantly working on it, and have periods of more intensity and less, and am also always really mindful of when I see a burnout behavior — or a sign of burnout, like a real struggle to read fiction — creeping in.
The best way to stave off burnout is to develop and cultivate habits, hobbies and interests that are definitively not work. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as it's not monetized, it's not some sort of weird performance of character and self for Instagram, it's just a thing that you genuinely like to do, and that you allow to be an additional, and equally important, axis of your life, outside of work.
You mentioned authentically flexible work. How has the concept of flexibility changed?
That word, "flexibility," has been used over the course of the last 50 years to describe the way companies can shed employees, change office spaces, change org charts, and all sorts of things to benefit the company. The flexibility was all flowing in one direction. It was to benefit corporate process.
“The new flexibility is reoriented around the needs of the employee.”
Employees have more power than they did pre-pandemic. Many office workers especially have enough savings that they're voting with their feet. They're quitting. The nexus of power is reoriented more around the employee than around the employer.
What are your thoughts about the role of technology in improving the way we work?
Organizations have to understand that technology can help you solve problems, but they can't, by themselves, solve problems. Almost always it's a culture problem. Almost always it's a management problem. The harder work is identifying that larger problem.
One of the companies featured in the book is Meeting Science, who can look at your data and tell you, yes, you're having too many meetings.
I can't help but wonder what kinds of meetings they have at Meeting Science.
I had a meeting with Meeting Science to talk about meetings and it was a great meeting!
Meeting Science can look at your data, but they can't tell you what to do with that data. That is the harder, real work that the organization has to do.
“Why did our meetings go up this week? What sort of communication failures are we having? What are our managers not good at communicating? Do we have to do more management training to fix this problem? Is the problem with management selection?”
You have a note to bosses towards the end of the book: “Don't screw this up.”
Leaders should expect that this is going to take more work than you think. Many complex systems are happening all at once. Acknowledge that difficulty. But don't be discouraged by it.
“Remote work is more than an HR problem. It is the future of your company.”
The ship has sailed. We're not going back. Anyone who thinks that you can force your workers to go back to a pre-pandemic understanding of work is going to have horrible attrition rates and horrible equity issues. If you can get on board and start thinking in this way now, it has the potential for incredible recruitment and innovation moving forward. Don't struggle against the tide for the next 10 years.
You're an avid cultural consumer, and I couldn't not ask you about depictions of the office in popular culture. It's such a staple, from Dilbert to Jacques Tati. Is it the end of the office as a backdrop for our stories?
That's an interesting question! The office has been such a great site for farce, for satire of capitalism... But also, on the other end of the spectrum, think of the role of the office in fairy-tale romcoms — I'm thinking of 13 Going on 30 — where women go to battle. The office as a site of toxicity, but also of triumph.
So what's the new backdrop going to be? People's weird working-from-home spaces? [laughs] I don't know. The task of pop culture is to make the world feel legible in some way. And I don't think that we've figured out the legibility of a post-pandemic world yet.