Cara Phillips of CommonBond in the company’s Manhattan office last month with her dog, Pepper, adopted during the pandemic © Jeenah Moon/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine
An insurance worker recently described to me his lockdown epiphany: he loved spending time with his two young children during the working week. So he adjusted his hours; now, he starts early so he can pick them up from nursery, make dinner and put them to bed. “As bad as the pandemic has been,” he said, “it’s forced us to think of life in different ways.”
He is far from being the only one re-evaluating work. In China, there are flickers of a social movement called the tang ping, or “lying flat”, in which young professionals denounce being cogs in the engine of the economy, rejecting high-stress work for a slower life.
In the US, the “Great Resignation” describes the phenomenon of employees quitting jobs for better pay, advantageous conditions — or leaving the labour market entirely, to retire — a trend that is observed elsewhere too. After months of upheavals and clinging on to jobs because any work was better than unemployment, people are voting with their feet.
These are challenging times for employers. Some are scrambling to recruit workers to plug labour shortages in industries such as driving heavy goods vehicles. Others are resorting to a mixture of coercion and perks to get workers vaccinated — testing the boundaries between public health and private intrusion — to return to the office, or deciding to scrap it entirely in favour of remote-first policies.
"In Kasulke’s novel, one employee likens their organisation to a cult with a pay cheque"
Several companies — Netflix, for example — are also trying to contain employee social and political activism agitating for changes to corporate culture. Black Lives Matter protests have forced chief executives to pledge to improve diversity.
The pandemic has illuminated problems in the workforce and — for better or worse — has accelerated changes in working practices. A McKinsey report last year found two-thirds of senior executives surveyed “saying they were stepping up investment in automation and AI [artificial intelligence] either somewhat or significantly”, meaning that workers are liberated from the dreariest or most hazardous tasks to focus on quality jobs, or alternatively, made unemployed.
After so much upheaval in the past 20 months, organisations have an opportunity to create new working environments and patterns. Three new books show the horrors and joys of work in the past, as well as present — and what this might mean for the future.
Modern work culture in all its idiocy is laid bare in Several People Are Typing, a debut novel by Calvin Kasulke. It tells the story of Gerald, a New York PR executive, whose thoughts merge overnight with the company’s internal Slack channel, while his comatose body lays prone on the sofa at home. (Literally, lying flat.) His co-workers think he can’t be bothered to make it into the office but his manager is unfazed — in fact, he is thrilled. Stuck inside the software with no distractions, Gerald’s performance has never been better.
This novel, written as a series of Slack messages, skewers corporate language and provides a snapshot of working lives mediated by technology, moving between home and the office. There’s also a menacing hint of the future when the AI Slackbot comes to life and tries to make sense of the physical world. Pleased by the position of its desk, the bot remarks, “it’s right next to the window! Which is where we keep the sunsets!” In another, it wrestles with feelings: “I don’t understand those emoticons!”
The jobs in this story could be described as LARPing — Live Action Role Playing — a phenomenon highlighted in Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. The term “LARPing your job” was coined in 2015 by writer John Herman, following Slack’s popularity as a replacement for email in the tech and media industries. LARPing describes a kind of digital performative working, done to demonstrate a worker’s commitment to the job. “Slack is where people make jokes and register their presence . . . as much for self-justification as for the completion of actual goals,” the authors write.
The old “nine-to-five” way of organising white-collar work in offices (and beyond) is now clearly redundant. This book argues that we must “liberate ourselves from the most toxic, alienating and frustrating aspects of office work. Not just by shifting the location where the work is completed but also by rethinking the work we do and the time we allot to it. Work . . . should cease to be the primary organising factor within [our lives]: the primary source of friendship, or personal worth, or community.”
This is an impassioned plea for remote working — though Warzel and Petersen concede that it will often be mixed with a component of office time as part of a hybrid working pattern. It will not only make you happier and healthier, but a better friend, member of your local community and more equal partner (they stop short of promising to improve your sex life). It will also allow the headspace, they argue, to give people — counter-intuitively — the means to “increase worker solidarity”.
They know of what they speak: the authors — a couple — left office jobs (Warzel at The New York Times and Petersen at BuzzFeed) to work from their home in Montana. They touch on some fascinating studies, including work by Intel technologist Melissa Gregg on the proliferation of self-optimisation advice, notably in business books, during downturns. They also reference examples of companies experimenting with shorter working weeks (Buffer), asynchronous workforces (GitLab) and transparency, including making minutes from all meetings including leaders’ fully accessible (Ultranauts). Trust, the pair argue, allows employees to do their actual job rather than wasting it on LARPing.
"'Out of Office' flags up ‘workism’, a kind of new religion deifying our professional identity to the detriment of everything else"
Warzel and Petersen are clear, however, that homeworking is not a panacea; such policies should be drawn up in consultation with employees rather than leaving it to an individual to set boundaries that only a “privileged” few will be able to implement. They cite the French rules on banning emails out of office hours, which could prove counterproductive for those employees who favour flexibility. In any case, one survey they cite — using an admittedly small sample — found that 97 per cent had seen no changes to email patterns since the law came in 2017. It has not stopped Portugal from recently setting out a similar policy.
The authors want greater attention paid to management and also an end to the fetishisation of start-up culture, which emphasises long hours, disruption and inattention to human resources processes. On informal working cultures, they cite comedian Kevin Farzad’s quip that “if an employer ever says, ‘we’re like family here’ what they mean is they’re going to ruin you psychologically”.
It’s a sentiment mirrored in Kasulke’s novel, where one worker likens the organisation to a cult with a pay cheque. “We’re not employees, we’re a ‘team’. That’s only two notches away from just calling us ‘acolytes’ . . . And the stuff we supposedly devote ourselves to, like ‘innovation’ or ‘influence’ or ‘engagement’ . . . how is that any different from telling everyone you’re a Prophet of the Coming Storm?”
Warzel and Petersen offer good and sensible advice. Both are authors of widely read newsletters and have a knack for snappy phrases. With so much experimentation and workplaces in flux, this reads very much as a work-in-progress guide. As with Petersen’s previous book on burnout, Out of Office caters to readers who have bought into the idea that we are suffering from “workism”, a kind of new religion deifying our professional identity to the detriment of everything else.
Whether the past can tell us anything about the future of the office is an issue that Dutch social historian Jan Lucassen tackles in his weighty tome, The Story of Work. It puts our current evaluation of white-collar work in context: 700,000 years of it. This is a huge book, spanning every continent and subjects as wide-ranging as hunter-gatherers, slavery and Zoom workers.
Under Lucassen’s scrutiny comes “all human pursuits apart from free time or leisure”. The author quotes the work of American sociologists Charles and Chris Tilly to point out that “prior to the 20th century, a vast majority of the world’s workers performed the bulk of their work in other settings than salaried jobs as we know them today.” It means that Lucassen pays attention to unpaid domestic work, including, in the 20th century, the housewife. The history of work, he argues, is not just about competition but collaboration — even solitary “Robinson Crusoe found his Friday”, he writes.
From 1800 onwards, the story becomes more familiar as the working world is driven towards greater homogeneity, propelled by the industrial revolution, and the increasing numbers of wage labourers — which, in turn, prompt a rise in management science. Surveying the past two centuries, Lucassen writes: “Never before have so many people arranged their work in a similar way. Never before have they attempted to such a degree to improve their labour relations and labour circumstances collectively as well as individually.”
History warns us against neat triumphalism when it comes to working trends. Unfree labour declined sharply in the 19th century, shepherded by the end of slavery (Britain’s Abolition Act of 1833, and the US’s 13th Amendment in 1865), as well as the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861. It then reappeared under Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot — “and let us not forget the Kim dynasty in North Korea today”. There are also “fluctuations in the extent to which the ideal of the welfare state is embraced”; recent furlough payments by the UK and stimulus cheques in the US prior to the pandemic would have previously “seemed absolutely unthinkable”.
Like Warzel and Petersen, Lucassen believes we now have an opportunity to shape our working lives, and that “our long past” should show us that we also have the capacity to find “meaning, co-operation [and] fairness” from our work — though he offers few practical solutions.
Such a broad sweep of history is humbling. It is also a reminder at moments when work feels all-consuming that there is a world outside the factory or office that deserves attention, as the insurance worker who wanted to spend more time with his kids realised.
I kept returning to the wistful thought articulated by Kasulke in Several People Are Typing that despite our best efforts to justify our jobs, a great deal of white-collar work turns out to be ephemeral, noting that “so much goes missing online”: without tangible proof “maybe the email you thought you read . . . wasn’t real”.
Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Knopf $27/Scribe £14.99, 272 pages
The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind by Jan Lucassen, Yale University Press £25, 544 pages
Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke, Doubleday $24/Hodder £12.99, 256 pages
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work & careers columnist
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