[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: First of all, let’s get this straight. And if you’ve been working from home during the pandemic, you’re lucky. We can’t discuss the fight over the return to the office without acknowledging that millions of people never got to leave wherever they worked to record podcasts in a little closet next to the laundry room in their basement, they stayed at their job. But for those of us who were lucky enough to work from home, there’s no going back to normal now. Is there?
As companies roll out their plans for returning to offices across Canada, there are all sorts of buzz words being used, both in support and against a return to the Monday to Friday, nine to five, in-person work life. On one side, you have team building, culture fit, and a thing called spontaneous collaboration. On the other side, you’ve got flexibility, focus, and work-life balance.
But here’s the thing, the fight that’s brewing between so many [00:01:00] employers and employees over how often they need to be in the office, it really doesn’t have much to do with those words. They matter of course, and how much they matter depends on who you ask. But the real fight is much deeper than that. It’s about freedom versus control. It’s a power struggle. For once over the past year, employers didn’t hold all the cards every day. Couldn’t look over every employee’s shoulder, anytime they wanted, and it’s going to be really tough to grab those cards back.
So how hard will employers fight for it and what will they risk if they do that?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Charlie Warzel is a journalist who writes about technology, the media, and politics. He’s previously worked for the New York Times Opinion and Buzzfeed News. Right now, he pens a newsletter called Galaxy Brain, which you can find on Substack. Hey Charlie.
Charlie Warzel: Hey, thanks for having me.
[00:02:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You’re very welcome. I thought that your most recent newsletter was perhaps one of the more insightful takes on return to office and the discussion around that, that I’ve seen. So maybe you could start us off by defining spontaneous collaboration. What is it and why is it such a buzzword now and over the next few months?
Charlie Warzel: Sure. Um, this spontaneous collaboration, or I think I was calling it sort of tongue in cheek, the spontaneous encounter theory is, is this idea that a big part of the, sort of the secret sauce of productivity and innovation in companies and in business in general comes from these encounters that happen in the office that are not planned. Uh, another word for them is like the water cooler moment, right? It’s that, you know, you are taking a break, getting up from your desk, you bump into somebody, have a, you know, a random conversation. And all of a sudden someone has [00:03:00] an idea, uh, and something gets hatched and, you know, it’s, it’s this, this idea that, you know, you can’t plan for it. But because of that, um, what you get is, is some, you know, magical interaction that leads to, uh, you know, some genius innovation.
And, you know, this is something that is real to some extent, like, I don’t, I don’t think we can, uh, we can totally denounce that. I’ve had some good spontaneous encounters in offices in my lifetime, uh, that have led to fun things or interesting things. But I think it’s very, very overvalued in, in our conversations about, you know, how the office really works.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do we have any idea, um, how much it actually happens? Have we done any research on that?
Charlie Warzel: Um, well, you know, um, Claire Cain Miller, who, uh, is a reporter at the New York Times, wrote a great piece, which kind of sparked my newsletter last week. And she spoke with a Harvard Business School professor, Ethan Bernstein, and he did [00:04:00] some research on this, uh, with, you know, contemporary open plan offices and found that those actually lead to about 70%, fewer face-to-face interactions than sort of your general cubicle and, you know, office based, uh, office plan.
And the reason why he cites is that, uh, people didn’t didn’t find it very helpful to have spontaneous conversations. They were just kind of always bombarded. So they put on headphones and just put their heads down at their desks. And as someone who worked in an open plan office for basically two thirds of the 2010s, I can tell you that that’s very much my experience, too.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes.
Charlie Warzel: People kind of, you know, hunker down and become desk hermits.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now, do you think the myth around spontaneous collaboration, again, not to say it doesn’t happen, but the myth about how essential it is, does it come from sort of a well-meaning place that we’d like to believe that, you know, we’re just more creative when we’re together in person or does it come [00:05:00] from, I guess, management in an attempt to, uh, coerce workers back to the office?
Charlie Warzel: So I actually think that, you know, The truth here is, is a bit messy, right? And this sort of speaks to my general feeling about offices and, and the, you know, remote flexible work from home movement versus the in-office, you know, movement and, and this kind of culture war we’re having over over this right now. I think that there’s benefits to both working in an office and benefits to working remotely. And I think it depends on the organization. I think it depends on, you know, the company’s culture. I think it depends on what kind of business you’re actually in and what you’re, what you’re building and working on. I think it depends on the people.
And so I think there is a well-meaning part of this, you know, spontaneous collaboration theory. And I think that is that people want to be together. Uh, people crave socialization, people crave interactions, they crave um, you know, that, [00:06:00] that energizing feeling, if you’ve ever been in a brainstorming session that actually worked, uh, it’s energizing. It’s exciting. It’s fun to have somebody say, take your idea and say yes and, and build on it. Um, I think that’s something that can make, um, Work in general, very valuable.
I also think that is used against employees to some degree by certain companies and certain managers who are actually interested in control, right. They they’re sort of lord this idea over employees and say, well, you know, if you don’t have the office, you, you probably aren’t doing your best work and that, that can chip away at and insecurities in people. And, and especially as, um, you know, uh, workers have have fewer union protections and safety nets like that, that can worry people, I think. You know, they can say, oh man, if, if I’m not doing my best work, you know, maybe I will slip up if I’m, if I’m not in the office, if I don’t have those [00:07:00] spontaneous collaborations and, and then you end up having people who return to the office, not because it’s how they work best. Not because that’s what they want. Uh, but because they’re, they’re anxious and intimidated of, you know, being seen as a bad employee.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s what I’m most interested in is not, you know, where we can be most efficient and where the magic happens, because I think that that’s probably different for every person, but what I’m fascinated by is the sense that this is turning into a real power struggle between managers that need control and employees who have finally realized they can live without it. And I don’t know if there’s any, going back from that.
Charlie Warzel: I mean, I agree completely with this idea that we’ve sort of crossed the Rubicon to some degree, right. Or, you know, to throw another, uh, cliche metaphor in there. Like you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. And, and, and I think that that’s what this moment showed, right. We, for years there were people who wanted more flexibility in their [00:08:00] job and management and HR in certain companies said oh, no, you know, business, like we can’t do that. We can’t let you work from home because then everyone would want to work from home. And if we do that, you know, productivity would plummet. We wouldn’t be able to do our jobs.
Well, you know, this pandemic came relatively out of nowhere, forced everyone to completely change the way that they work. And it proved that, you know, that theory whether it was earnest at the time or not, completely wrong, you know, I mean like levels of productivity were up during the pandemic for companies. And so I think that there is this sort of understanding of this excuse doesn’t work any longer. Uh, and so if you’re still perpetuating it, there must be some other reason there, right. And, and that reason must be control or power. And I think as people realize that, as these, you know, justifications kind of fall on deaf ears, I think [00:09:00] there’s a resentment that builds up from workers it’s oh, so, you know, there’s, there’s something, there’s something else here, right? You’re you’re not doing this because it’s good for business. You’re doing this because it’s good for you at my expense. And I think that that’s, that’s a real friction that we’re going to see, continue to play out here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I did want to ask you about what role office culture plays in it. And, you know, I know that varies from company to company, but you wrote about, you know, the monoculture that offices are meant to create and, and who that benefits and who it doesn’t.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, I, so, you know, company culture is something that I think is really hard to define. I think that, you know, when it comes to this, working from home, uh, versus working in the office and in these, these broad mandates to have everybody come into the office, I think that what, what that’s actually doing is, is perpetuating a [00:10:00] very specific type of culture. I refer to this sort of as the, as the monoculture, um, and what that is is it’s a culture that always benefits a very particular type of employee. One that you know, is extroverted. One that is very comfortable in the office. Um, one that tends to be white and male, and it’s the classic, what we think of as classic old school business culture. And it’s not to say that, you know, a company that has this type of monoculture is doing something, you know, nefarious or very bad, it’s just, this is kind of the way that things have always been done. And part of that is showing up every day, going in the office, BSing around with your, your coworkers.
Some of the data that we’re seeing in opinion, polling around workers shows that, you know, workers of color, you know, workers, uh, who identify as women are [00:11:00] actually a lot more satisfied with the remote life balance because it kind of prioritizes a lot more of those elements of your job performance and your actual output over some of these other, you know, cultural and status elements of work. In that way, remote work is helping to break up that monoculture. It can help benefit people who historically have, you know, ma maybe felt that they, that they’re outsiders in their job. And so I think that that’s something that isn’t taken into account by a lot of managers of people, especially those who are promoting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right! And I mean, one of the things that you wrote that resonated with me about exactly what you were just talking about is so much of what I missed about the office was actually just my ability to project a bullshit type of status in my organization. And I really felt that because I’m the type of person that you were just describing, you know, that benefits from being [00:12:00] able to be extroverted and network and be a middle-aged white male and all of the stuff that goes along with that. And I recognize that there’s a lot of employees in my company and others who don’t just get to show up and saddle up next to the boss and grab five minutes of face time, and it’s leveling that playing field.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, you know, I think this is it’s so ingrained in us, uh, especially those of us who have benefited from these types of cultures inside the office, that it’s almost hard to see outside of it. I started working from home in 2017 and I moved out, uh, away from New York City out, uh, into Montana. Did my job remotely. And I was terrified. I was terrified that this sort of spontaneous encounter, you know, theory was actually what made me a good employee and I really overvalued, you know, all those, those little bump-in conversations, not to say I didn’t, [00:13:00] you know, they weren’t valuable to some degree, but I, I think just having this outsized role in my imagination of my job.
And when I really got used to working remotely, I started to reevaluate that. And I, and I realized that I, I did, I just loved projecting the status. I loved walking around and being seen and, and doing that. And, and I realized too that I am so comfortable with that because of so many things that have to do in my, you know, my class, one thing I think a lot of people don’t even think about is, you know, I grew up in a, in an environment where I kind of learned how to, you know, be social in professional settings. You know, I, I learned how to, quote unquote, network, right. I felt very comfortable having a very specific type of conversation with people who are like me. And that culture, my office [00:14:00] culture prioritized and privileged that’s so much, uh, whereas people who, who didn’t have that felt so on the outside. And I think previously we’ve looked at those people as, oh, well, you know, they’re introverted or, you know, they don’t really get along, they’re not really good quote unquote culture fit. Right. And really what it is is they have a different lived experience and they have so many, they have things to give, but they, they just, you know, maybe don’t feel comfortable sharing them in, in that type of environment.
I see this as sort of the, the profound insight for me. And one that I don’t think a lot of managers have really woken up to yet because they so embody that, you know, monoculture status that it feels like it feels just like reality to them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: But I wonder what this kind of approach to, and whether it’s, you know, truly remote or whether it’s flexible or whatever, what it means to people who are just now entering the workforce. You know, [00:15:00] that’s one thing that I really can’t wrap my head around, is how much different this experience must be, uh, for those people who are just trying to start out and, you know, make those initial connections, whether it’s remotely or in person.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah. So my, my partner, uh, Anne Helen Petersen, and I, uh, just finished reporting and writing a book on this whole remote, uh, future of work movement. It’s called Out of office. It’s going to come out in, in December. And this question was one that we really kind of focused on because there is actually a huge concern for early career workers of losing a lot of the benefits of, of a workplace. Uh, you know, it’s where a lot of informal, uh, sort of off the books, knowledge gets passed out about how a place works. It’s where people, you know, make these, these really personal connections with coworkers who are more established, who champion them in an organization or, you [00:16:00] know, give them feedback or, or insight or mentoring.
Uh, and so I think that’s, that’s a real concern. And we spoke to so many people who were isolated over the past year, coming into the workforce during COVID, you know, they’ve never met their employees. Uh, and they feel sort of like, they work at a, at an abstraction and not really a job. And that’s, that’s difficult. I think though that what we have seen is that so much of that can actually be ameliorated by companies that treat remote work seriously. And they’re not just, you know, they’re not just taking it on as some simple perk and saying, oh yeah, you know, you can, you can work from home, and that’s that. Companies that really really and truly go remote first and build their organizations around supporting employees, although they’re not all together in the same office, they build in mentorship opportunities, right. Uh, you know, there are companies we talk to when, when you sign up, they, you know, you never [00:17:00] meet your employees. But when you sign up and coming on your first day, you’re given a mentor and that person, you know, is basically supposed to for the first year of, of your job, be the person you can confide in and talk to.
And what I’m trying to say here is that there’s an intentionality to this, right? It’s not just simply, okay. Now you work from home fend for yourself. It’s Trying to find the right structures. So this can be a really challenging moment for those types of people. And I think we, I think it’s why companies have to really design thoughtful systems if they are going to employ this hybrid or flexible work model.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now that you’ve done all this researching and reporting, I wonder what you expect from the next few months. And by that, I mean, like which direction this fight will take, will we have the sort of surface fight about efficiency versus productivity versus face time, et cetera, et cetera, or. [00:18:00] Are we going to have the bigger discussion about freedom and control and autonomy. Um, and shouldn’t we be having that discussion anyway?
Charlie Warzel: I think we’re going to have a million discussions at once really, and I think it’s going to be chaotic. And I don’t think that there’s going to be, you know, a very simple narrative. I mean, I think you’re going to, you’re going to see employees actually go back and forth on this. And this is why I I’m really against blanket mandated policies of ‘you must return to the office starting September 1st, you know, this many days a week, and, and this is the way that it’s going to be’, because I do think the situation is going to be very dynamic. I very much expect that there are a group of, you know, excited, motivated, extroverted people who are really tired of being trapped in doors with their families and want the dynamic office space. And they’re going to rush into the office and feel [00:19:00] giddy at that. And then, possibly three months later, they’re going to say, well, you know, this commute is once again wearing me down and I really do miss the ability to have lunch with my kids. Uh, I really do miss that flexibility to, you know, put something off until a little later in the day when I feel fresh or I want to be able to work out in the middle of the day or, you know, whatever it is. I think there’s going to be people who, who say, wow, you know, there was this flexibility. I took for granted in the moment, because it was such a difficult, stressful time. I want that back and maybe they’ll start lobbying.
And then I think there are people who, you know, will kind of go the opposite direction and that’s just, that’s just, you know, employees. I think employers will find that, you know, they, they might have an extremely permissive, vague policy and, you know, feel that they don’t have any, you know, any understanding of what their workforce wants. And so they’ll implement a rigid policy and then they’ll walk that back. And so I think everyone’s going [00:20:00] to kind of do this negotiation dance.
On the sort of culture war front on the sort of the broader cultural discussion that we’re going to have, I think that it’s not going to be settled for a really long time. I believe that this is going to be a discussion and, and kind of contentious debate that we that we have for, for years to come. And I think it’s going to be really central to the idea of equality and labor rights. And, you know, even, even just like how the American economy needs to function. Because I think that workers are burned out, resentful. I think there is, there is a real negotiation going on that’s generational of people saying, I don’t know that I want to have a quote unquote career, right. I don’t know that I want to live to work. I want something more. I’m seeing that a lot from people, you know, in the millennial generation and gen Z.
And I think that’s a powerful sentiment, [00:21:00] whether that can be sort of leveraged into a broader labor movement that actually changes the way we think about work is I think that really remains to be seen. But I see this as, as a complex discussion. We’re going to be having for, for years to come.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Charlie, thank you for this. And, uh, when the book comes out, we’ll have you back on and talk about how the first few months of back to the office have gone.
Charlie Warzel: That’s fantastic! I look forward to it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Charlie Warzel is a journalist who writes about technology, the media, and politics. You can find his newsletter called Galaxy Brain on Substack. That was The Big Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can also talk to us anytime via email, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can listen to this podcast anywhere you listen to any podcast we’re in all of them. Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, Pocket Cast, Overcast, whatever. [00:22:00] Also on your smart speakers, ask them to play The Big Story podcast.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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