Journalists Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen in 2017 left New York City for Missoula, Montana and began working remotely—making them relative pioneers of the remote working that so many of us abruptly and involuntarily adopted in early 2020.
Their new book Out of Office, released this week, is a manifesto for using the forced period away from the office to permanently transition to flexible remote and hybrid approaches, and shift work to a less dominant place in our lives and identities. They argue that careless adoption of remote work—as is abundantly clear to many of us by now—is a recipe for the erasing of any lines protecting our personal time, and exacerbates the negative impact of poor management.
Done right, remote work “can change your life,” Warzel and Petersen write. “It can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier. It can make the labor in your home more equitable and can help you be a better friend, and parent, and partner.” (p. 8)
They identify four areas critical to achieving this: flexibility, culture, technology and community. And ultimately, they make the case that most of us shouldn’t work as hard or as long as we do, and suggest some ways to create distance from our jobs and nourish hobbies, relationships, and ties to the people around us.
Out of Office does an excellent job of diagnosing the ills of our pre-pandemic and virtual workplaces and connecting the dots to the macro forces of business of the last century responsible for them. It is admirably thoughtful and well written, and offers a powerful, motivating vision for how our lives can be better when we resist the gravitational pull of unrelenting work.
“There is a world, and a self, outside the long hours of work and the physical structures that have long enclosed the expanse of our lives,” Warzel and Petersen write, in closing the book. “How invigorated, how terrified, how fortunate we should feel, to have the chance to figure out, as if for the first time, who we are and where our lives can lead us.” (p. 248)
The principal shortcoming of Out of Office is that while it smartly identifies middle managers—who are often ill suited and poorly trained—as key actors in making work more human, it offers limited tactical recommendations for how they might do so. Warzel and Petersen have a penchant for buzzy new workplace technologies—such as software called Kona that charts for managers the “emotional temperature” of their team—that feels disappointingly gimmicky, when basic “team captain” skills are arguably what they could recommend.
Warzel and Petersen’s recommendations include:
- Auditing how we spend our time working. “Which work is actually most important? Which work feels secondary, superfluous, or totally wasteful?” they suggest asking yourself. (p. 30) And then they propose stripping out tasks that aren’t essential to doing your core job.
- Getting rid of meetings that aren’t necessary, and exploring asynchronous ways of communicating. They cite MeetingScience data suggesting only 20% of meetings are important. And they’re fans of Loom videos, which are short clips you can record and share with colleagues. Strikingly, given that they’re professional writers, Warzel and Petersen suggest video and audio can be preferable to text for conveying information within teams.
- Considering four-day workweeks. “The real innovation of the four-day week, like other flexible, intentional schedules, is the conscious exchange of faux production for genuine, organization-wide, collaborative work,” they write. (p. 42)
- Setting guardrails to protect time away from work. A team might configure its calendar program to prevent meetings from being scheduled after 4pm, for example, or require that any internal company emails arrive during standard work hours.
- Helping younger workers get traction in the workplace and their jobs. Mentoring by someone who is not your supervisor can make a big difference when work is remote. Organizations can also allow younger employees to sit in on calls to learn by observing and provide them with templates for specific kinds of emails.
- Dismantling any organizational monoculture. “That means considering all the unspoken norms that ossified around the culture that was: expectations for work socialization, how to solicit advice, how to climb the organizational hierarchy,” Warzel and Petersen write. (p. 112) Flexible, remote work creates new opportunities to foster diversity and inclusion.
- Leveling the hybrid work playing field by making offices less appealing. Twitter has tried to combat recency bias and proximity bias that occur when some people are more remote than others by actively disincentivizing employees from coming back to the office full-time. Using ‘hot desking’ rather than assigned desks is one way to require people to be more intentional about when and why they’re coming into the workplace.
- Paying taxes and getting involved in your community. You can advocate for labor protections, childcare and support for caregivers, and get involved in mutual aid organizations to help others and get help when you need it.
- Giving yourself space to explore hobbies and interests and commit to them. “The hobby itself ultimately matters far less than what its existence provides: a means of tilting your identity away from ‘person who is good at doing a lot of work,’” they write (p. 244.)
To be sure:
- Out of Office could provide more extensive recommendations for how middle managers—identified as key actors—can contribute to reforming work.
- Its spotlighting of new technology services such as Loom, Kona, and Branch at times feels inadequate for the challenge of fixing work in modern America.
- The book is focused largely on white-collar workers who can just as easily work remotely, and have professional leverage and financial security to push back on their employers and themselves and cut back on their overworking.
- Warzel and Petersen could spend more time on questions of corporate structures and governance. In addition to unions, are there approaches—such as employee board representation—that could better protect workers and the long-term interest of companies?
- “This is the dark truth of remote work as we know it now: it promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office, but in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance.” (p. 4)
- “Offices can be bullies. They force us to orient our days around commutes. They commandeer our attention with (sometimes enjoyable!) unscheduled, drive-by meetings. They elevate the feeling of productivity over being productive. They’re a breeding ground for microaggressions and toxic loops of hierarchical behavior. It’s no surprise that people who thrive in the office are almost always the same people who have accumulated or were raised with a lot of identity-related privilege outside it.” (p. 5)
- “Better work is, in fact, oftentimes less work, over fewer hours, which makes people happier, more creative, more invested in the work they do and the people they do it for.” (p. 7)
- “Work will always be a major part of our lives. What we’re suggesting, however, is that it should cease to be the primary organizing factor within it: the primary source of friendship, or personal worth, or community.” (p. 13)
- “The future of work is actually having to manage people,” —Adam Segal, CEO of Cove (p. 69)
- “In most modern organizations, ‘management’ has become something to tack onto someone’s existing job description, like a high school teacher getting extra money to coach high school volleyball.” (p. 96)
- “A healthy work culture creates the circumstances for all employees to do their very best work. But a sustainable, resilient one understands and eagerly invites them to have lives outside it.” (p. 122)
- “Making the work environment more residential and domestic is, I think, dangerous. It’s clever, seductive, and dangerous. It’s pandering to employees by saying we’ll give you everything you like, as if this was your home, and the danger is that it blurs the difference between home and office.” —architect Clive Wilkinson, Google headquarters designer (p. 143)
- “What remote work ultimately does is nudge companies to do the things that they know they should be doing anyway.” (p. 232)
- “Stripping out some of the artifice and vestigial norms of the office gives us the chance to see our companies as what they really are, what they’ve always been: a collection of human beings.“ (p. 232)
The bottom line is that Out of Office is an elegantly written and helpful catalog of the problems with white-collar work today and how we got here, and a lucid call for a healthier relationship with our jobs. It captures well our current moment—with its dysfunction, messiness, and potential—and, without predicting what comes next, is a valuable guide for workers and managers.