The Broken Workplace
A rant on the state of work and the uncovering of the lies our lives are built upon
Marty de Jonge
These past few weeks, I have seen a few job offers going around that got me motivated to write this post.
During a global pandemic, preceding what we all know is going to be a crude recession, finding work is something precious. Except in cases like the ones I am getting at here, that explicitly say things like “remote during quarantine”:
I honestly have to ask: is this supposed to be a joke? If it is, either I don’t get it, or it isn’t funny.
I mean, if employees can execute their work from home during a quarantine, why on Earth couldn’t they do it at any other given time? I’m not saying they should never again set foot in an office. There are a lot of benefits in face-to-face interactions and in sharing common spaces.
Having a specific place dedicated to work, that is separated from the space we call home makes sense. I get that. Workplaces exist for a reason, and they’re ok. The problem is not whether we should or shouldn’t work from home.
The problem with remote work is that we continue to think about it in terms of “being allowed to” or “not being allowed to”.
A second problem is that, given that we think about it as a prize or a benefit, absurd job postings as the one above can exist, which point out that working remotely is “available during quarantine”. Well, of course it is available! It’s the only kind of work that is available, unless you’re doing essential work.
And let’s all please take note that the phrase “essential work” refers to certain kinds of labor that are a) necessary and b) must be done in person. Jobs that fall into the second category but not the first one are the most impacted by crises like this one.
Jobs that fit both categories (essential workers) are the most exposed during these crises: they are manning the front lines. And jobs that fall into the first category but not the second, as you probably already guessed, are jobs that can be done remotely.
So why is it that you don’t need to do your work in person during a quarantine, but do so at any other time?
A long overdue discussion
Up until the beginning of March previous year, all over the corporate world, a mantra was repeated, and carried forward into the world by HR departments, Talent Acquisition scouts, and recruiters of all kinds. The narrative, which was held up almost to the status of common knowledge, was obviously sugar-coated in most conversations, but its core sentiment went along these lines:
Working from home is a privilege. It is a godsend benefit that benevolent and magnanimous employers concede to their employees, as a token of their grandiosity. Employees, of course, are expected to react accordingly; that is, to be explicitly grateful and humbled by this act of charity.
After all, not all of them, but some, the few great employers, are willing to put a part of their business operation at risk, to allow, once or twice a week, that some of their employees work from their homes. They are willing to allow employees to save up money and time spent on commute, and thus employees should bow before them, in recognition of their unlimited kindness.
This is all bullshit, of course. And that paragraph is, in case you didn’t notice, some of my best efforts at sarcasm.
The truth of the matter is, remote work is not a benefit or a gift; it is a modality of work that is inherent to the type of work you do, and the type of relationship your work has with the variable of physical presence.
Also, it so happens that remote work is not a problematic element that needs to be navigated by businesses: remote work is actually beneficial for most businesses, most of the time.
Scientific evidence, not opinion
Study after study, conducted in different locations, in different industries, in different countries and under different economic contexts, over the course of years and years, have systematically reported the same results: remote work doesn’t drive productivity down, it drives it up. That is not an opinion, it is a scientific fact. Not something that we can choose to believe in or not. It is a verifiable fact.
Apparently, these studies point out, when people work from their homes, they are more likely to start earlier, they tend to have better focus, and they usually work longer hours. And when I say ‘apparently’, I don’t mean it as in “one of the possible interpretations is…”; I mean it as in “it has become apparent”, it is now obvious. Don’t take my word for it, though
That should give you a full day’s worth of reading about the topic, with actual research, actual data, and actual conclusions backed by science, instead of driven by opinion.
What these studies point at is that the office, while still a great environment to foster communication and teamwork, can also be, at times, an impediment for getting actual work done.
The background chatter can become a distraction, coffee breaks can easily get carried away when other people are hanging out at common areas, and except for a very small amount of them, those good ol’ meetings we all know and hate are, put mildly, a fantastic waste of everyone’s time. Once again, don’t take my word for it:
But I digress. Let us get back to the original discussion I wanted to introduce with this post:
Why is it, then, that even though everyone knows remote work actually works, businesses keep trying to sell it like it’s a benefit, and like employees should be grateful for it?
Where we are now
The quarantine imposed in most countries to try and contain the contagion of the coronavirus has brought forward a wave of changes in business operations that we had been accustomed to believe would take years, in a matter of a few weeks.
All of a sudden, managers and owners who insisted that their businesses could only function with on-site workers, are now conducting operations remotely, and those who claimed that some things “just had to be done in person” are now racing to implement digital and remote protocols.
Digital Transformation has been in the lips of many for years now. But only a worldwide pandemic could bring it to effective actions. Why is that? Risking to sound like a conspiracy theorist, evidence seems to indicate that all of these changes have been possible for a while now, but have been deliberately held back by those whose interests ran in another direction.
If that isn’t enough to make you shake your fists in anger, think about this: big pharmaceutical companies are now capping the prices of insulin at 35 dollars, “to help diabetes patients during the pandemic”.
So… does this mean that they could have been doing that all this time, but simply chose not to? Yes, that is exactly what this means.
Those same organizations that are now holding videoconferences and online meetings, are the same ones that, up until a few weeks ago, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars flying their executives all over the world, for meetings that lasted a couple of hours.
A final word
To all those executives, CEOs, managers and bosses that are now covering the Internet with contrived posts expressing that “we’re all in this together”, or that they are “responsible citizens first”, or that they are “proudly taking care of our collaborators and staying home”, I say to you: we all know it’s bullshit.
We all know you have been raging for ages about people working from home or taking sick days, because you considered it equivalent to taking a day off. We all know you are the ones that have been holding remote work back.
We all know that you purposely delayed making this decision, exposing hundreds of thousands of workers to contagion, because you thought business would suffer. We all know that you didn’t make the decision because you thought it was the best way to care for your employees, but because it was mandated or because the PR crisis would have been worse. We all know that you are upset thinking about how much money you’re losing over this.
And we all know that you will claim that productivity levels during the lockdown aren’t what they were when people went into the office, disregarding the fact that these days, remote work is carried out with kids in the house, and ignoring the effect that a deadly virus on the loose can do to a worker’s psychological wellbeing. We all know about your bullshit.
We have, in fact, known for quite some time. But for some reason, we often go about our daily lives as if we didn’t know.
For years, in every forum and social media site that ever existed on the Internet, employees have been laughing at job offers that mentioned “work from home once a week” as a benefit. We have also known for some time –and science has our back on this– that remote work is as much a benefit for us as it is for our employers.
For quite some time, also, we have known that the ones holding up our economies and societies are not politicians, businessmen and high executives, but everyday working men and women.
Those same men and women who are now called “heroes” –a term that is certainly adequate and every bit deserved, but that somehow feels like an unsavoury replacement for due compensation, coming from the mouths of those very politicians, businessmen and high executives that are sending them to the front lines to become heroes.
So, no… this is not new. COVID19 is a new strain of coronavirus, yes; and the worldwide shutdown is also a new experience for most people alive today. But the lies that our lives are built on are not.
The fact that there is a significantly bigger amount of money and wealth going around than the amount necessary to give every living human a decent life, and the brutal inequality in the way that it’s distributed is also not new. The fact that the majority of fatal victims of a disease are poor people is also not new. This was already broken.
And yes, after citing facts such as these, it definitely sounds menial to go on a rant about workers’ benefits. But I think it shows that there is a pattern:
These are lies, and everyone knows that they are lies, but we are forced to accept them as “what it is”, because there isn’t an option. Yet.
Let that be a lesson to us all, about the lavish waste of resources that is going on, that has been going on for far too long, that is evidently unnecessary, and that could certainly be put to better use.
Marty de Jonge
As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.