Is flexibility a panacea for our working ills? Not according to this book

May 23, 2022

7 mins

Is flexibility a panacea for our working ills? Not according to this book
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

As the early days of the pandemic transformed every colleague into a potential health risk, it accelerated the ongoing shift toward a remote working model. Two years later, 59% of US workers who say their jobs can be done from home are doing so all or most of the time, according to a Pew study released in February.

But while the new, flexible mode of work has been widely hailed as the future of freedom and autonomy, some experts suggest that telework isn’t the panacea that was promised. Rather, it might have further blurred the lines between the private and professional and, with that, turned work into an even more dominant part of our lives.

That’s the central premise of the book Out of Office, where life partners and co-authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen tackle the “big problem and bigger promise of working from home.” Drawing on their own experience of working from home — they moved to Montana before the pandemic in search of a better work-life balance — Petersen and Warzel are convinced that the freedom associated with working from home can be a boon only if we find a way to work better (and less).

“This is the dark truth of remote work as we know it: it promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office, but in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance,” they write in the book. “The true issue at hand is not where we will work but how we will work. Remote work forces you to change the how.”

The flexibility trap

Companies have for decades been obsessed with becoming “lean,” “nimble” and “flexible.” Since long before the pandemic, “flexibility has been a code word for a company’s ability to rapidly hire and lay off employees as needed,” which gave rise to an ever wider contract economy and increased precariousness among workers. According to Warzel and Petersen, it also caused the average workload of office workers to become heavier and heavier. “The benefits of the flexible economy have flowed almost entirely to corporations as workers grapple with unprecedented levels of instability in the workplace,” they write.

‘Free’ to work as they see fit, most professionals have let work surreptitiously invade every part of their lives. As companies try to become more efficient – in other words to make do with fewer people – the average office worker’s workload has become heavier and their days more stressful, the authors suggest. In short, flexibility has come with more work, less job security and fewer worker protections. As David Weil, a professor of economics at Brown University, has explained, the ‘fissured workplace’ means more freelancers and contractors, but fewer supports in the form of healthcare and pensions.

With less job security, workers feel more pressure to always increase their performance and work more. “Enter: productivity culture. Productivity culture is rooted in the performance of work: making a to-do list and crossing items off it, achieving inbox-zero, writing and sending memos, or holding meetings, or completing tasks that transmute the intangible products of knowledge work into something tangible,” Petersen and Warzel write. “Some of this serves a purpose, some of it stinks of desperation, but all of it offers the worker the feeling that they’re productive.” Instead of being productive to gain leisure and more time to rest, most flexible workers end up working all the time.

For Petersen and Warzel, this kind of flexibility may cause workers to struggle and communities to disintegrate. So it’s in the interests of companies to make work more sustainable. In concrete terms, this means hiring enough people so that at any given time a few members of the team are allowed to be sick, on parental leave or on holiday without the rest of the team suffering an unmanageable workload. It means synchronous work (primarily meetings) should be reduced to a minimum and involve as few people as possible. And it involves ending the confusion between actual work and mere busyness with better ways to evaluate work.

Last but not least, sustainable flexibility also means management should implement guards to protect workers’ free time and rest. This can take the shape of a four-day week: “The real innovation of the four-day week, like other flexible intentional schedules, is the conscious exchange of faux productivity for genuine, organization-wide, collaborative work.” In any case, the authors suggest that individual boundaries — that are too easily dissolved — are not enough. Structural guards are necessary. At work, there’s an asymmetry of power between employers and employees, which makes it very hard for employees to maintain their work-life boundaries if their workplace culture is toxic.

An outdated company culture

The authors of Out of Office define company culture as “the actions companies and their leaders take — coupled with the stories they recount or invent.” They believe these actions and stories usually become the framework for a given company’s definition and organization of work. They are therefore essential. Alas, there’s often a disconnect between the stories and the actions, in other words between what leaders say they believe in and what they actually do in practice. That’s why “actual corporate culture is the ineffable feeling you get working at a place.” There are not a lot of examples of virtuous company cultures where employee interests align with corporate interests, according to Petersen and Warzel.

Going hybrid does not fix a culture that’s toxic to begin with. However, when designed with intention and care, the move can be a driver of positive transformation. But to achieve that, successful corporate cultures need to avoid increasing the surveillance of their remote workers. Few cultures manage to do away with the legacy of Taylorism and scientific management. (Taylorism is a factory management system developed in the late 19th century to increase efficiency and breaking down production into specialized repetitive tasks.) “This supercharged form of management gave supervisors the tools to obsessively surveil and quantify their employees’ every move…,” according to the book.

Petersen and Warzel write that American corporate culture remains heavily influenced by the post-war ideal of the organization man, a white married man whose wife handles everything domestic on his behalf and helps cultivate his work relations outside of work: “Early suburbs were quite literally built to accommodate and incubate organization men, their families, and their social lives, which became appendages of the company.” The world of work has changed enormously since the post-war boom years and the reign of organization men, but companies’ cultural expectations of their employees are still molded by that legacy. This makes many cultures less welcoming to women who act as carers and non-white people with other constraints.

Startup culture is a case in point. On the surface, it differs vastly from the old corporate culture: startups value creativity, individualism, and entrepreneurship in order to disrupt or transform old models. But in reality these companies expect total devotion from their employees just like the “organization man” corporations did. Framed in utopian or religious language, their mission demands that workers sacrifice their free time completely. As a result, American workers “work more hours than the average laborer in any peer nation.”

What would a healthy flexible culture look like? It’s a culture that establishes reasonable expectations. And it is one that promotes and nourishes a diversity of points of view and backgrounds. For example, it makes work compatible with parenthood and promotes parents and non-parents alike. Companies should “kill the monoculture,” Petersen and Warzel insist. “The word ‘monoculture’ comes from the agriculture world, where it is used to describe growing or raising one specific type of crop or animal. Businesses don’t grow crops, but they do yield workers; every organization knowingly and unknowingly creates conditions in which a certain type of worker will thrive . . . years of monoculture eventually suck all the nutrients from the soil.”

New technologies, new problems

We turn to technologies for solutions to the problems we face at work. If only we had the right tools, we’d be more productive and find a better work-life balance, wouldn’t we? Not really, because as work technologies solve some problems, they have a tendency to create new ones in the process. “We’ve become so obsessed with our own techno-utopian visions — the open office, the paperless office, the remote office — but have rarely taken the time to find the right, winding road that will actually make them a reality,” the authors explain. “That’s why the history of the office is essentially one long game of tech and design whack-a-mole: you can deal with one problem, but then a set of new, equally stubborn problems pop up in its place.”

One good example of this whack-a-mole phenomenon is communication technologies. Collaborative tools such as Slack and Teams were originally designed to solve the problem of too many emails. But they ended up adding another layer of pressure on workers expected to be ever more responsive online. They ended up increasing the overall number of messages and information the average office worker is supposed to deal with on a given day. The “utopian promises” of tech tend to clash with its “dystopian perils.” In the end, technology isn’t the issue: “There is no one office design, no single technical innovation, that can fix the social problem of the way we’ve arranged office work.”

Without guards and conscious efforts to protect employees’ work-life balance and mental health, no technology will solve the problem of overwork, precariousness or burnout. “It is always, ‘You figured out how to do your tasks more efficiently, so you must do more tasks, for the same pay.” Social problems can’t be solved with just a little bit of coding. “They require collective action across many fronts,” Petersen and Warzel argue.

Is it time to rethink productivity?

As work became more and more all-consuming, a lot of the institutions and communities that used to be central in our lives started to wane: churches and unions are now mere shadows of their former selves. In many ways we’ve let our communities suffer as a result of letting work become the primary source of our identities and social lives. “It should cease to be the primary source of friendship, or personal worth or community.” Our obsession with productivity has “distracted us from systemic inequalities” and the importance of community.

“If we shift our focus from relentless productivity, we may collectively rethink our societal metrics for success.” Ultimately work is a collective issue. It requires infrastructures and a network of care workers such as childcare professionals to look after the workers’ children while they toil away from home or at home. For too long we’ve let productivity be framed as an individual’s challenge rather than a collective effort meant to strengthen our communities.

The rapid changes the world of work has undergone over the past few years should be an opportunity to rethink the place of work in our lives and reconsider the way it’s organized, shared and valued. In and of itself, flexible work isn’t a silver bullet but we should see it as a fantastic opportunity to make a new step in the right direction.