Two months ago, I met colleagues for lunch. It felt unsettlingly like a first date.
I picked out my outfit. I put on makeup. I excitedly set out to get on the Tube. One of the colleagues, a new executive, was someone I had spoken with many times but had never met in person. I was going to get to find out what kind of shoes he liked, how tall he was, and whether he was a coffee or a tea person. None of the things the three of us were doing--meeting outdoors, in a group of fewer than six, to discuss business--contravened any of the restrictions in place in London at the time. But it had the buzz that only comes when something is forbidden.
We sat on a terrace at a nondescript Mediterrranean restaurant, picked over halloumi and seafood pasta, and talked about financial plans for 2021. And when we had moved on to espresso and were about to say our goodbyes, my CEO suddenly exclaimed: “Wow. This was great.”
We all nodded in agreement. It was great. And while business lunches have always felt indulgent to me on some level (blame an upbringing in a Protestant American household where fretting about money was constant), the indulgence this time went beyond the financial. Were we supposed to feel this satisfied by a discussion that could easily have taken place over Zoom?
Covid has reminded me that many of the big societal changes of the past can be thought of as decouplings. The telegraph and the telephone decoupled one-to-one communication from physical closeness on a mass scale. The internet enabled mass publishing and thus separated governments and media owners from control over information. And Covid’s biggest decoupling to date may be the separation of the performance of office work from physical office space, and from the human interaction that comes with it.
It is this decoupling, this seismic shift, that has us reeling. And people who are reeling look for whatever means they have to glue the earth under their feet back together.
Enter the productivity commentators. In July, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and others published "The Implications of Working Without an Office" ‘The Implications of Working Without an Office’, which detailed the results of their 600-person survey of US white-collar workers. Their aim: to answer the question ‘What impact has working from home had on productivity and creativity?’ Their conclusion: ‘Virtual work has been a success’, because workers self-report that they are just as productive at home as they were from the office.
The list of remote work side effects they cite from academic literature, however, reads like the list of disclaimers in an ad for an ‘otherwise 100% effective’ weight-loss supplement. Long workdays, less small talk, difficulties onboarding new employees. Finally, Bernstein et al note that ‘Virtual work makes it difficult, if not impossible…[to] foster the creation of relationships among pools of talent that are likely to produce benefits for the organisation in the future.’
What are these benefits? Whom do they benefit? It’s not clear, but to me, the underlying feeling is. I can’t help but think that Bernstein wanted to defend the coffee run, the work pub outing, the ‘wow-this-was-great factor’ of personal relationships with colleagues. He just couldn’t find the right metric.
Why did he fail? I’d suggest that our attachment to productivity as the ultimate goal of any workplace policy will be our undoing if we want to make office work fit for human beings in a post-Covid world.
And this attachment is a consequence of our need to believe that work is a fully rational sphere of human life.
I’ve written before in these pages about my dissent from the concept of work as ‘Rationalityland’, that beautiful place where workers check their messy human emotions at the door and put on a magic uniform that turns them into makers of profit-maximising decisions, whose productivity can be dialed up or down by management policies.
Covid is mounting yet another assault on the Rationalityland idea by suggesting that we may, in fact, need each other at work. And we may be making work decisions based on that need.
Long before Covid, Arlie Hochschild (famous for her idea of the ‘second shift’ that working mothers take on) drew similar conclusions in her book The Time Bind. She argued that the distinctions between work and home are much blurrier than many of us would like to believe, and that the same motivations that surface in our personal relationships--primarily a need to be loved, valued, and connected to others--are present in the office as well.
Hochschild spent three summers at an unnamed Fortune 500 company in the midwestern US, interviewing both blue-collar and white-collar workers about the relationship between their jobs and their lives. A persistent theme among the male executives Hochschild spoke with was the sense that home was a place where they often felt lost and useless. In the office, by contrast, they could be valued and useful. One executive who cherished his relationships with the people (predominantly men) who worked for him, ‘was a better father at work than he had been at home...it was simply more satisfying being a Dad [t]here than anywhere else.’
As I read these words, I flashed back to an interview I gave to a candidate for an executive role in my company a few months ago. He was in his office, he said, along with only two others in an office of 70. Why did he come in, I asked? ‘It’s better here,’ he responded. ‘I get to leave a house full of kids in the morning and come here for some peace and quiet, where I can really get things done.’
Work can be a refuge, a place to escape to, but also a place to create a new identity altogether. An executive at one of my previous companies was a bolt of energy in the office, taking up the air and space in whichever room he occupied. Yet his voice dissolved into a sweet softness whenever his wife called. At the time I assumed his office incarnation was the ‘real’ him, and his phone persona was a coat he put on. In hindsight, it couldn’t have been that simple. All of us need spaces to try on different ideas of who we could be, to conjure up our lion as well as our mouse. New spaces, and new people, give us new freedoms.
These freedoms can be seductive enough to open us up to exploitation. In one household in The Time Bind, where both parents (a man and a woman) worked shifts at a factory, both cherished their time at work as a refuge of sanity, where they could nurture adult friendships away from the chaos wrought by small children. Work was an escape from a difficult personal life, and this drove both parents to work overtime shifts that made little financial sense. ‘It made me wonder,’ said Hochschild, ‘how many other people were...asking themselves why their lives are the way they are, never quite grasping the link between their desire to escape and a company’s desire for profit.’
It’s these breakdowns in economic logic that reveal to us how powerful the hidden functions of work really are, and how important it is that we allow ourselves to acknowledge their existence. Work, for many (I would propose all) of us, gives us a sphere in which we can meet our own emotional needs through the relationships we develop with the people who work beside us. We are often unaware of why we are doing this, or even that we are doing it at all. Nevertheless, these needs are the glue that binds many of us to our jobs in ways that money fails to explain.
The colleague who became a friend. The colleague who became more than a friend. The office retreat, the karaoke party, and the stories that turn into folklore. The mentoring of a young analyst who reminds you of yourself at their age. The “work wife”. All of us have had them. All of us have let messy human relationships breathe down the neck of our neat office lives, and have made those office lives richer and deeper in the process.
So when a pandemic comes along and decouples work from in-person social relationships, what happens? Our glue dries up. And we may find ourselves blown away by the slightest breeze.
As I write this, my office has been effectively shut for more than three months, after a brief reopening in the summer. London is in lockdown for the third time, and no one has any illusions about the doors opening again before Easter.
It’s not been a happy time, to put it mildly. I’m struggling with the monotony, in which one Zoom meeting blends into the next, and hours of Zoom meetings blend into days that pass with scant punctuation from coffee breaks, lunch runs, and team dinners. Sometimes it feels like the glue between me and the point of my job is crumbling.
For a while, that was a feeling I kept to myself. Maybe I was the defective one, deficient in my inability to find joy in overseeing virtual advisory boards and building slide decks about virtual strategy shifts. Then a few weeks ago, a furtive confession came from a hard-working (not to mention high-ranking) colleague: he felt it too.
Are we alone? Maybe. But I doubt it. We’re productive, but unhappy. Which accounting system can quantify that?
If our jobs lose their hidden functions as places of refuge, where we can connect with, value, and love each other, the question to ask will not be ‘How much productivity will be lost?’ It will be ‘How will it be possible for us to flourish at work?’
I fear that we won’t be able to answer this question until we can look it in the face and admit its importance. If the office ceases to be able to provide human connection, other institutions will spring up to do just that, and they will likely look more like cults than kibbutzim.
So we, the office workers of the world, have some digging to do. Our office selves have spent 2020 in hibernation--still alive, but only just. As 2021 arrives and the post-Covid era dawns, we should wake them up and bring them back into the light of day. Our productivity may not depend on it, but our happiness does.
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Emily is a London-based author. She is currently Chief of Staff at Eigen Technologies, a startup focused on machine learning software.
Originally from Boise, Idaho, Emily has worked in the United States, the United Kingdom and France. She holds degrees in biology and English from Stanford University and a Master's degree in English from Oxford University. Her writings have been published in the journal The American Scholar.