EDo you wonder why, with every new so-called productivity enhancing technology we adopt, we end up with more, not less work? Slack was supposed to get rid of emails – only now do we find the time to send emails and reply to our colleagues on Slack. Email was supposed to free us from reading long paper documents every day, but now we email ourselves the PDFs at home to read them in the quiet hours after work. What about smart phones? Don’t even get me started. Many of us find ourselves answering our bosses on the bus, while making our children sleep, or even, God forbid, on the toilet.
Out of Office, a new book by journalists Charlie Wartzel and Anne Helen Petersen, explores why the culture of productivity has been so successful in making us work more, not less. And with millions of people leaving their jobs or having to work from home, they ask how we can capitalize on this moment for the good of the workers, not our bosses.
I spoke to Warzel and Petersen – what else? – Zoom the week of their book launch.
Everyone seems very fed up with their jobs right now. Why do you think it is?
Charlie Warzel: For years, knowledge workers have wanted flexibility in their work. And their bosses have told them that offices are that nucleus of productivity that holds the fabric of our organization together.
And then the pandemic arrives, we are all forced into this experience, and productivity doesn’t suffer – workers do. And I think there’s this awareness, “Okay, so if that was bullshit, what is bullshit in this arrangement?” “
Anne-Hélène Petersen: All these people who resign, what is it if not a general strike? People are rallying to say: we will no longer work as waitresses for this salary. We will not work as educators for this kind of treatment. There is something more to life than my ability to respond to emails. If people can harness this energy, it could change the way work goes.
I loved the part of the book where you talk about how many hours people actually work at their main job.
CW: It was a wild thing. We weren’t the type to “admit how much you actually work”. And yet, somewhere in the survey, 80% of people were like, “I just have to tell you that I only do real work three hours a week, like when my kids go to bed on Thursday nights”, or ” Oh, shit, I haven’t done anything this week.
This book came at a very boring time for me, as I was reading it during an unusually busy work week. I was like, “Yes! I will rethink my life! But then I was like, “Oh wait, I need the money.
AHP: Ideally, we always get the money. But how can you figure out how to work less while still making sure you do [what’s required of you]? I think that it is possible. If you can find the balance so that when you’re working the job is great and when you’re not working you aren’t thinking about your job all the time.
Do you think that’s possible for someone who earns minimum wage?
AHP: The fetishization of work is a very bourgeois thing. Office workers misunderstand each other as workers. [Their work] is an expression of self, instead of the work they do. While other jobs have something that says, “This is the number of hours I work per day. And when I’m done, I’m done. When I was a nanny there was no way for me to think of being a better nanny, I could have gone to class but that wouldn’t have had any influence on my salary amount after my job was finished.
Come to think of it … a lot of times when I tried to work less, I felt like I didn’t have a personality anymore.
AHP: We – especially millennials – are invested in school, work, success – if you take some of those parts of who you are, what’s left?
CW: It’s like, really traumatic, this self-audit. When I started doing it, I thought to myself: I am one of the luckiest people! I have a job that I love, I succeed in it, I climb the ranks of my career. And yet in the heart [I’m] pretty miserable. But when I really started to take inventory of [my work life balance], it was deeply moving. I didn’t know what my hobbies were. I realized I was a bit like a robot ladder climber.
Well yes! Even when I try to work less, I spend most of my time thinking on how I’m going to be a better worker. What time will I go to bed to be fresh for work? Should I have a drink the day before work? Should I go for a run to be clearer for work?
AHP: It’s a perfect example of work being the main focus of your life, isn’t it? All the decisions are made so you can be better at work. When you take the focus off the job, you can say, “Okay, I’m not drinking tonight because I just want to feel good.
You have a section in the book on how companies give us “wellness activities” instead of time off, and that made me laugh. I’m at a friend’s house right now, and she’s working non-stop; she has a very demanding job in the banking sector. I walked into the kitchen earlier and she took out her headphones and told me she couldn’t speak because she was doing a corporate wellness exercise – she was meditating on a screen she was already watching for 12 hours.
AHP: Totally, this is the worst example of companies trying to give lip service to balancing these programs: the best way to promote well-being in your organization is to encourage people not to work, but it is is contrary to capitalist ethics.
Are you happy now that you both have an off-center job in your life?
CW: I find it very similar to going to therapy or exercising: there isn’t a day when someone says, “,
I have weeks where I fall back into my old work habits, where work is the only way I can feel worthy or valued; I slip back into the warm security blanket to let work define me. This deprogramming takes a long time. I’m happier, but I don’t want it to sound like a fairy tale. Like everything, you’re going to have good days and bad days.
You say we are at a crossroads. If we go one way, the pandemic and the shift to working from home for some people will provide an opportunity to work 12 hours a day under increasing scrutiny. Or we have a chance to change our report to work. How do you go about choosing the latter?
AHP: The institutions will be really reluctant to change their way of doing things. If so – if all the signs are showing that you are succeeding in this organization by exhausting yourself and breaking down all kinds of boundaries between life and work – quit this organization. Start looking for another job now because the relationship is broken.
CW: But I also think it’s exciting – I spoke to an HR consultant who is trying to diagnose toxic corporate cultures. And they said the one constant in all industries right now is that they are panicking. The superiors are scrambling – they don’t want these massive resignations. I think we’re starting to see glimmers of worker power in ways we didn’t have before.
And they don’t seem to be just office workers either – the hospitality industry is quitting in droves; teachers drop out; nurses quit.
CW: It’s more important than working remotely. It is this type of calculation that is happening everywhere. It’s the conceptualization of what these jobs should mean to us, and what we need [our bosses] and what they owe us.
I bet a lot of people tell you, “You have a Substack newsletter, you wrote a book together, Anne recently published a seven part article series in Vox. You are still working!
AHP: It’s a bad time, isn’t it? Because we do all this press for work. So we work all the time.
CW: The difference for me is that before, I spent so much time working in a performative way. Often times, I had nothing to do between three and six o’clock when I left the office, and I would just sit and send emails to make people feel like I was working, causing other work to be done. ‘others. Go out to the people and have meetings on things that weren’t meetings. I don’t do that anymore.