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2 March 2022

How we fell out of love with work

From the virtual office to the “Great Resignation”, the pandemic has transformed our attitudes to making a living.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

There’s something telling about the defining political scandal of the moment being centred on office parties. Not sexed-up dossiers or state secrets. But wine fridges, email invites and Abba singalongs. The Downing Street drama not only confirms long-held doubts about our Prime Minister, but about the nature of the 21st-century workplace, with its uncomfortable elisions of work and play, business and friendship. Boris Johnson’s office is not the only one with a toxic culture flowing from the top, an inscrutable command structure, physical premises woefully ill-suited to its purpose, an expectation that workers are not just doing it for the money but also, to some extent, the Colin the Caterpillar cakes, and a boss happy to blame underlings when things go wrong. If No 10 is our nation’s pre-eminent workplace, what does that say about the way we work?

The workplace has long been a source of fascination and horror (as well as comedy), from Ricky Gervais’s sitcom The Office and Joshua Ferris’s novel And Then We Came to the End to the sclerotic boardrooms of Succession and the grinding purposelessness described in the late David Graeber’s polemic, Bullshit Jobs. For most of us, work is the place where we spend the majority of our waking hours, form some of our most significant relationships, and gain much of our self-worth. But there’s a growing feeling among both employers and employees that something has gone seriously wrong.

“Our relationship to work is broken” is how Anne-Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel – a married couple – put it in Out of Office, one of a spate of recent books arguing for a fundamental reappraisal of our working lives. “Our attitudes are toxic, our demands on individuals too great [and] work’s rewards are not commensurate with the time spent.” Hence, surely, the comparatively recent drive to make work feel collegial, friendly, fun. A regime of Friday beers and birthday cakes is far cheaper to implement than one in which workers are properly compensated.

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Anna Della Subin, Roopa Farooki, Mark Hodkinson and Ayanna Lloyd Banwo]

A reassessment is looming – if not already under way. Amid reports of a “Great Resignation” prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, there are countless individual tales of city workers who can face the commute no longer, nurses who don’t want to do it any more – or can’t afford to, on salaries that have been falling in real terms since 2010 – and bosses dismayed to discover that their employees were only pretending to like them so they could get a raise.

In The Nowhere Office, Julia Hobsbawm calls this moment the largest disruption since the Second World War – as well as an opportunity, at once “exciting and uncomfortable”. But although the pandemic has brought many of these work issues to a head, we were hardly in utopia beforehand. The crash of 2008 caused waves of redundancies, resignations and reappraisals and in recent years workplace hierarchies have come under increased scrutiny from the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and a resurgent left.

A deeper disquiet has been building since at least the early 1980s: wages have stagnated, union power has declined, Britain and America have accelerated their transitions from manufacturing to service economies, and new communications technologies mean your boss can now tweet you on a Sunday. Most of us are feeling burnt out. As with the Downing Street parties and Johnson’s character, the pandemic hasn’t told us anything brand new so much as highlighted dysfunction with a huge red flashing light and screeching alarm bells – the kind it’s best not to ignore.

Hobsbawm is a creature of the “thought-leader” circuit and her book is a plea to the LinkedIn class – who she feels need a good talking to. She reminds them that half of America’s jobs are projected to be freelance by 2030. The ideal manager will therefore be “a mobile, skilled, socially adept and agile worker, who can flit across time zones and office spaces, work seamlessly online and in person”. They listen to their workers’ individual needs and trust them to perform their roles. “The old model of the top-down manager has gone and instead their role is far more complex,” she insists. It sounds exhausting.

Hobsbawm takes aim at many of the corrosive practices that have seeped into the modern workplace, usually from Silicon Valley, such as “zero drag hiring” (favouring employees without familial responsibilities) empty well-being initiatives (ping-pong tables, massages at your desk) and being “violently busy” all the time. She also has little good to say about the old culture of presenteeism, which the pandemic has largely shown to be out-dated anyway: many workers forced to work from home proved more productive when they cut out the commute, the office politics, and so on. What’s more, they liked it – or aspects of it. Hobsbawm quotes a survey from last summer that found just 17 per cent of City workers said they wanted to return to full-time work.

Instead, Hobsbawm believes the office should become “a space redesigned for social use first, with at-desk work a distinct second”. She likens it to a parental home – a place you might return to on special occasions to catch up with your modern, blended family. The new model worker will be “very much like the stepchild or the child with new siblings. They will adapt and adjust accordingly.”

But Hobsbawm doesn’t want to give bosses too much of a shaking, as it turns out. In a long section about what the modern worker wants, she writes: “In terms of design itself, modelling office spaces as a cross between an airline lounge and a private members’ club is a good place to start…” “PAY?” I wrote in the margin, and then repeatedly throughout the book: “HOW ABOUT: BETTER PAY?” Hobsbawm is more interested in better coffee.

It’s one of several ways in which the book suffers from a lack of engagement with the real lives of the modern “hybrid” worker. She anticipates that the shift to the “nowhere office” will mean work happens in a “placeless, timeless” dimension. But as a freelancer – sorry, “solopreneur” – I can’t help noticing that this “placeless, timeless” dimension is usually my kitchen table at 9.12pm after the children are safely in bed. Also: as an actual grown-up stepchild, the thought of work as some sort of extended stepfamily fills me with terror.

[See also: Morality after the Bomb]

Hobsbawm seems especially out of her depth on identity politics: if I follow her correctly, she is suggesting that in the “nowhere office”, issues concerning race, gender and sexual orientation will become secondary to the “new identity culture” that will be fostered among workers. But above all, her book suffers from her seeming to regard workers as mysterious creatures with inscrutable desires. At one point she quotes the historian Eliza Filby: “Rising individualism since the 1980s has precipitated a shift from loyalty to the firm to loyalty to yourself and your individual path. Purpose and fulfilment at work has become the ultimate goal.”

I’m not so sure. Does a worker in an Amazon warehouse seek purpose or fulfilment at work as their ultimate goal (leaving aside the insidious irony that Amazon calls its warehouses “fulfilment centres”)? It is, of course, overwhelmingly white-collar professionals who have benefited from the working-from-home revolution. Blue-collar service workers are more likely to have been furloughed or laid off.

And for those of us lucky (?) enough to work in the knowledge economy: are we really responsible for driving this change? In the last 40 or so years we have lived in an age of management consultants, outsourcing, disruption, wage stagnation, and constant lay-offs. Perhaps workers have realised that our security, well-being and even safety are very far from being the “ultimate goal” of our paymasters. Profit is. That’s why share prices tend to go up when companies fire staff – as indeed happened in many firms during the pandemic.

If Hobsbawm’s book is a panicky attempt to smooth over employer-employee relations (many corporations are now rushing to offer employees fertility treatments, sabbaticals, generous parental leave), Sarah Jaffe sees everything through the prism of class struggle. A freelance reporter specialising in the labour market, she resembles the solopreneur conjured by Hobsbawm: “I am the poster child for work in today’s economy,” she writes. “I’m flexible, working on the fly from a laptop in coffee shops around the country and occasionally the world.” And yet, she is exhausted. She is, moreover, deeply committed to the sort of collective action that a scattered workforce was supposed to have rendered obsolete.

Hobsbawm doesn’t reject trade unions, exactly, but she finds them slow and cumbersome and would like them to be a bit more like Soho House. Jaffe seems never to have encountered a strike or a union that she hasn’t wanted to join. She is also deeply suspicious of coffee, quoting British left-wing activist and podcaster, Nadia Idle: “I don’t want to ‘catch up for a coffee’ with anyone any more… I’m not interested in this minute City, neoliberal, forced way of interacting with others in some kind of transaction where you catch up with people who you’ve not seen for eight weeks because everything’s so expensive and you don’t have any time.”

Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back is a study of modern employment trends that reads like a cross between a PhD thesis, a 19th-century novel about the working poor and a dating manual (which could be titled: “Work’s Just Not That Into You”). Through a series of case studies of American and British “labourers of love” – a teacher, an artist, a woman who works in an abortion clinic, etc – Jaffe investigates the origins of the idea of work as a calling, ie something you do for “self-actualisation” as opposed to mere pay.

[See also: Andrea Elliott’s story of American poverty is non-fiction writing at its best]

This idea is a feature of the creative and the care sectors, which have become ever-more important parts of the labour market as Britain and the US have outsourced manufacturing jobs. No one expects a factory worker to build a car out of love but, as Jaffe points out, society guilt-tripped nurses and teachers to work without adequate protective equipment during the pandemic.

She presents a litany of tales of exploitation and abuse, from the video game designer who has fallen victim to the “crunch” (hours and hours of unpaid overtime) to the nanny forced to put the welfare of her charges above that of her own children. Jaffe is particularly astute on unpaid internships – or “hope labour” as she calls it – which drive down wages, entrench class divisions and turn a job into an exalted, elusive object to be “lusted after, dreamed of”. Overall, it forms a gruesome picture of a deliberately atomised workforce whose members are on the one hand encouraged to see one another as rivals in a zero-sum game, and on the other are supposed to be members of the same cosy corporate family. One video games company goes so far as to call itself a “fampany”.

In Out of Office, Petersen and Warzel take explicit aim at the idea of work as family. Family relationships can be warm and “familial”, sure. But “[they] can just as easily be manipulative, passive-aggressive, and endlessly confusing. Family members can be racist, exploitative, sexist, transphobic, and emotionally abusive, but because they’re family, it’s often considered impolite, or uncivil, to confront them about the very real injuries they do to others.”

[See also: The politics of working out]

Petersen and Warzel both formerly worked in a New York media start-up offering a range of perks (Thursday afternoon beers, free pizza) which they now recognise as lures to keep everyone in the office. Even office friendships, they warn, can act as “Trojan horses”, allowing work to bleed into our home lives. They have since relocated to rural Montana with the aim of diminishing the importance of work to their lives and sense of self. Their book offers straight-talking, accessible self-help for those who wish to do something similar.

One of the problems with this is that you still need to earn a living – even in Montana. But the authors are cautiously optimistic about the opportunities created by remote working, while mindful that the pandemic was a “nightmare scenario” that capitalised on the total collapse of work-life balance. “You weren’t working from home. You were labouring in confinement and under duress.” Nor did it help with the “performative” work culture of “faux-productivity” that traps everyone in a cycle of overwork. Every email you send, every Zoom meeting you set up creates work for someone else.

Their solution to this is “guardrails” which cordon off time and responsibilities: “Boundaries are personal. But guardrails are structural.” And they are partly persuaded by the promise of virtual offices after strolling around a Minecraft-esque platform for “spatial conversations”. Created by a teenage programmer for his uncle’s company, Branch, it replicates the murmurs, whispers and laughter of colleagues’ conversations through something called “proximity-based audio”.

Warzel and Petersen are surprised to find this experience “a bit profound” and are hopeful that remote working can break down white, male corporate monocultures by shifting the power within companies. “I’ve long been a believer that professionalism is just a synonym for obedience,” one black female interviewee tells them. They also discover that virtual workplaces can benefit more “cognitively diverse” employees. They visit Ultranauts, a remote engineering firm where 75 per cent of the workforce is neurodivergent (mostly on the autism spectrum). The company says its staff work best when decision-making at all levels is explicit and transparent.

But Warzel and Petersen are most stirring in their analysis of how work culture has colonised every area of our lives – including our friendships and hobbies. We should cultivate hobbies not as prospective side-hustles but for pleasure and to help us form an identity that isn’t based on work. “Who would you be if work ceased to be the axis of your life?” they ask. “How would the relationship with your close friends and family change, and what role would you serve within your community at large? Whom would you support, how would you interact with the world, and what would you fight for?”

[See also: Pankaj Mishra’s divided self]

For Jaffe, the answer is relatively straightforward: join a union. It is a way of improving your own situation and of lifting up those around you. But she too strikes an existential note. Beyond an overhaul of labour laws, what we need is a new politics of time. “A political understanding that our lives are ours to do with what we will.” I agree with many of her suggestions while finding some of her claims unconvincing, such as: “the work itself only matters as a way to connect”.

Work can be satisfying. Part of the problem, surely, is that so much of modern work culture isn’t really about doing work. It’s about networking, gossiping, flattering, jostling, attending meetings, marketing yourself so you might be given more work. One of the reasons that home-working has been an improvement for many people is that it is a chance to get on with the job.

But it’s Jaffe’s laser focus on pay and conditions (and Hobsbawm’s evasiveness on these issues) that’s most telling. Remember the recent plea to workers from the governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, not to ask for too much extra cash? Call me old-fashioned, but my suspicion is that wage increases would do more to make workers feel valued and secure than any amount of coffee or networking. Real wages quadrupled in Britain between 1945 and 2002. Since then, wage growth has slowed and declined – notwithstanding a modest post-pandemic boost. Meanwhile, executive pay has soared.

The Nowhere Office
Julia Hobsbawm
Basic Books, 208pp, £18.99

Work Won’t Love You Back
Sarah Jaffe
Hurst, 400pp, £11.99

Out of Office
Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel
Scribe, 272pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times