Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen on why we need to rethink the role of work in our lives.
It’s hard to track all the ways this pandemic has upended “normal” life, but surely one of the most significant changes has been how and where, and even when, we work.
You might call the last year or so a remote work revolution, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, remote work wasn’t an option for most of the country. But even for the fortunate people who were able to work from home, what they were doing wasn’t really working. It’s more like a panicked compromise forged under the chaos of a national emergency.
But as we inch our way toward the other side of this pandemic — or at least the closest we’ll get to the other side of it — we have an opportunity to rethink our broken relationship to work. The pandemic was an inflection point, and what happens or doesn’t happen next is up to us.
This is the case that Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen make in their new book, called Out of Office, and it’s the best thing I’ve read so far on this topic. In truth, the book isn’t really about remote work — it’s about work. And not just what it has meant and could mean, but also why the status quo isn’t sustainable, for anyone.
I reached out to Petersen and Warzel for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. We talk about the world they hope we build, a world in which our jobs don’t trump everything else in our lives, where we think differently about our own labor and the ways we advocate for others, and where, in their words, “We don’t work from home because work is what matters most. We work from home to free ourselves to focus on what actually does.”
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
It’s fair to say we’ve done a very bad job in this country of imposing boundaries around work and life. When you two look around the world, do you see better models of work-life balance?
I’ll let Annie talk a little bit about the boundaries thing, because she came up with a really great framework for this. The one thing I’ll say is that yes, a lot of the erosion of any work-life balance is, it’s so thoroughly embedded in American culture that it’s not just that we have a hard time maintaining it, or we don’t do a particularly good job of educating people about it; it’s that we value and celebrate the opposite of it. We value and celebrate the complete destruction of it.
People set expectations about when to work and how much to work and when to be in touch. And if you violate those standards or those expectations, it’s not seen as something to have a conversation with your boss about and say, like, “Hey, you’re really not sticking to the plan here.” It’s celebrated. And it’s like, “Well, why can’t you be a little more like so-and-so? They work on Sundays.” Even though the expectation is you’re not in the office, you’re not working those days.
Anne Helen Petersen
I’d say that I’ve been thinking a lot about how the American work ethic is a fetishism of work, the process of work, and not of the worker. The worker is kind of collateral damage in that understanding. And within that framework, within that understanding, it can’t be contingent upon the individual to try to change that. An individual cannot protect themselves from this larger ideological force, which is that better work is always more work.
And so the thing that I’ve thought a lot about is that instead of using this language of boundaries, because boundaries are the responsibility of the individual, they are always violated. And when they are violated, it is your fault as an individual for not maintaining them. Instead, we could think of guardrails. Out here in the West where we live, you have these guardrails on the mountain passes, which are maintained by the government, by a larger entity. And they are there to protect everyone. We all pay into them through taxes to protect everyone.
And I’m not saying that federally mandated work hours, or understanding of what good work is, has to look like that. That does not necessarily have to be the solution. In the book there’s some interesting case studies in other countries, where they have attempted to mandate no email after certain work hours and that sort of thing. And they failed, because they haven’t been robust enough to grapple with the realities of global capitalism. If you say, in France, you cannot email after 5 pm, there will be corporations, global corporations, that are always figuring out exceptions to this. People will just violate it.
So at least for the time being, until labor legislation catches up to the current reality of work — which I think is a major and an important goal moving forward — companies, if they do say that they want to value work-life balance, or say that they want their workers to not burn out, to be sustainable, they have to maintain standards of what good work looks like; these guardrails.
And so that looks like, “In our company, we do not correspond after 8 pm.” If you are a person who really does good work at night and that’s how you have arranged your flexible work schedule, great. But you do not send that email. You delay send, which is not a hard thing. You delay send that message, that email, whatever it is, until the morning, until standard working hours. And most importantly, if you violate that standard, that guardrail, it becomes something that is actually a problem, not a low-key way to garner praise.
We have a vision of work in this country as the primary source of identity and status and, as you put in the book, “the primary organizing factor in our lives.” You argue that we have to overturn that. What does work look like, once it’s been decentered in the way you two think it should be?
So there’s this really interesting company called Gumroad. And it’s a platform for creators, essentially. And they went through this whole reorganization and had to change the way that their company works. And now they don’t have any employees except for the founder. Everyone’s a contractor. And what’s fascinating is the ethos of the company is “You don’t owe us anything but the work. You come in and you do this thing. We are not going to be friends. We’re not going to talk.” It’s extremely transactional, in a way that’s almost kind of cold and in that calculated tech way.
I’m not saying this is a sustainable model for pretty much anyone, or the way the company should be run, but what’s so refreshing about it is this idea of being transactional with your company. You do a job for us, we give you money or some kind of benefits. And we get the labor that we paid for in return. There’s not going to be any of this extraneous guilt or commitment or whatever.
And I think that it’s too extreme, but there’s something about the transactional nature of that, that is really refreshing and very helpful. And I think far less toxic than the “we are a family” ethos. Because families, as we all know, have their own problems and have their own toxic relationships that develop. And again, things like guilt. And I think that the way that we work has sort of adapted and had a lot of that kind of stuff glommed onto it.
I think that a decentered working relationship is not completely cold, and there can be some personal relationship qualities to it. But at the end of the day, it’s a transaction. You are doing a job for some people, and the transaction comes to an end at some point, and you’ve fulfilled what you need to do for that amount of time.
So a decentered environment means that we’re not telling people that they have to labor in this job and also get all of their social interactions out of their job. That you don’t have to be friends with everyone in your company. And it really demarcates your life outside of work from your life inside it. And that allows you then, once you have more of a clear boundary and clear expectations, you can devote more time to what’s outside of it. And you can have a clearer sense of who you are and what you value when you’re not this person.
Anne Helen Petersen
I’ll just say that the greatest trick that offices ever pulled was convincing office workers that they’re not workers. That they aren’t labor. And instead that they’re doing what they love or following a vocation, a calling. And thus that exploitation is not something to be worried about, or to fight back against, or to understand as unacceptable.
I think there are so many conditions that office workers, and I will say nonprofit workers in particular, have come to find acceptable, because they do not think of themselves as labor. And one hope that I have, moving forward, is that office workers should think of ourselves as labor. We should think of ourselves in solidarity with so many other types of labor as well, because it’s good for other laborers who don’t have the privileges of remote work or of being able to labor at the same salaries, but it’s also good for preventing our own exploitation.
This raises the question of what will rise up to fill the void in a world in which work has been decentered. And you have a whole chapter in the book on community, namely the absence of it. And I guess, for me, it’s very hard to imagine a world in which professional identity isn’t the main identity, if we don’t have sources of connection and meaning and solidarity in our communities. That’s a long way of saying that work feels like the only natural ground for identity in a hyper-individualistic society like ours.
I don’t know. I think the thing that we always guard against in this book is being too pie-in-the-sky and understanding that a lot of these things are super entrenched in our culture. But it becomes a self-defeating mindset when you say, “Well, this is how we are.” I do think there’s a huge power in pulling people away for a second, from the way that they did things, and the realization that comes of that.
So using ourselves as an example, using myself as an example, I knew that I worked too much when I lived in New York and was working for BuzzFeed. I knew that work was the central motivating axis, which most of my life completely revolved around. But when I left, when we left and moved to Montana, a month or two in, it became incredibly clear to me just how dominating that was. The fact that I had actually pushed a lot of my relationships out to make room for my work relationships, and then extending those after hours. The people who I worked with — I mean, it’s no coincidence Annie and I met at work.
But our entire lives revolved around that. We went out almost every other night with people, and were we talking about work? Sort of, yes, no. But those are technically billable hours. And I didn’t realize how one-dimensional my life had become. I basically stopped doing things like hobbies. I certainly didn’t interact with my community. Work took up everything.
And then once I was removed from that situation for a little bit, it seemed almost ridiculous. It was like, “How did I not realize this was happening?” And I’m not going to say that I’m some community organization paragon. I still need to work on a lot of this stuff, but the clarity that you get from extricating yourself from that situation, from just trying to decenter work a little bit, I think is super powerful.
Anne Helen Petersen
Most adults that I know that are about my age, so mid- to late 30s, early 40s, find it really, really hard to conceive of taking regular time for anything in their life that isn’t their job or parenting. Even carving out an hour a day, or an hour a week, for something like a hobby — or even more importantly, a commitment to something that is not related to your kid. So not soccer practice, but volunteering at any sort of organization that, again, is not related to parenting. It just feels inconceivable.
I think that we should look at that very seriously, and think about the fact that if the only things that we say are valuable in our lives, through our actions, through the time allocated, are our jobs and our immediate families, we are not investing in our communities. We don’t value the people around us. And you see that reflected in avoidant choices.
This is not an ideology without consequences, but my hope is this is also— we have gone through cycles. There is very good scholarship on this sort of ricocheting back between an individualist ethos and a collectivist ethos, even in the United States, which is so individualistic. There was a peak of collectivist activity [and] ideology first in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and then it declined a bit. And then it went back up leading into World War II and in the postwar period.
And it wasn’t just like, “Oh yeah, let’s rally together around the war.” It was, “We want to be part of things. We want to hang out with other people.” And some of that affinity and joining was of things like the Klan, which are obviously not good sorts of community involvement. But then a lot of it too was just civic organizations broadly. Volunteer organizations, things like the Elks Club, being part of churches. Whatever you think about religious organizations or being religious in your own life, it allowed people to connect with people who weren’t their own immediate families or the people that they worked with.
It’s made me think a little about our community involvement now and how tethered it is to work. A lot of people’s only volunteering happens because, like, JP Morgan has a “let’s go do Habitat for Humanity day,” or a lot of people only do service when they’re in school, in order to earn hours so that it can look good on a college transcript or something like that. It’s all attached to this kind of individualist achievement or being good at your job or checking this box.
And it creates this attitude of service and community involvement to benefit just you. And I think Annie’s right, this is not without consequence. We see it reflected in our politics. We see it reflected in our culture in a really big way, and will working from home change that? No, but will decentering work in our lives potentially change that? Maybe. It’s certainly worth exploring, I think.
Maybe one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it reminded us how much life alone, really truly alone, sucks. And I was glad to see you write about worker solidarity in this book. One worry that I have is that a world of remote work, a world where workers are more separated and cut off, might create even more barriers to labor organization. And I’m curious if there are templates or models for organizing in a world where remote work is more the norm.
All of this stuff is relatively new. Again, some of the organizing we’ve seen in some of the tech companies like Google are templates to some degree for that. There’s a danger to it, obviously — in-person organization work and recruiting into that allows you to have sort of conversations that aren’t totally documented, or they can’t be immediately scooped up by management. Those things are obviously super helpful and if there’s no gathering place, etc., then that can be hard.
But at the same time, part of the reason why we are able to work from anywhere is due to a lot of technological advancements, and a lot of those technological advancements also give people a megaphone and the ability to easily create widely shareable content, to be loud and in people’s faces. So I think that you’ve seen a lot of labor movements recently leveraging those tools to put a lot of pressure on people, on management. And I think that is generally good. And a lot of these technological tools are great for gathering a bunch of people in a room or in an app somewhere. So there’s always going to be this push and pull between surveillance and the ability to organize.
Anne Helen Petersen
I think sometimes we get bogged down in these particulars of, like, “Oh, it’s going to be harder, because we don’t have as strong of ties with individuals,” when the real barrier to organizing is anti-labor legislation. It is the actual policy that is in place. And more importantly — something that you hear labor advocates talk about a lot — the current labor laws have not been updated in any meaningful way to address the fissuring of the economy. The way that most people work today, the way that work seeps into the corners of our lives, but also just the freelancification of work as well. So those, I think, are the much larger goals that we need to be talking about and advocating for, instead of being more concerned about, like, “Oh, if I’m not going to lunch in person every day with the person next to me, it’s going to be harder to unionize.” It’s going to be harder to unionize when it’s so easy to union bust. That’s the larger conversation, I think.