Return to Office is About Control not Culture

With the rise of pro-worker sentiment it's clear to see businesses are pushing for return to office as a defense against losing control over their employees.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy recently stated during an internal meeting that was leaked that they will be requiring employees to return to the office, and those who disagree should leave. As with many things Amazon does, this will likely begin to spur copy-cat sentiment from other businesses who follow the e-commerce giant’s lead. This stance is unilaterally about one thing and one thing only: control over the workforce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were forced to maintain distributed remote workers, as folks were encouraged to maintain quarantines away from other people to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

Despite rising reports of a surge in COVID-19 cases, there is a push from business leaders to return their workforce to the office. It’s clear from their rhetoric that they are not a fan of the freedom it provides their employees or the flexibility it provides from the comfort of their homes. These CEOs are telling us that it’s about the culture, the social aspect, of working from within the office. That is what they are telling us via press releases and media comments, but is that really the case? Is our work culture really so central to the water-cooler chat that we need to force folks out of their homes and into traffic every day?

“Working in the office allows for spontaneous problem-solving and brainstorming!”

These businesses really want to sell the idea that working in the office is for the worker’s benefit less than for the benefit of the business. Let’s be clear, it’s still not a benefit to the business; they are just afraid of the other societal consequences of remote work.

They are pushing onto the public the perspective that in-person office work provides a healthy environment for spontaneous innovation, on-the-spot troubleshooting, and brainstorming. Working across from each other benefits across departments since you can just walk over to Suzie Q’s desk and ask about the status of a project that affects your team. Talking over lunch allows you to hash out that issue that’s been bothering you about a product that isn’t progressing. In-person meetings allow career growth because you will form personal connections with your boss that exceed professional achievements.

Except, none of that is true. We live in the digital age — we have modern tools that bridge the gap beyond physical location.

It’s not new either; it wasn’t something businesses didn’t have before the Pandemic. Slack, Teams, Zoom, Video Conferencing, off-site team get-togethers, and virtual whiteboarding. These are all tools and mechanisms that have been a core part of businesses for the last two decades. We just supercharged their use when everyone had to go remote. Slack & Teams or any instant messaging tool has already allowed for organic team collaboration and social building. Employees already use these tools at any major or even minor tech company; they are a mandatory part of working within a distributed workforce across multiple locations. You, the person reading this right now, likely have a work bestie that you message throughout the workday. You’ve likely had to sit in Zoom meetings where half of your team is in another state, or your boss is calling in because they are traveling but didn’t want to miss the stand-up meeting where everyone gives their updates. All of this before the pandemic started. We just got better at it, and now every meeting invite has a Zoom link and a room assigned to it — rather than needing to set up a Zoom link after the meeting already started because Steve can’t make it to the office today.

“It’s a Security Risk!”

Another bold claim from some dissidents in the conversation for remote work seems to perpetuate that remote employees, and their devices, haven’t been a part of work culture since computers became mainstream. For as long as there has been a personal computer, there has been someone who wanted to take work home with them. Unsurprisingly we have adapted to support that; you can use a multitude of ways to ensure your remote employees are not putting your company in undo risk from ill-intending hackers or scammers.

Your job likely already has services put in place that both protect their devices and allow you to connect to their in-office network remotely using things like a VPN. These services can completely lock your company-provided device down and prevent any “unwanted” behavior. Even going as far as preventing you from visiting certain sites on their device without ever interfering with your home network.

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“It’s not the new normal; it was just for an extreme circumstance! This isn’t how work is done!”

Well before the time of MacBook Pros and Lenovo Thinkbooks, businesses were using a less mature version of the internet. Readers of a certain age range might have haunted memories of logging into CompuServe, one of the first internet providers, to access their email or check forums. Some of these “legacy” services were already cropping up and forced a fairly large question on the population during a gas crisis “Should we be more remote?”. Check this article from the Washington Post from all the way back in 1979.

And here are more extraordinary snippets from that same article that show that this conversation is far from a new one because, remember, this was written in 1979.

It is so alarming to see arguments and conversations that are being had today, with all of the technology and tools at our disposal, being had again 40 years apart. Yet it’s so fascinating to see that even in the age of relative “clunky” technology of the 70s and 80s, there was a clear path to remote work. If you have the time, I really encourage you to read that linked article, It’s not too long, and it provides great insight into how technology was already changing the conversation that far back.

“It’s less efficient! It Costs More Money! It Reduces Employee Satisfaction!”

A defense often used in the ongoing conversation about remote work seems to be that employees are actually unhappy working remotely; their internal job satisfaction scores go down the longer they go without in-office visits, and The feeling of “being a team” is lower. Except, they never provide the data to support that perspective, and that’s because it doesn’t exist. This is the same reason why during that leaked call Amazon CEO Andy Jassy wouldn’t provide those supporting metrics either. There aren’t any supporting metrics that show that workers are more efficient, happy, productive, and satisfied with in-office work.

Time and time again, we have proven that businesses that promote full-time remote employees show both a rise in worker productivity and worker satisfaction with reduced overhead in the spend on office supplies, building costs, maintenance hires, and parking compensation.

There are supporting testimonies from individuals who thrive in that environment, and that’s perfectly fine. No one is advocating that we take it away from those people. What is being advocated for is flexibility and freedom of choice. Something these businesses hate because it removes their full control over their workforce.

Speaking of control over the workforce…

The Real Reason Businesses Want You in Office is to Control Your Ability to Unionize.

That’s right I said it. Think about it, and I mean really noodle on it for a second. How much easier is it to organize when you aren’t in the same building as your boss? How much easier is it for you to fully tune out the anti-union “mandatory training” you have to take when you are taking it from the comfort of your own home? The answer is “really easy”. How hard is it for your manager to breathe down your neck while you plug away at your data entry job? Well, actually, this one is a bit easier; with the uptick in “nanny” software that monitors your every move on the computer, it’s relatively easy to still micro-manage your constant engagement.

The tech industry as a whole is ripe for pro-union sentiment to take hold; the only thing holding it back right now is the naivety of fresh college grads. A population the big tech giants siphon from at a rapid pace. New engineers and developers are churned out by the thousands and brought to the meat grinder with promises of high pay and lucrative stock options. Once they are in, they will grant them hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in stocks. Then they will lock them behind tenure 2, 4, 6, or 8 years out, but before you ever see a significant fraction of those golden handcuffs, they will kick you to the curb on what is referred to as “PIP Culture” or a Performance Improvement Plan. It’s a mechanism in which businesses will bake employee turnover into their talent strategy, constantly measuring the bottom employees against the top and either forcing them to quit or outright firing them for “performance issues”. Amazon is a huge proponent of this methodology. This allows them to claim they have high “compensation packages” while technically not paying much more than the average market salary, sometimes even less. These mechanisms are intended to keep the illusion of well-paying roles to the new employees, preventing them from being seduced by the alluring appeal of a labor union, as one of the top driving factors of union membership is Safety and Salary.

Believe it or not, America actually had an incredible history of strong labor union representation until, surprise, Regan was president. An article from February 2013 by Professor G. William Domhoff at the University of California titled “The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions In The U.S.” is one of the most thorough backgrounds on the labor union history in America I have ever read. You can give it a read yourself if you are interested, and I highly recommend it, but it is incredibly long and detailed. The gist of it is up until the late 1970s and early 1980s America had enjoyed a robust and thriving labor-first-driven culture, and this is evident in the thriving middle class leading up to those eras. Throughout the early 1900s into the 1930s numerous attempts by conservatives and capital hoarders widdled away at workers’ rights until 1935 when the government positioned itself specifically at the backing of workers with the National Labor Relations Act. Over the decades opponents of union rights have worked tirelessly to change the tide of public opinion. Movies, TV shows, workplace mandatory training, and opinion pieces all depict unions as this abusive money-grubby machine that steals money from you and gets used by the mafia to run racketeering schemes. That somehow a union separates the worker from the business and makes it harder for the business to ensure its workers are fairly treated. Unfortunately, this worked over time with a combination of multiple presidents electing officials who would further gut the ability to unionize or hold strikes and the constant rebuttal from the Supreme Court which allowed the NLRA to eventually serve as an anti-union tool rather than one intended to support it.

Unions are good for you, and while businesses kick and scream, they are good for them as well. It just hampers their ability to abuse and take advantage of workers and restricts their “growth at any cost” operating models. The Economic Policy Institute summarizes and provides ample academic sources on the benefits of Labor Unions in a post titled “Unions are not only good for workers, they’re good for communities and for democracy”. The short of it is that Unions have higher wages and decreased income inequality, increased government revenue and decreased government spending, strengthened health and safety, and increased civic engagement and broader community benefits.

Despite all of this, the “Summer of Labor” is in full effect right now, and labor union sentiment is at an all-time high. Businesses are very aware of this fact and doing everything they can (besides offering better pay, benefits, and accommodations, that is) to ensure you don’t try to start one of those pesky unions. Look at the recent statement from Warner Brothers Discovery; they claimed they would lose $300M-$500M in 2023 earnings. Yet they haven’t come to an agreement with the striking Writers and Actors unions, have they? Because they would rather bleed money than give up control. That is what’s at stake here, control. Even though they are forced to work with these unions, the businesses are holding steadfast to maintain that either the striking workers will be forced to give up and start crossing the lines, or the union will fold and agree on sub-par demands in favor of getting back to work. The media giants want the ability to use AI to digitize and give full performances from actors and background extras without even paying fractions of a percent to the people who provided their likenesses. In the case of the background extras, one of the provisions claimed automatic ownership of rights to likeness on behalf of the studio. This means you would show up to be in the background of one TV show, and suddenly you are in every TV show, but you only ever got paid for the first appearance. And again, it’s because they want control.

Imagine the power the tech industry laborers could wield with a proper union. The ability to negotiate proper parental leave, robust retirement benefits, and even safeguard accessibility for disabled employees, a population who, before now, had difficulties working in high-paying technical jobs because of the in-office requirement. Suddenly workers with disabilities could enter the workforce and make competitive pay; businesses want to claw this back and replace it with pizza parties and happy hours for the able-bodied who could make it into the office uninhibited.

The bottom line is remote work is an option of flexibility; if you are able to support a role remotely, there is no reason it should be compulsive to mandate in-office work. Allow your employees to provide the most comfortable situation for themselves and allow them to work in the manner that best suits their needs. Your employees want to do good work — very rarely is someone truly just gaming the system in order to coast by, and honestly, if they are, you’d be able to spot them a mile away. Stop treating our jobs like daycare for adults, we can be trusted, and we can be left to piss in our own bathrooms. Happy workers. Happy customers. Happy business.

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