In March 2020 I returned to the UK after a year and half in China and a little over six in total in East Asia. As well as returning with stories, scars and a new respect for the Singapore legal system, I also swept back to Europe alongside Covid-19. It was quite a way to be upstaged. My intention had been to spend my first 6 months or so picking up freelance work whilst looking for my next ‘3-5 year thing’, but in April of last year, that initial plan of an early summer of relaxed coffees with old connections looked increasingly impossible. In that environment, I jumped on the first ‘safe bet’ that was hiring and was a ‘good-enough’ match for my skills; a fast-growing market research ‘tech disruptor’. Though the role was fully remote, the company was (is) full of brilliant, smart people and at its heart, a central premise that I believed in. But fast forward and my experience of remote work was a year of relentless hours, cramped kitchen table video calls and, eventually, burnout, that has left me reflecting on what is a job really for and what we all lost when we all left the office.
Summer 2020 was a glorious one and as we lived our lives outdoors in sun-dappled parks, commentators were quick to celebrate the end of the office; no more cubicle, commute or gossipy chat. But newspaper columnists are more often than not solitary scribes liable to their own egocentric bias. I would also note that as we ploughed on into the depths of lockdown, the quality of their work began to erode with the sharpest minds resorting to observational commentary on park dog walkers or YouTube workout gurus. Even culture’s silent voyeurs need something to ‘voy’. Meanwhile their analysis of the shifts in work that the pandemic forced upon us all were limited to office-based professionals and focused only – at least at first – on the perceived gains, rather than the very real losses. People were able to perform their tasks just as adequately at home. They would save money and time on the commute, as well as by forgoing the flat white or the deli salad box. At the same time employers were looking at resilient short-term production and the opportunity to shed expensive city-centre property portfolios, along with their accompanying facilities bills. And as our days began to start earlier and our lunch breaks compressed, they were extracting more from us for the same pay.
From the employee’s perspective, this purely economic analysis of the socio-cultural institution of ‘work’ is myopic. Just as we don’t eat at a restaurant because we are simply hungry, or wear the clothes we choose just to stay warm, we don’t work just to make money. Work – and I would include child-rearing in the category here – provides purpose, structure, belonging, friendships; it generates social capital and plays a key role in our mental health. Historically we have seen this most clearly in industrial communities in the 19th and early 20th century, where mines and factories gave rise to football clubs and bands, unions and clubs, hobbies and associations.
Many of the 21st Centuries own White Collar Proletariat – the Powerpoint wranglers and Excel tweakers of the modern knowledge economy see themselves as somehow above this; that all they need is a oat latte and a good broadband connection to thrive, but after the last year and a half how many deep down truly believe this is the case?
I would argue that any company thinking about a fully remote world is entering into a short-termist lose-lose for both employer and employee where ‘jobs’ are turned into ‘tasks’ and any immediate gains in efficiency are outweighed by long-term mortgaging of true productivity and innovation. Below I’ve outlined a few of the reasons why…
Erosion of social capital and company culture
It’s really really difficult to set norms when you can’t see how other people behave and what is expected. Yes, this can be done remotely, but it’s hard work over video calls and for my own team, it was when I started during the depths of the pandemic bringing them into a WeWork for an ‘essential’ office day at least once a week that we really began to gel. At the same time, successful collaboration needs trust. For many more senior members of staff, they may already have built this but it is depleted during time apart and as new people join, that existing capital is also diluted. In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
Higher Barriers to collaboration
If you ask a quick question you need to book a 15 minute call, the barrier to doing so increases. People are more likely to struggle through than trouble someone when there is a level of formality to doing so. For my own team, we combated this with an ‘open link’, a bookmarked Google Meet that was always available to jump into, even just for 2 mins. Anything that took more than two replies on Slack would be dealt with instead verbally in a minute or two. And Slack is awful, with it’s constant pings, it is more often abused than well used.
Death of innovation
Yes, you can probably get people to produce more Powerpoint slides without the distraction of a 15 minute chat by the coffee machine; but will they decide to replace the deck with an employee podcast whilst sitting at home ploughing through charts? The sparks that come from those serendipitous connections are real and while not every office is designed to do this well, this is an argument for better spaces not an atomised workforce
A lost generation
All of the above has the biggest, most disproportionate impact on those at the start or early stages of their career. Informal learning, mirroring of professional norms, demonstration of company culture and behaviour are all vital to those starting out, and comes from being around others, especially those with more experience. For senior folk who are excited about 30 mins longer in bed or extra time with their kids, they are pulling the ladder up behind them. We learnt from being in that environment themselves, and I’d argue it’s our responsibility to show up and pass forward this knowledge.
What this is not is an impassioned plea for a return to the bad old days. I have been lucky enough to have mostly worked for agencies or in tech businesses where the office environment was very intentionally vibrant, with spaces for collaboration and inspiration. I believe everyone deserves better offices and no-one deserves to be forced into even the nicest corporate HQ 5 days a week. But even before the pandemic, people were already flexing. We need to move beyond the atomised task rabbit, performing the rote-learnt elements of their role home alone and the cubicle farm. We need flexible working, better offices and face to face collaboration both for the health of our colleagues and the wealth of our businesses.
Legendary ‘Wall Street Wide Boy turned Silicon Valley Savant’ and ‘Don’ of the PayPal Mafia, Thiel believes – as outlined early on in his much lauded book ‘Zero to One’ – that the rapid and profound innovation that came about in finance and technology in the late 20th and early 21st Century was brought about because these industries were ones where the government didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t regulate. He puts his money where his beliefs lie too, donating to a smorgasbord of out there causes that underline his extreme brand of individualism – life extension, Seasteading, the Singulairty – as well as a range of ultra-libertarian Republican candidates in the US. He also owns a doomsday ranch in New Zealand, just in case…
At least Peter Thiel doesn’t claim to be above ideology, which is more than can be said about many of the rest of the West’s greatest Tech evangelists. Whether forcing cities across the US to play beggar-my-neighbour to win vast tax breaks in return for pricing locals out of their homes with a new corporate HQ (Amazon), steamrollering over local employment laws and industry standards in the name of ‘disruption’ (Uber), or mocking local tax rules via complex and magical financial arbitrage (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc etc etc), Big Tech holds government in contempt – if they would just get out of the way the world will be a better place. Yet few would admit to what they are – Neoliberal Utopian Fantasists. Most instead claim to be above ideology, that what these companies are bringing about is, at its core, an unambiguous, value-neutral, vision of progress; ‘A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision’. The problem that this is itself an ideological choice.
Of course this belief has been tested, shaken even recently. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been used (as they are designed to be) to manipulate elections. This was not a glitch, this is exactly how they are designed to be – to serve you what you want to hear and sell you attention to the highest bidder. That time and again they have ducked the responsibility to admit that they are an accountable published reflects how they continue to have your cake and eat it. But just watch Zuckerberg in front of the House, struggling to suppress a smirk (“We sell ads, sir”), or how the reaction from the rest of the tech faithful praised his barely-veiled contempt and we see that the true zealot will never be swayed from the cause. Any changes made from the inside – voluntary tax payments, roundtables with regulators, hiring more content moderators are designed to cement the substructure by sugaring the superstructure.
Their greatest defence is that this is a golden era for democracy in its broadest sense. A world now open to all, a collapsing of vertical structures in favour of new lateral networks that allow everyone access to everything. Cat videos! Child porn! Earthquakes and disasters! Famine! Kardashians! Earthquake and disaster memes! Rape! Furries! Cat videos! What Joerg Kock, editor of the German independent magazine turned fashion brand 032c, calls ‘The Big Flat Now’. But the issue is that it is only so flat. There is a hierarchy still. An unaccountable one that sidelines government and places us all as equals, sitting below the industry leaders who constellate our firmament. At this point, I would like to add that I love technology. I am writing this using cloud-based word processing on computer that has more power than I know what to do with. I have worked in and for numerous technology firms, and I plan to again, if this doesn’t outrage them, but the naivety that sees what they create as neutral-positive progress is naive. Technology is a tool. It is highly adaptable, and like any other tool that went before in can be used in many ways. A hammer only becomes a murder weapon when applied to the skull, but all tools have implicit ‘best uses’ in their design. Its why some are more regulated than others; automatic weapons, gene editing, Morphine. And when it comes to Big Tech, we are faced not just with invention, but innovation – the commercial application of technology in the name of profit. To sideline government in order to give unregulated access to these new, highly profitable tools to the general population is not Democratic. It is techno-authoritarian move that fundamentally ignores, or perhaps does not believe in, the moral limitations of markets and the value of societal transactions that cant simply be priced. As I said, naive at best; wilfully maleficent at worst. And either way, a definitively idealogical stance against the un-privatised polis.
The worst part is that even Thiel is wrong. Technology companies may spend on innovation, but they do little invention. A lot of D, but not so much R. The Ur-technologies – the internet itself, microprocessors, GPS, telecoms networks – were all brought about if not by the state, then by heavy involvement. The foundational science comes from public institutions and government funding; ‘investment’ that is only fixated with furthering human knowledge. What the secondary innovation from Wall Street and the Valley have in common is not that they are highly profound so much as highly profitable…