Whatever you were doing during the pandemic and its stilted aftermath, it was not working from home.
“Bullshit,” you might say, remembering all those times you sat in a makeshift office in your bedroom, haphazardly constructed so that it might look semiprofessional over Zoom calls. If you’re one of the roughly 42 percent of Americans who were able to work remotely during the pandemic, you likely spent most of the time chained to a screen in your home clocking in each morning. You were, quite literally, doing your job from home.
But you weren’t working from home. You were laboring in confinement and under duress. Others have described it as living at work. You were frantically tapping out an email while trying to make lunch and supervise distance learning. You were stuck alone in a cramped apartment for weeks, unable to see friends or family, exhausted, and managing a level of stress you didn’t know was possible. Work became life, and life became work. You weren’t thriving. You were surviving.
Here’s the nightmare scenario: this could be the “remote” future.
Until recently, broad implementation of work from home seemed more like a thought experiment in the pages of Harvard Business Review than an idea that might work in practice. But the pandemic forced millions into remote work, and companies got curious. For a CFO, the prospect of getting that expensive downtown real estate off the balance sheet is enticing, especially if you factor in cost-of-living decreases when employees move out of high-cost cities. And then there’s the efficiency: no more commutes means more time to answer emails! Some of the biggest companies in the world have already made remote work an option for the foreseeable future, which, as with almost any business decision, means they think it could be good for the bottom line. And their cost savings will be shouldered by you.
This is the dark truth of remote work as we know it now: it promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office, but in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance.
We know this from experience. In 2017, we made the case that we could do our jobs as reporters even better from outside the city. We packed our car in Brooklyn and made the transition to working from home in Montana after more than a decade of office life. Anne—more organized, a bit more introverted by nature—settled right in. Before journalism, she’d been an academic and a professor; going to the office always felt weirder, more compulsory, than working from your kitchen table. But the “flexibility” of academic life—and now journalistic life—really just meant flexibility to work all the time. Dreams of daily hikes in the mountains quickly evaporated. She was working just as much as, if not more than, she did in New York. The backdrop was just more beautiful.
Charlie loves to bullshit with people in the office. He can’t manage his calendar to save his life. He thrives on interaction. And he struggled immediately. The first few months were disorienting and grueling. He spent so much time frantically writing, emailing, and staying in constant contact via Slack messages from the couch that when he’d sit back down at night to unwind, he’d break into a cold sweat. Working relentlessly from home crossed his wires; his mind and body were unable to understand why he was both at the “office” and mainlining Netflix.
Charlie was absolutely convinced the move would hurt his career. He’d be isolated, invisible to superiors, and overlooked for assignments. He worried he was becoming untethered from his work, that he’d lost those spontaneous encounters and conversations that sparked new ideas. So he worked obsessively, with his bosses reaping the rewards, even if they didn’t know it. Work on weekends? Why not? After all, he was already at the office. No commute didn’t mean free time in the mornings and evenings; it meant rolling out of bed and grabbing the phone and punching the clock. He was writing more than ever, but he started burning out every few weeks, desperate for any activity that would help demarcate work from leisure.
Something had to change. In order to make working from home sustainable—years before the pandemic hit—we had to figure out a way to cultivate a rich home life and then fit our jobs into that space, not the other way around. That meant disconnecting more, but it also meant changing the rhythms of our days and doing away with the rigidity beaten into us by the modern workplace.
Once we made those changes, the lesson was immediately clear: offices can be bullies. They force us to orient our days around commutes. They commandeer our attention with (sometimes enjoyable!) unscheduled, drive‑by meetings. They elevate the feeling of productivity over being productive. They’re a breeding ground for microaggressions and toxic loops of hierarchical behavior. It’s no surprise that people who thrive in the office are almost always the same people who have accumulated or were raised with a lot of identity-related privilege outside it.
Working from home can be a meaningful act of control and resistance. But it’s also not a cure-all. It can’t promise to fix the rot at the core of modern capitalism. All of the toxic dynamics listed above can be ported over to the remote work world. This is especially true if you or your company conceives of working from home as everything that used to happen at the office, only now you’re the one paying the rent and utilities. The goal of this book, then, is to think through how we can liberate ourselves from the most toxic, alienating, and frustrating aspects of office work. Not just by shifting the location where the work is completed, but also by rethinking the work we do and the time we allot to it.
This book isn’t a how‑to manual. It isn’t self-help, at least not in the traditional way we think of it. We don’t profess to have anything “figured out.” Balancing work and life continues to be a struggle for us, and we fail all the time, in part because we do find satisfaction in our jobs. This book is also specifically focused on and addressed to the 42 percent of workers whose jobs can be done remotely: far from universal. But for that 42 percent (and growing), we are trying to figure out what’s broken about the thing that takes up so much of our waking hours and begin to try to fix it.
Which is why we think of this book as more of a road map. It’ll show you how we got to our current broken relationship with work and the routes we can take from here. We can double back, reproducing the same soul-sucking, exploitative office dynamics as before, only doing it from home. Individuals can forge their own path off the main road, as they have for years, struggling to maintain balance in the face of corporate norms. Those with the confidence and privilege to go remote on their terms will reap the benefits, while others will become second-class office citizens. Or we can take a third route, in which the workday itself—and the expectations of workers—are reconceptualized. That doesn’t just mean implementing Zoom happy hours, or making a company-wide announcement that it’s okay if your kids pop into your conference call to ask for a snack. That’s the sort of incrementalism that fixes nothing and exhausts everyone.
Reconceptualization means having honest conversations about how much people are working and how they think they could work better. Not longer. Not by taking on more projects, or being better delegators, or having more meetings. Not by creating “more value” for their employer at the expense of their mental and physical health. Instead, it means acknowledging that better work is, in fact, oftentimes less work, over fewer hours, which makes people happier, more creative, more invested in the work they do and the people they do it for. It entails thinking through how online communication tools function as surveillance and incentivize playacting your job instead of actually doing it. It will require organization based on employees’ and managers’ preferred and most effective work times, and consideration of child- and eldercare responsibilities, volunteering schedules, and time zones.
There’s no easy endgame. There are no actionable checklists at the end of each chapter. The process is difficult and, if we’re being honest, never ending. But we are at a societal inflection point. Parts of our lives that were once quietly annoying have become intolerable; social institutions that have long felt broken are now actively breaking us. So many things we’ve accepted as norms, from public health practices to public school schedules, have the potential to change. In the absence of visionary governmental leadership, the impetus for change has increasingly fallen on the individual, but from individuals we’re also watching movements set in motion rooted in fairness, equality, and racial and economic justice.
The policy proposals guiding these movements are ambitious, and the particulars can feel complex. But the ideas behind them are elegant in their simplicity: when an institution is broken, it can’t be reformed with incremental fixes that touch the contours of the problem but don’t probe the heart. They must be reimagined. Not in some utopian fashion, but with a vigilant eye toward how power is accumulated and distributed.
This work will be difficult and different for each company. It might, at least in the beginning, feel radical. Capitalism is inherently exploitative, but it is also—at least for the immediate future—our guiding economic system. If we’re going to live under it, how can we bend it to make that experience involve less suffering? Not only for “office” workers, but also for our immediate families, the societies we share, and the rest of the working world?
The thesis of this book is that remote work—not remote work during a pandemic, not remote work under duress—can change your life. It can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier. It can make the labor in your home more equitable and can help you be a better friend, and parent, and partner. It can, somewhat ironically, actually increase worker solidarity. It can allow you to actually live the sort of life you pretend to live in your Instagram posts, liberating you to explore the nonwork corners of your life, from actual hobbies to civic involvement.
And it doesn’t have to be full-time remote work either: no one is suggesting that we’re completely done with offices. As JPMorgan’s chief operating officer put it in February 2021, “Going back to the office with 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, I think there is zero chance of that. As for everyone working from home all the time, there is also zero chance of that.”2 For most people, traditional office space will commingle, in some form, with co-working spaces, coffee shops, our friends’ kitchen tables, and our own home setups. Whatever your isolating, claustrophobic setup was during the pandemic, that is not what the future of work looks like.
We see a real chance to repair our relationship to work—something that’s deeply broken, particularly here in America, but increasingly in other countries as well. Work, which has long been a source of inspiration, dignity, and the cherished prospect of upward mobility, has stagnated and trapped us. We don’t mean to sound revisionist; that same work was also intermittently miserable. But for so many so-called knowledge workers, it’s become an identity above all else, slowly eroding the other parts that make a rich, well-rounded human existence.
The good news is that we can change that, but only if we commit ourselves to refiguring the place of work in our lives. Right now, our priorities are backward. Instead of changing our lives to make ourselves better workers, we have to change our work to make our lives better.
To get at that potential for change, we’ve arranged the book around four overarching concepts. For each, we’ll explore its shape leading up to the pandemic, what was breaking or long broken, and how remote work could shift, exacerbate, or, most optimistically, begin to mend existing problems moving forward.
For the last forty years, business books, financial publications, and industry leaders have fetishized the idea of corporate “flexibility.” The obsession with “nimble” companies should theoretically imply a similar obsession with accommodation: of different schedules, different work styles, different locales. Instead, “flexibility” has been a code word for a company’s ability to rapidly hire and lay off employees as needed. It’s gradually became the guiding justification of the freelance and contract economy, which beguiled employees with the promise of unshackling them from the constraints of a traditional, 9:00-to-5:00 job.
The benefits of the flexible economy have flowed almost entirely to corporations as workers grapple with unprecedented levels of instability in the workplace. Contingent workers can adapt their schedules to fit their needs, but they’re also always in search of the next job, always wondering if they’re working enough, always striving for something approximating the security of the full-time office job, instead of the precarious, ever-shifting gig.
The future of office work has to be guided by a new, genuine form of flexibility in which the work, not the workers themselves, becomes even more malleable. Genuine flexibility is the linchpin of this work renovation project: without it, you can’t meaningfully shift work culture, your relationship to technology, or your dedication to your community. Free workers from their arbitrary schedules, and you create space for all sorts of changes: in our experience of everyday work, in our capacity to do our jobs, in our relationships with the people who make life worth living.
What does genuine flexibility look like in practice? It means reconceiving what sorts of tasks and collaborations need to be synchronous and what can actually be done asynchronously, and how many days we’d like people to be in an office, and for how long, and for what purpose. It includes broadening job descriptions to better meet the time and location needs of people who are disabled and juggle caregiving duties. And it will require the implementation of actual, respected boundaries to ensure that “flexible work” doesn’t spread into all corners of the calendar.
There’s how an organization defines itself publicly, and then there’s how employees experience life with that organization on a daily basis. Somewhere in the space between those two understandings is company culture, which, once in place, can be incredibly difficult to change—save through something as dramatic as, well, a paradigm-shifting pandemic.
We’ll look at how companies conceive of themselves—as a clubhouse, a group of hustlers, a collection of workaholics, a bunch of inflexible but reliable traditionalists, and, most commonly, a “family”—and what standards of behavior, exploitation, waste, productivity, hierarchies, respect, or lack thereof, flow from them.
When an office goes fully or partially remote, there’s a potential to retrench existing culture, largely born out of fear. Companies implement more meetings and micro-managerial communication in an attempt to preserve existing hierarchies. But management for management’s sake isn’t skilled management—something the pandemic year has made abundantly clear. You can shift company culture. But it has to start not just with the CEO or individual workers but with a dramatic rethinking of what management actually looks like, in and outside the traditional office.
If your company culture is not just theoretically good, or good for management, but actually good, it’ll still require planning and diligence to figure out how to integrate more flexible work. And if it’s toxic, flexible work won’t fix it. But it might provide the window to start rethinking what that culture might be moving forward.
We often think of office technology in terms of our digital devices: our computers, our smartphones, and the programs and apps that run on them. But so much of office culture flows from the technology of design, which includes everything from the physical architecture that arranges workers within a building to the digital architecture that determines when and how you interact with your Slack messages. So much office tech, from the dreaded open office plan to business email, was designed with utopian hopes, only to collide with corporate imperatives and devolve, slowly, to make work so much worse. Same for the cool Silicon Valley cam-pus, the Aeron chair, and Google Calendar: the cool stuff intended to solve problems created new ones, more massive and nightmarish than its creators could ever have imagined.
The question, then, is how do we break our current reliance on tech and design that creates more— and more mind- numbing— work? How do we reframe our technology away from the vague but ruthless notion of productivity? How do we create spaces for in- person work that adapt to more flexible use but don’t feel like alienating, anonymous work hotels? These are challenges that demand more strategy than Inbox Zero, more vision than a behe-moth like WeWork, and more nuance than tools that equate “time working” with “time your cursor is moving.”
It is here, in our technology, tools, and design, that we can see the most profound changes the quickest. Changing the way we communicate about our work— and variability in the spaces we do it— can transform our daily schedules and reshape the contours of our days. In the past, office tech and design have been oriented toward figuring out how to compel employees to spend more time at work and/or working. Now the task is to use them to help us do the opposite.
What would you do if you had more control of your life? Would you start each day with a walk? Would you finally establish that exercise routine? What about picking up new hobbies? What’s stopping you right now? Turns out, it’s your job.
Work will always be a major part of our lives. What we’re suggesting, however, is that it should cease to be the primary organizing factor within it: the primary source of friendship, or personal worth, or community. Because when work envelops our lives, our intimate community shoulders the consequences. We give and receive less: less care, less intentionality, less communication. But genuinely flexible work—and the de-centering of our jobs that accompanies it—can liberate us to recultivate and restructure our relationships with ourselves and our community. Sure, you might not be as close with your colleagues. But if you have other areas of your life that make you feel loved, understood, valued, and essential, will it matter?
In practice, this de-centering might free up the time to actually equalize the distribution of labor in the home. It could allow you to figure out what you actually like to do in your spare time, when that time is not consumed with recovering from the sheer amount of work you’re doing. It might mean figuring out an elder- or childcare scenario that feels less frazzling. It can’t mean even more multitasking, more hats to wear when you’re in the home, more pressure to be everything to everyone. When work becomes truly flexible to our needs, that’s when we’re able to carve meaningful, consistent, nourishing space from our days: for ourselves, but also for the people who make this life worth living.
And that means connecting with your greater community as well. Before the pandemic, our nation had arrived at one of the lowest rates of social cohesion in modern history. We’re less invested and have less trust in each other. We’re less willing to sacrifice for people we don’t know. We’re far more focused on the fate of the individual—on me and mine—than the fate of the societal whole. When our livelihoods feel threatened and precarious, we tend to behave as we’re taught during moments of crisis: place the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping others around you.
There are myriad reasons for this decline in social cohesion, most of them connected to unfettered capitalism, scarcity, and a general refusal to authentically address profound, enduring race- and gender-based inequalities. But as knowledge workers, we’ve both contributed to and reacted to this decline by working more. This strategy sometimes results in a (marginally) more stable income, but it also leads to alienation, loneliness, and markedly decreased feelings of belonging. When we work all the time, we volunteer less, we spend less time hanging out with people who are and aren’t like us. We might love the place that we live, but we don’t manifest that affection through actual involvement.
Flexible work, done right, means working less and directing far more time, investment, and intention into the greater community. In practice, that means more than just having the time to volunteer for the library board. It’s making sure that the library board isn’t just made up of people like you. It’s more than signing up for the local CSA. It’s devoting the time to figuring out solutions to food insecurity in your community. It’s about finding time for yourself and then, once you’ve found it, using some of that time to make life better for everyone around you.
Which is why we’ll also think about how a shift to genuinely flexible work can have meaningful effects on city planning, on public and private gathering spaces, and on ideas about everything from childcare to worker solidarity. Cities contract and expand all the time, but how do we resist the sort of transformation that limits reliable access to public transit, well-funded schools, and sources for fresh food? How do small cities and towns adjust to an influx of high-wage workers while local wages remain low? What plans need to be put in place, both on the governmental and on the corporate level, to actively combat even further stratification between those who can control the rhythms of their work and those who cannot?
The future health of the greater community demands we pay attention to these questions now. Because in the end, all of these changes will feel superficial and hollow if the community that surrounds you is suffering.