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Why return to the office?
Why do employers suddenly got an urge to return the employees back to the office?
Amazon used to have a generous remote work policy. That changed last week when the employees were asked to show up at the office at least 3 days per week.
Amazon is not the first company to enforce RTO (return to office) policy. It was the notable exception that resisted the trend until 2023:
Microsoft kicked it off in February 2022
Apple followed in April
Google and Meta joined the club in March that year
Some believe RTO is a push for the old-fashioned way of working and a failure to catch up with modern trends. Others believe RTO is about control and letting managers feel good about themselves. Yet another group believes that it is a way to get people to quit without the company having to pay a severance package and deal with the negative effect of mass layoffs.
While all the above might be true, we need to look at the longer time horizon to make sense of it.
The RTO (return to office) is the last in a series of events that unfolded after the pandemic. If we expand our time horizon, a pattern starts to emerge:
Pandemic: WHO (world health organization) declared Public Health Emergency due to COVID-19 on 30 January 2020, and characterized the outbreak as a pandemic on 11 March 2020.
Lockdown: effective immediately countries went to lockdown one by one. There were some rare exceptions, for example here in Sweden we didn’t do that.
WFH (work from home): to continue to operate while respecting the national emergency regulations, companies hesitantly allowed the employees to work from home.
Unemployment: the jobs that could not be done remotely or simply weren’t viable due to lockdown (e.g. restaurants) were temporarily lost.
War: Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Many companies pulled out of the Russian market, while the food supply chain was disrupted. Turns out Ukrainian farming industry fed a significant number of people in the world. Western countries started channeling resources to support Ukraine.
Pipeline sabotage: due to its heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas, Europe could not fully boycott Russia. It would imply a larger blow to the European economy which already showed signs of slowing down. US was not happy. The Nord Stream Pipeline that transferred Russian gas was sabotaged on 26 September 2022.
Inflation: The pandemic, supply chain disruptions, war in Europe and energy crisis, led to inflation.
Overemployment: To cope with higher expenses, some people had to work more to earn more. Some even started working multiple full-time jobs. According to a survey by Monster 37% of the one thousand respondents have more than one full time job! And of the remaining 63%, more than half (57%) are considering doing so. (I could not find more dimensions to their survey data for example business sector, age group or geography.)
Surveillance: There was a rise in employee activity tracking products during the last year. Legally speaking, companies can monitor computers, phones and even social media activities to gather data on their employees.
Layoffs: Former Googlers speculate that Google used AI to decide the layoff, but the company denies it. Regardless, if the mass layoffs are based on mass employee surveillance data, AI would be a reasonable tool.
Almost every layoff followed this script:
CEO identified “productivity” as an area of improvement.
People are seen as cost.
A percentage of them are let go just like extra rows in some spreadsheet.
CEO accepts “full responsibility.”
The bar for responsibility is so low that billionaire CEO, Eric Yuan, got a lot of praise for saying this while laying 15% of employees:
I am reducing my salary for the coming fiscal year by 98% and foregoing my FY23 corporate bonus
And for Zoom CEO, this short video does an excellent job explaining what’s happening:
And you cannot blame them. Many companies are run like little kingdoms. They are not charities or democracies.
The real problem is the short-term thinking and prioritizing share-holder interests above the people who help those shares exist in the first place.
The broken trust
It is not exactly news but if the layoff season clarified one fact for the masses, it is this:
Loyalty is a one-way street. At the end of the day, the employee is compensated to do a job and regardless of what is written on the company website about its impressive culture, the human factor is always secondary to the monetary factor.
During the lockdown, companies trusted that the employees did their best work at home without supervision.
Or did they?
85% of managers say that the “shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.”
49% of managers of hybrid workers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.”
Microsoft researchers coined the term productivity paranoia: to refer to managers’ struggle about outcome (productivity) not matching the increased output (number of hours worked, number of meetings and other activity metrics).
Another study by Citrix showed:
half of business leaders believe that when employees are “out of sight,” they do not work as hard.
Is it just baseless paranoia or is there data to back it up? Same study suggests:
34% of employees believe their company has installed monitoring software on their computer, when in fact, 48% of business leaders say they have.
Let those numbers sink in:
The problem with data is that it can be weaponized: one who has an assumption, gathers data, filters the “irrelevant parts”, or finds an angle on the data that proves their point.
Measuring productivity (outcome) is inherently a hard problem. Instead, proxy metrics are used (output). For example: number of active hours, number of messages sent, number of cases/issues handled, number of commits made, number of deploys, etc.
As far as the subjective views go, it is not about the actual work; it is about the perception of work.
The moment the perceived value of an employee goes below the cost of keeping them, they are a target.
There is always a group of people who dread work, but I like to think that most people who do work actually enjoy it. Work can contribute to a sense of purpose and support social needs.
Would bringing people to the office solve that problem? I would argue that those who don’t believe in working will find a way to dodge work whether remote or at the office.
Pretending to work is a payable skill. It is easier to fake work when there is an audience.
Alas, dragging fake workers to the office can disturb other people’s productivity with chatter, gossip, politics, pointless meetings and what not.
There are two types of workers:
🗣️Those who talk sh*t (gossip, show off, pretend).
💪Those who do sh*t (do the actual work).
The former is a cost, while the latter creates value.
🪙Let the cost control the value and the product will be cheap.
💰Let the value set the price and the product will be worth it.
To set a meaningful RTO policy, we need to be careful about whose needs we are catering for. If the minority that breached trust are the target, the majority should not pay for them.
Forget the majority, the company has a stake in this too. The top-talent has options and less tolerance for bulls**t. If RTO does not make sense to them, they’re first in line to leave the company. This doubles the damage.
If top-talent is golden-handcuffed, they may stay but think about the damage an unmotivated but impactful employee can cause.
Layoffs are not the solution either. Fake work is often a symptom of a bad culture that fails to clarify the expectations and remove obstacles.
Treat people like adults and they will behave like adults. Treat them like children and the adults leave the room so you will end up babysitting.
If employees are motivated and aligned, they do not need to be watched to get the job done.
But if you have unmotivated and misaligned employees, the easiest workaround is to get them to the office. A study conducted 11 years ago shows those office workers who were assigned boring tasks performed better and faster in the regular office setting. Home-life distractions are more likely to prevent productive work when you don’t enjoy the work.
18 years ago, Google popularized the open office workspace. The hypothesis was that if you enclose humans in large rooms without any physical boundaries, they will be forced to interact, and magic will happen.
Soon cargo culters across the planet picked up the practice hoping to get Google-level results. 10 years later, most of us were trapped in large noisy and crowded open offices full of distraction with a striking resemblance to the early industrial revolution factory floors.
Knowledge work requires undisturbed focus. It is fundamentally different from the factory belts. If you want to model it for factory work, the closest analogy is the period when a product is being designed. But unlike designing physical products, knowledge work can effectively be done remotely. A big part of the job (depending on the function) is deep work and requires prolonged focus.
In practice, people created mental barriers to compensate the lack of the physical ones:
We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate. --Harvard Business Review
The lockdowns helped the masses internalize this fact and there is no going back.
Fused work is objectively more productive when done remotely:
Stanford study of 16,000 workers over 9 months found that working from home increases productivity by 13%.
77% of those who work remotely at least a few times per month show increased productivity.
Although onsite collaboration provides more bandwidth, digital tooling has come a long way and offers some superior advantages. For example:
Zoom or Teams allows recording a meeting for those who did not make it. Its transcripts make it very handy to search through the discussions.
Google Docs or Office online make it easy for a large group to simultaneously collaborate on the same file.
Slack or Teams make it easy to have long-running discussions as a problem or solution area is in discovery mode.
The list goes on, but as soon as people meet on-site, we see less of these advantages and more of these defects:
I am not saying working from the office is all bad. But it is far from the rosy picture they are selling us as the ultimate productivity hack.
My personal unfavorite: a feeling of “us vs them” is developed on the basis of the physical geography, architecture of the workspace and proximity.
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As a tech lead, my work can be divided into 3 categories:
Focused: learning, reviewing, or writing documents and code.
Collaborative: using the higher bandwidth of meetings to build alignment, evolve ideas, transfer, or acquire knowledge, 1:1, sync, mentorship, conflict resolution, etc.
Waste: commute, time & expense report, managing my personal backlog, scheduling meetings, etc.
Personally, I do my best focused work at home. I have been working remotely on and off since 2016. Over time I have built a customized ergonomic setup based on my needs for peak performance.
I have paid for everything from my own pocket because I do not feel comfortable tying my personal setup to any employment contract. Besides, no company will match this setup. Good luck expense reporting a Google Home or thermometer! 😅
BTW, there are people with much fancier home offices if you want to check them out.
Focused work is half the story. I do not work in isolation. Supporting hundreds of people across multiple hubs, 40-60% of my time goes to virtual and physical meetings. I may start the day meeting my colleagues over at the west coast of Sweden and jump to another meeting with Germany right before talking to a group of people based in China, Sweden, and Poland. I may end the day virtually visiting my peers on the east coast of the US.
It is the ultimate teleportation experience unlocked by hundreds of kilometers of fiber cables!
A 2020 study of 1300 US workers by Harward Business Review shows that skipping the commute saved more than 40 minutes per day on average.
But different types of workers used that time very differently: Independent employees (i.e., those without managerial responsibilities) reallocated much of it to personal activities, whereas managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings. For managers, the increase in work hours more than offset the loss in commuting time: Their workday increased on average by 56 minutes, and the time they spent replying to emails increased by 13 minutes.
Gone are the days of having to burn gas/jet fuel or waste megawatts of electricity for a train ride. Skipping the time and energy waste of commuting is just a bonus.
No company can simultaneously claim to care about the environment and have a strict RTO policy. Enough with greenwashing!
🔓 Remote work usually unlocks the flexible working hours. In simple terms, it allows the knowledge workers to bring their best hours to work instead of doing 9-5. Productivity is not about the quantity of the hours, but rather the quality of those hours.
Despite a productivity boost, working from home for an extended period can be quite boring and downright dangerous. As humans we need a dose of social interaction and physical activity to stay mentally and physically fit.
I have tried remote fikas and online games with colleagues, but nothing can replace good old face to face interaction.
Once a week I drop by the office for a day packed with onsite meetings, lunch with different people and occasionally water cooler chats. I do not get to do any focused work on those days. One day amounts to 20% and for me at my current role, it is a good balance to get some work done while getting a dose of social interaction and some physical activity (when I can, I bike to work).
The key point to emphasize is that this is my own personal preference based on my current role.
I do not see the point of forcing everyone to make the same trade off with a blanket policy. Especially when that blanket policy is catered for the need to control a small group of untrusted employees and even a smaller group of managers who have trust issues.
It is not illegal to work multiple full-time jobs in many countries, but it is a breach of many standard contracts. It is risky, exhausting, and unproductive. Most people do not willingly work more than 8 hours. It is not sustainable and leads to burn out.
However, working more than one full time job is just a symptom.
The real root cause is a system that has failed people. It abandons people when they are vulnerable.
The cost of living has consistently increased over the past years while the salaries have not been able to catch up. In practice, most people took a pay cut due to inflation. Although some may be able tolerate it, different people have different financial obligations and risk tolerance.
Sweden for example recommends employees not to ask for a raise (although our beautiful ex-prime minister from the social democrat party decided that she is more equal than others and gave herself a big raise).
In the US where money shapes everything from the elections to the lobbying for legislation, the situation is even more grim. America’s poor are worse off than elsewhere.
Assuming the employee monitoring data is used to lay people off, it hurts the ones who need the money most.
Firing them is just a short-term solution.
Putting more people on the unemployment payroll eats up the tax money that could go to better use. When fewer people work, it impacts the national GDP eventually.
Besides, when more people have less buying power, less money is spent on buying goods and services which impacts the companies.
Short-term thinking just backfires and hurts the long-term prosperity of the country.
The municipalities push for dragging people to the cities. There are multiple reasons:
Cities and states grant billions in tax incentives to US companies every year to open offices in their area. Buried in the fine print of many agreements is the expectation that companies will deliver something in return: full-time jobs, done primarily on-site and support nearby businesses and pay state and local taxes (Bloomberg)
For example, 25% of the tax revenue of New York City comes from commercial real estate. The prices drop when there is less demand for those properties.
Tax benefits have more to do with the company’s bottom line than individual productivity levels.
You probably have seen this animation?
Think about all the jobs and services that will be redundant when you don’t go to the office. If mayors and state legislators can twist the CEO’s arm using tax leverage, RTO it is then!
That survey from Monster claims 37% of people work more than one full time job. Does that sound too much? Is the data biased?
I do not know anyone in my circle who does multiple full-time jobs and I have worked at 3 companies since the pandemic started.
Just because we don’t see something does not mean it is not there.
Considering the risks of being exposed, don’t you think people are going to be super secretive about their side hustle?
I have come across a handful of individuals whose performance just does not match 40 hours of work per week no matter how you cut it. They have the knowledge and skills but a task that could take two hours, takes two weeks. Meanwhile they are not super responsive on async communication channels like Slack either. They do a decent job flying under the radar, but the outcome speaks volumes. I give them the benefit of the doubt. Everyone is fighting a war I know nothing about.
I also believe that focusing on the averages dilutes the information. A while back I got anonymous feedback that “Alex is all over the place and involved in too many things”. There is some truth to it because I came in super pumped and for a while worked overtime but as I received some warning shots from my body, I scoped down my work. When I got that feedback, my first response was “If people work their 40 hours, they should not feel threatened by my performance”.
My point is that the data is not terribly off. Maybe 37% is too much, but 10% is the least I can agree with.
But it is this very group that kickstarted the layoffs in the name of “productivity.” It does not matter that Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and others had their best year. Companies optimize for shareholders and if they can reduce the waste by 10% (or 37%) they’ll go for it.