This piece by Anne Helen Petersen is so good about the return to work. It’s ostensibly about US universities, but is so much widely applicable.
As I’ve said to several people over the past few weeks, the idea of needing staff to be in a physical office most of the time for ‘serendipitous interactions’ is ridiculous. Working openly allows for much greater serendipity surface than any forced physical co-location might achieve.
On college campuses across the United States, staff are back in the office. More specifically, they’re back in their own, individual offices, with their doors closed, meeting with one another over Zoom or Teams, battling low internet speeds, and reminding each other to mute themselves so that the sound of the meeting doesn’t create a deafening echo effect for everyone else.
For some, the office is just a quick walk or bike ride away. But for many, coming into the office requires a distinctly unromantic commute. It means cobbling together childcare plans, particularly with the nationwide bus driver shortages and school quarantine regulations after illness or a potential exposure. It means paying for parking, and packing or paying for their lunches, and handing over anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours of their day. They are enduring the worst parts of a “traditional” job, only to go into the office and essentially work remote, with worse conditions and fewer amenities (and, in many cases, less comfort) than they had at home. It’s the worst of both work worlds.
The university might seem like a weird example of an “office,” but it’s a pretty vivid illustration of one. You have leadership who are obsessed with image, cost cutting, and often deeply out of touch with the day-to-day operations of the organization (administration); a group of “creatives” (tenured faculty) who form the outward core of the organization and thus have significant self-import but dwindling power; full-time employees of various levels who are fundamental to the operation of the organization and chronically under-appreciated (staff) ; an underclass of contingent and contract workers who perform similar jobs to full-time employees but for less pay, fewer protections, less job security, and are held in far less esteem (grad students, adjuncts, and sub-contracted staff, including building, maintenance, food service, security). And then there’s the all-important customer, whose imagined needs, preferences, whims, demands, and supply of capital serve are the axis around which the rest of the organization rotates (students and their parents).