The best RTO policy? Make the office more like working from home
February 19, 2024 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Employees need quiet, privacy, and focus to be able to do their jobs well — and most offices still lack these considerations. The employers that are going to win in the new age of hybrid work, and attract and retain the best talent, are the ones who make the office a worthwhile experience for their employees. And that means making working at the office more like — and even better than — working from home.
posted by folklore724 (67 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: OP has posted about this company over half a dozen times, at least. Temp banning for now, so that admin can have a look at if this is marketing / promotional posting, which is against guidelines and a permanently bannable offense. -- taz

In other RTO news:
Using a sample of Standard and Poor’s 500 firms, we examine determinants and consequences of U.S. firms’ return-to-office (RTO) mandates. Results of our determinant analyses are consistent with managers using RTO mandates to reassert control over employees and blame employees as a scapegoat for bad firm performance. Also, our findings do not support the argument that managers impose mandate[s] because they believe RTO increases firm values. Further, our difference in differences tests report significant declines in employees’ job satisfaction [] but no significant changes in financial performance or firm values after RTO mandates.
posted by jedicus at 11:02 AM on February 19 [22 favorites]

CEOs gonna CEO.

Sure, everyone agrees that happy cows make better meat and milk. That doesn't seem to have prevented CAFOs from being the overwhelmingly dominant form of milk and meat production.

The path to better work conditions is unions, not earnest appeals to capitalist self interest.
posted by splitpeasoup at 11:25 AM on February 19 [62 favorites]

More meeting rooms and tiny booths that I can hide in for a few minutes is not going to do it for me.
posted by donio at 11:29 AM on February 19 [25 favorites]

TBQF this reads a lot like content marketing for the author's company, Framery. (Previously.)

Not that there isn't a valid point here, but it's carefully phrased in a way that guides the reader toward asking "what product could we purchase that would provide a home-like level of noise isolation as needed" and away from "if we need offices that are more like homes, why not just let people with satisfactory home arrangements use those, saving time, money and stress all around?"

That said, I would be interested in a deeper analysis of Allen Curve-related arguments for RTO.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:35 AM on February 19 [17 favorites]

I have been working from home since the pandemic started. The other day I had to make a drive at 745am. How do these managers plan on dealing with the insanity that is traffic. Every day, just high-stress bullshit for 20/30/60+ minutes each way? As a way to start and end my working day? Fuck that noise.

Here's what I love about the WFH movement: for DECADES, any time we workers wanted to implement some new thing, some new way of working, or a new tool, or whatever, we were told "you have to justify the cost. How will working this way benefit the company, particularly financially? How will the cost of this new tool be paid for, in the form of improved efficiency/client growth/whatever? Show your work."

And now, any time an exec tries to get people back in the office, they have nothing. Their desire to have us back in the office makes as much financial sense as buying that crazy high-end espresso machine to replace the bog-standard coffee machine for the break room: yes, it absolutely would be nice to have that, but the cost just isn't worth it. For all of the outlay, you just aren't going to see significant returns to justify making the switch.
posted by nushustu at 11:44 AM on February 19 [42 favorites]

Very glad we never had a ceo who wanted an open plan office, and everyone has a door they can shut, their own phone line. You know, an office instead of what is described in articles like this.

Aren't most offices like, at least cubicle farms? Where people have partitions?
posted by eustatic at 11:49 AM on February 19 [6 favorites]

Fwiw I've never had a cubicle or partitions in the 15 years I've been working, it's always been open offices worth desks right next to each other.
posted by Carillon at 11:50 AM on February 19 [7 favorites]

Aren't most offices like, at least cubicle farms? Where people have partitions?

Hot seat bullpens have gotten very popular in recent years.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:51 AM on February 19 [8 favorites]

And that means making working at the office more like — and even better than — working from home.

Until the day they pay you for your commute this will never happen. And even then there’s all the ancillary bullshit of getting ready for the office etc.
posted by star gentle uterus at 11:54 AM on February 19 [13 favorites]

Fortunately, most lawyers still get assigned offices with doors they can close. I'm not sure how I would've survived in the modern world otherwise. That's worth more to me than any six random office "amenities."
posted by praemunire at 11:57 AM on February 19 [6 favorites]

yeah, uh, i, uh, think that the whole idea with employers and layoffs and jagoff profit taking etc is so that employers can just say "you wanna work, you'll sit on this cinderblock in front of a cardboard box underneath the elevated train, it only comes by every 90 seconds."

alternative: 🎵 look for the union label
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:05 PM on February 19 [17 favorites]

We're all getting replaced with AI as soon as anybody can figure out how to do it, so I should probably be glad anybody still wants me to show up anyplace. But yes, there is an executive class that feels uncomfortable with a lower level of ownership over peoples' lives. Nobody cares if you're happy.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:05 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

The best working experience I’ve had was at a government computing lab, where everyone on my team had an office with a door in the same hallway. We often left our doors open and were in and out of each other’s offices frequently, but always had the option to close the door for focus work.

These days I work from home, and have since 2019. I keep telling recruiters — I might someday be willing to go work in an office again, but not an open office. Give me a room with a door.
posted by learning from frequent failure at 12:09 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

I've been through several office redesigns over the last 20+ years at my job, and each time they reduce the amount of space per person and reduce privacy. I long for the days when cubical walls were high enough to provide some privacy. Now we have been reduced to ones that are lower than the monitors, and it was a fight to keep those instead of getting the complete open workplan that was being pushed. We also no longer have our own desks. Instead we get a locker to put our stuff into at the end of the day like fucking high school. There are still more than enough desks in the building for everyone to have their own spot, but the current policy is hot-seating only unless you are upper management.

I hate it so much, but at least with hybrid work I don't have to be in the office every day of the week. It amazes me that they make working conditions so horrible and yet act surprised when people balked at RTO.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:12 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

In theory "making the office more comfortable" was supposed to win you employees a long long time ago. And yet most offices continued to be terrible. I'm not sure what has changed that employees are going to feel they have a choice now.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:16 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

I am going to buck trend and say that I loathe wfh and I much rather be in an open space office, as long as there are windows and no-one passes behind me on the regular.
Yes more meeting rooms and silent booths and sound insulation. But better in the office.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 12:19 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

To my mind, the biggest issue with returning to work is the commute. If teleportation were a thing, people would be in the office 4 days/week happily.

But getting to the office is at best inconvenient and at worst a nightmare, and that cost in time, money, and mental attention is rarely factored into the hiring process or management calculations. Until Big Management Consulting Firms take commuting as a problem seriously, white-collar workers are going to resist returning to the office.
posted by suelac at 12:29 PM on February 19 [21 favorites]

Fortunately, most lawyers still get assigned offices with doors they can close.

Not in-house counsel at most tech startups, I can assure you.
posted by star gentle uterus at 12:29 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

Open plan offices are the devil, and I definitely agree that they need to do away with them if they expect people to come back to the office. There are probably some other issues that employers could deal with if they wanted: make sure there were better lunch options and provide decent spaces to eat, for instance. But the real sticking point is the commute, and I don't see any way around that.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:30 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

To my mind, the biggest issue with returning to work is the commute.

Yep. Prior to the pandemic, I could walk to work. My employer took the pandemic office shutdown as a perfect opportunity to move to a cheaper building in outer exurbia. So now I have to drive. My walk to and from work was something I really enjoyed every day, no matter the weather. The drive is soul-destroying, I've lost an hour of daily walking exercise, and it eats away at my take-home income.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:36 PM on February 19 [18 favorites]

TBQF this reads a lot like content marketing for the author's company, Framery.

I saw one of these in person recently! The husband and I were visiting secondhand office furniture sellers for gently used desk chairs (for home use, of course) and the first place we visited had one of these "pods" in their warehouse. It reminded me of a small sound recording booth; all it was missing was the egg crate foam. Couldn't imagine doing any other kind of work in that thing.
posted by May Kasahara at 12:41 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

I am going to buck trend and say that I loathe wfh and I much rather be in an open space office, as long as there are windows and no-one passes behind me on the regular.

I'm in the in-between category. I'm WFH and would prefer to have a hybrid situation, coming into the office sometimes and working from home the rest of the time. I'm no longer close enough to an office to make that work, but whenever I travel to an in-person meeting at an office I remember what was good about it, as well as the bad.

But, I've always had my own office in work situations, and I'd have zero interest in a hybrid situation that had me sitting out at some open desk pecking away at my laptop and trying to take calls while hearing other people's calls.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:04 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

I’ve only worked from home in a freelance capacity, for a year or so going on 20 years ago, and to my surprise I quickly grew to dislike it, but freelancing is a very different dynamic than a 9-5.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:12 PM on February 19

I worked for a big bank. First, had a desk in a tiered 'command center' environment. then, for a while, it was having high-walled cubicles as tall as I was for a bunch of things. Then it was open-plan offices. My QOL at work plummeted in the open plan, but no one cared.

My last job that required me to go into an office was also open-plan, while a bunch of people did WFH.

One thing that I've noticed is that if you look at the people screaming about how bad WFH is for 'office culture' or things like that is either they oversee corporate real estate or their companies have long-term leases where people need to be there to make it worth anything to them.

In the meantime I have an interview soon for a job that will be 100% remote except for a paid week in the office, which is in a different state from me - and when I say 'paid', they cover travel and lodging and a per-diem for meals. So I'm looking forwards to that.
posted by mephron at 1:15 PM on February 19 [11 favorites]

The best working experience I’ve had was at a government computing lab, where everyone on my team had an office with a door in the same hallway.

I've been working in government for over 15 years now (because I suck at careering apprently) and have spent virtually all of it is massive (often windowless) noisy, overcrowded cubicle farms. I FINALLY got an office (with a door! and a window!) only a year ago. There's no air conditioning naturally but at least no more listening to the loudmouth one cubicle over bullshit all day instead of actually working. Oh and we're prohibited from WFH.

And now, any time an exec tries to get people back in the office, they have nothing. Their desire to have us back in the office makes as much financial sense

Let me stop you right there. Lots of folks are making arguments for killing WFH that have nothing to do with finances. Egotistical CEOs are doing it claiming they are getting killed from the lack of "in-person collaboration", although it's likely more they just don't trust you and want to fill up that overpriced HQ they just built. In the public sector, they are claiming its needed to "revitalize downtowns" (notably downtown DC), while it's really more like their commercial real-estate lobbyist buddies are upset about losing money. I'm sure it's a total coincidence that one of the most aggressive RTO shills in the white house is Jeff Zeints, who has millions invested in DC commercial real estate.

Any one can easily see WFH is a massive cost savings, but you're assuming that CEOs care about that and not about control.
posted by photo guy at 1:34 PM on February 19 [15 favorites]

Egotistical CEOs are doing it claiming they are getting killed from the lack of "in-person collaboration"…
They also claimed that “in-person collaboration” was the reason for open-plan offices, although for some reason the CEO’s desk was never out in the open-plan space. I guess C-suite executives don’t need to collaborate at work?
posted by mbrubeck at 1:40 PM on February 19 [24 favorites]

I wonder how many remote workers live in the city where their office is -- or the state. In Cleveland, we've been flooded with gentrifiers who don't appear to go to work at all. My guess is that most of them are making a shitty wage in a more expensive city and turning it into a fortune here (a rapidly shrinking fortune, because of them; their presence is raising the cost of living).
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:42 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

Yeah, the thing that infuriates me is that the people who make the decisions about RTO vs. remote work are all people who get to have an office with a door that closes. The ones who rhapsodize about the benefits to the company of overheard conversations are the ones who never have to listen to their coworkers bellow their tech support issues into the phones next to them. I don't know if they'd make different decisions if they had experienced the wonders of the open office first-hand, but it's aggravating that none of them have.
posted by creepygirl at 2:02 PM on February 19 [13 favorites]

And that means making working at the office more like — and even better than — working from home.

For me this means I can care for my elderly father, and sometimes my toddler son, from the office. I can bring them in and do that, right? Right?

The reason why people are resisting RTO isn't just the environment. It's the context of their lives. No amount of noise abatement or added privacy will replace that.
posted by bwerdmuller at 2:11 PM on February 19 [34 favorites]

Mmm. Let me teleport to the office in my comfy loungewear and four cats in tow (because yep, the stress relief of having a purring hot water bottle on my feet is a definite plus) and give me a chaise-longue because sitting upright is for chumps. And then we can talk.

(I do appreciate seeing teammates once in a while, but once a week is enough.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:16 PM on February 19 [8 favorites]

Got a long comment here, sorry about the wall of text...

From the article: Offices, at their best, promote collaboration and communication, as seen with the Allen Curve.

I hadn't heard of the Allen curve before, but the wikipedia summary is "a graphical representation that reveals the exponential drop in frequency of communication between engineers as the distance between them increases." It was identified in the late 1970s.

At a glance it felt like a weak foundation for the core point of the article, that offices can be superior to WFH if only they're made appealing enough. I mean, what does "distance" even mean in the modern context? In the 1970s most quick, visual, and/or complex communication could only be done in each others' presence, so of course physical distance would have mattered greatly. I also raise an eyebrow at its focus on frequency rather than quality of communication. I know the latter is almost impossible to measure, but this smells a lot like a McNamara fallacy situation.

Well, I found a recent study of this topic, in a post-COVID world. It centers on a case study of the software teams from "a major online retailer" (*cough*), so even though it's a pretty large study it should be taken with a grain of salt. But as someone in software and who has Opinions about the WFH/RTO debate I found it absolutely fascinating.

Long story short, they came to the conclusion that productivity was higher with WFH. But there's a major caveat: at least part of that gain was because of a reduction in mentorship: both senior and junior engineers spent more time focusing on their own work rather than developing junior engineers' skills. Sadly, this was particularly true for women in junior engineer roles.

So the near-term productivity gains come at the cost of long-term skill development in juniors. But that caveat has its own caveat: juniors who get more mentorship end up quitting for a higher-paying job more often. From a purely calculating perspective, companies might avoid some turnover costs by letting good-enough junior engineers stagnate at their current skill level.

Anyway, this did make me adjust some of my Opinions. Because I would not trade WFH for office work, and thought it was utterly ridiculous that a company like Zoom (!) would do RTO. But I do find WFH frustrating, and now I better understand why: I (a senior engineer) am all about that mentor life. Like, my code reviews are notorious for their detail and depth, I go way beyond simply "how do we improve your code" and into "here's an intro course on an entire library and how to use it for this and other problems." It can sometimes irritate folks, like if I get busy with other tasks and leave imperfect-but-functional code reviews incomplete. But overall people seem to really appreciate it.

Far, far more important though is that I get to see it "click" for the junior devs, the first time they get an unsolicited message on Slack from someone saying "I had to add a feature to your code and it was so easy, thanks!" I get to watch folks realize that you can enjoy the craft of professional dev work rather than it just being a grind through bug reports. They end up improving for their own sake, asking better questions earlier, and eventually becoming mentors themselves.

And I do seek out the folks, on my teams and others, who aren't getting the same level of mentorship as their peers. You'll be unsurprised to hear that it's usually women, people of color, and non-native English speakers. There have been at least four people who were in the "create a paper trail so we can fire them" phase, who ended up being among the strongest members of the team. They had the aptitude and the drive, they just needed their fair share of institutional support.

I still do all that stuff when WFH, but the study I linked echoes my experience: I do a lot less of it, and I have a lot less visibility into who is or isn't getting that support.

This gives me more time to get my own work done, sure. And that's part of why I can't imagine going back to the office: my personal health is way, way better because I was doing invisible labor, and had to work extra hours to stay afloat with my official responsibilities.

All this is to say that, while I don't know the exact form it would take, the fundamental solution to this part of the problem is obvious: let people WFH, but make mentorship a visible, accountable, and non-optional part of the project schedule job responsibility.

That's how it should've been anyway, even when we were all in the office pre-COVID. I've burned out (or nearly so) several times because mentoring was too important to me to let paltry things like "weekends" or "sleep" short-change it.

The question is, how much have employers enjoyed "mentorship" being a secret thing they can expect without having to budget for it?
posted by Riki tiki at 2:21 PM on February 19 [46 favorites]

I wonder how many remote workers live in the city where their office is -- or the state. In Cleveland, we've been flooded with gentrifiers who don't appear to go to work at all. My guess is that most of them are making a shitty wage in a more expensive city and turning it into a fortune here (a rapidly shrinking fortune, because of them; their presence is raising the cost of living).

I'm five states away from my office; we decided to take the gamble that either remote work will stick, or if it doesn't that we'll figure something out. But we weren't going to keep living in a place we didn't love, and remote work gave us an option we would never have had otherwise.

But, like in your city, remote workers here (myself included) are adding to a distorted housing market. The unaffordability here predated remote work, but the combination of remote workers and second home owners choosing to only rent short term via AirBnB rather than longer leases that local people could use have pushed things even further out of reach, both for buying and renting.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:23 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

I'm fortunate to have an office with a big window that I sit next to (not much of a view, but big open sky and I can watch pigeons all day!) and a heavy, solid door that closes. And the culture is "closed doors = OK." Also: WFH on Fridays, and if I have a cold or something comes up, I can ask and WFH pretty much any time. But I don't ask often.

I mostly hate the commute. ~45 minutes each way, sometimes less, but 2xday x 4 days a week and that's serious car-time. And I've never been a car person. This is the first job I have ever driven to in my 25+ years of office stuff.

I worked in ad agencies before where closed doors meant "serious meeting" only (sometimes means "dire meeting" like WTH is goin on in there), and doors were to be kept open or at least ajar at all times. I found this to be true in various ad agencies, though towards the end of my time doing ad work almost all the agencies went to a miserable open-office plan with elbow to elbow shared space and little 'island tables' for pop-up meetings. I really only freelanced in those places, but it was really annoying, and I am not particularly sensitive to noise, distractions and such. Suddenly a 'pop-up' meeting might happen 12 feet away from you, with a bunch of 20-somethings loudly discussing their weekend plans, etc.

Really love my office situation now, but actually get a little lonely at work. I'm the only 50-something guy there. So I only socialize in the shared office that all the young 20-somethings use. I love the young workers! I go there and shoot the shit with them, and they ask me about old stuff, and love to hear stories. I'm like the office uncle.
posted by SoberHighland at 2:37 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

I honestly would love a hybrid model that was "all the people in your group/dept come in on Wednesdays and then any other day if you need it", and also to be able to do full days when I'm training new people (per the mentoring comment above). I do need to see people regularly, and especially if we made it a fun thing (boss brings donuts, whatever) it would be fine. And have the option for other days when you need it. But more than that is just overkill; I don't work as well with noise/other people around, especially if I like them and want to chat.

Covid sort of made us all see what an odd, para-society offices are when you are there 40+ hours a week. And that a lot of the time it was just making the best of being in a place you didn't like to be in, doing your work despite it. Sometimes it could be fun, some people could become friends, there's some benefit there, but it's not worth 40+ hours (plus commute) every week.
posted by emjaybee at 3:01 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

Peggy sits four feet away from me in an open office. Peggy speaks loudly in video meetings most of the day. We have ubiquitous video rooms with closed doors everywhere, they are super easy to book….or just walk into and press a button to book.

Every time she starts a new meeting, I walk to one of these rooms and waste the company’s money by playing at least one game of Magic the Gathering Arena.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:04 PM on February 19 [25 favorites]

All this is to say that, while I don't know the exact form it would take, the fundamental solution to this part of the problem is obvious: let people WFH, but make mentorship a visible, accountable, and non-optional part of the project schedule job responsibility.

This matches a lot of what I see about the split in reactions to remote work as far as communication/documentation goes. There's been so many hand-wavey gestures at "spontaneous water-cooler innovation!", but I think a lot of it is that people have to be more intentional about communication. Writing things down vs. going "Go ask the longtimer in the corner", revising onboarding checklists each time someone comes onto the team, etc.

In other words, doing many of the things that ought to have been done previously; but went unobserved & unrewarded.
posted by CrystalDave at 3:13 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

I've only really had three, maybe another, but only sort of, office jobs.

The sort of was a "Running the office and the crew" when my boss left at an inventory service in Springfield Oregon. Two rooms, one "my office" and one bigger room for the crew to meet in before jobs, training, etc. Other than hiring, the only time my office was used was when we would come back from a job, usually at like 1AM, most folks would leave, and the rest of us would all go smoke pot in my office, lol.

I moved to Ballard, (N. Seattle)

Next one, as a temp and then as IT support, once I got moved to IT, one room, no cubicle. Sucked.

Next one as a developer, started out having an office with a door, not sure I ever closed it, but it was an expensive office in Bellevue, and they downsized to a shithole in Kirkland. Did have cubicle walls, and was in a corner, so, not terrible.

Then another developer job in a loft down near Pioneer Square. Another big, giant room, no cubicles. But at most their were 4 other employees, so that was fine. As long as I could make sure my monitor faced the window, no one could spy upon me and what I was looking at on my computer. Then they got bought out, everyone except the engineer and the president got let go, the engineer moved to the new HQ in Tennessee, and the president and I moved to an even shittier little room in Bellevue. He spent half time here, half time in Tennessee. He quit six months later. So I got to move the office back to Ballard. No one but me. WFH, without having to actually have all the computers and equipment in my home!

And the commutes were in fact the worst things, for the eastside locations. On a good day, (Ms. Windo wouldn't let me drive to work), it was 2 hours of bus rides to get to Bellevue and home. Bad days, could reach 3 or 4. Ask me about the days the Battle in Seattle was taking place, but even some random traffic slowdown could add an hour or two. Once they moved to Kirkland, there were no buses, but still 520 traffic could add an hour. Pioneer Square wasn't as big a problem, except when working late and coming out at 1AM, with the bars closing down, and fights in the streets...

And then back to the Bellevue commute.

And then getting to be 5 minutes away on Ballard Ave. With no officemates. The best.

It did get weird spending all day in a small room by myself for years, but I got shit done. But other than the IT support days, where I had to be there to fix people's computers, and the early days in Pioneer Square where I had to actually figure out what the engineer's crazy capture devices were telling me, the "collaboration" stuff was nonsense. Tell me what you need, and I will get it done.
posted by Windopaene at 3:23 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

Anyone only talking about WFH, singular, isn't even keeping up with the conversation.

I have a complete, secondary work space set up at my mother's house so I can be there if her health requires it, but also so I can visit regularly. One of my coworkers has also shown up on a video conference from his elderly mother's place. My line manager's house is in a bushfire prone area, so he's evacuated to his daughter's place once.

Right now, I'm sitting in our living room (rather than my study) due to an aircon failure, and I'm working on a big-screened personal laptop that I'm setting up for "Work From Anywhere". This is actually a return to what happened at the beginning of COVID, when I worked from my father inlaw's place in another country due to my mother inlaw's passing, then worked from hotel quarantine. Once I get a car charger (remember those?) for my laptop, the idea is to be able to spend a portion of the day working from somewhere completely different every so often, just to open up some options (like maybe a nice walk) at lunch or the end of the day.
posted by krisjohn at 3:26 PM on February 19 [8 favorites]

I have about 10 people working for me from wherever, Including other cities and countries .
If I felt any one of them needed to be in an office where I could look over their shoulder to make sure they were working, I'd fire them and hire somebody else I could trust.
Thankfully, they're all great.
posted by signal at 3:28 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

So, commute with other people for 60-90 minutes a day to go into an office to work in a quiet space alone like you were at home...but not in your pjs or with your pet on your lap. People will LOVE this.
posted by Toddles at 3:43 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, if you can't tell whether someone's working without either surveilling them or taking their word for it, you might be managing too many people. I feel my work should intersect with my reports' often enough that I'm naturally aware of their progress, and if that isn't happening then probably (1) I'm spread too thin, (2) they should be reporting to someone else who's more connected with their work, or (3) their work isn't actually connected to the rest of the company and we should make sure it's not a waste of everyone's time.

Now, I don't always get to decide the hierarchy or the projects and (as I mentioned) I'm not great at un-spreading-myself-thin, but it's still useful to recognize the situation even if I can't fully fix it.
posted by Riki tiki at 3:56 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

I've been with my current employer since 2007, basically. I've seen the office layout go from:

individual high-walled cubicles with desktop computers > long tables with laptops and a monitor if you manage to snag one for yourself > individual cubicles with about 10-inch "walls" and similar up-for-grabs monitors > long rows of sit/stand desks > WFH beginning in March 2020 > long rows of sit/stand desks with widescreen monitors on every one, but it's not "your" desk and you need to bring everything of yours back home at the end of the day. The campus where I'm supposed to come in at least twice a week (35 miles round trip) has the kind of amenities that made it a cool place to work in the early 2000s — multiple cafeterias and coffee shops, fitness facilities, walking trails — but the current hybrid work situation means the offices are technically open all week, but most campus services including all the cafeterias are closed on Mondays and Friday.

It's downright blissful on most days when I come in, and I often have huge expanses of office space just to myself the only person occupying a desk in the area of one building I've decided to claim as my work location. But I'm now one of only two people on my team living in my city, and we don't work from work on the same days. I drive to the office to Zoom and Slack with the rest of my teammates, who are spread out across several states.

They can't give every one of the thousands of employees big cubicles, much less private offices. That kind of setup isn't coming back. So, sure, make the offices more like home, but you'll never match my current setup of a corner office where I can listen to music without headphones, switch laptops and record some music, all with a cat lounging nearby.
posted by emelenjr at 4:07 PM on February 19

The reason why people are resisting RTO isn't just the environment. It's the context of their lives. No amount of noise abatement or added privacy will replace that.

posted by tiny frying pan at 5:08 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

I have a real office with a door, but I am being forced to wear pants, commute to work, and sit in a chair that's bad for my arthritis in order to TAKE ZOOM MEETINGS, often with people down the hall from me. It is insane and I am less productive than when I can intersperse work with breaks to do housework etc. which move my body in good ways and work my mind in different ways, when I can eat what's in my kitchen instead of needing to pack it up every day, and when I can alternate whether I'm sitting at a desk, on a couch, or in a recliner to minimize pain.

So yeah, privacy is super important, but not the biggest thing. And my company is not making in-person collaboration easy or effective anyway so it's super frustrating.
posted by metasarah at 5:12 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

Not in-house counsel at most tech startups, I can assure you.

Poor life choices!
posted by praemunire at 5:22 PM on February 19

I actually don't mind in-office work and even enjoy my weekly in-office day as a 4/1 hybrid worker. (It probably helps that my office is quiet and comfortable, with 100% adjustable desks and lots of private call rooms available.) It's nice to chat with my coworkers and I like having the extra monitors, since I work on a laptop at home. What I hate isn't being in the office—it's commuting. It makes me feel miserable and it wastes over an hour of my day. I plan to quit on the spot if we ever mandate RTO (I've already told my manager so). The commute is the only reason*. The only RTO policy that would be a "good" policy for me is one where they magically relocate the office to the interior of my apartment building. So good luck with that.

*The only selfish reason, anyway. A bigger reason would be that I work with a huge number of 100% remote colleagues, including some who were hired as 100% remote; I manage someone who lives 2000 miles away and always has, and RTO would mean "uproot your family and move to our outlandishly expensive metro area, or you're fired" for her and many others.
posted by capricorn at 5:27 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

The problem is that this "debate" is entirely one-way.

That is, those who want to work from home just want the option to work from home. They are not demanding that no one else be able to work at the office. But, in general, the return-to-office people do, in fact, demand that everyone else also return to the office, especially the upper management types issuing these edicts.

After all, if you believe that the office environment somehow contributes to innovation or camaraderie or whatever, it only works if everyone's there. Few things are sadder than sitting in a big empty office with only 25% of the seats filled. Or, more cynically, what's the point of clawing your way to the top of the corporate pyramid if you can't look out on a sea of your peons toiling for you?
posted by star gentle uterus at 5:35 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

... I work with a huge number of 100% remote colleagues, including some who were hired as 100% remote; I manage someone who lives 2000 miles away and always has, and RTO would mean "uproot your family and move to our outlandishly expensive metro area, or you're fired" for her and many others.

This is why I see full RTO as being so unlikely at a lot of companies at this point. Once you have enough staff that have been hired that way, it just becomes unrealistic to demand people move to the office, unless you are hoping to downsize the payroll by making the demand while knowing that a bunch of people will quit.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:40 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

It's been said that Loblaw Corp's very early and insistent RTO policy was specifically so G2 could walk out into the great walkways on the executive level arcing over the massive atrium in the very expensive Loblaw Corp HQ building and look down amongst his chattelry going nicky-nack on their keybobs and chitty-chat on their telehorns.

In addition to the price fixing and pandemic profiteering, it's just another reason he should be pushed.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:41 PM on February 19

Dip Flash, that's exactly what they're doing. Have to keep the stock prices up after all.
posted by kokaku at 5:55 PM on February 19

The biggest reason people don’t like going to an office is because it means existing in an autocracy for 8 hour a day. Working from home gives you some small measure of freedom and allows you to forget that 1/3 of your waking hours are spent in a dictatorship.
posted by rhymedirective at 6:13 PM on February 19 [10 favorites]

oof, speaking as a claustrophobe, the idea of companies solving rto with little enclosed pods is emphatically not it.
posted by augustimagination at 6:18 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I'm not looking forward to having to commute to an office five days a week, which is my most likely future if I can ever get employed again, since mandated 2 days a week RTO is going on everywhere I'm applying, and it's clear that will be followed by 5 days a week RTO and there's nothing that can be done to fight it, and I'm going to have to give up on working in my town to boot.

Right now I only have to go in two days a week (I'd prefer one, but two is doable) and I walk to work. One of the many reasons why I was trying so hard to stick with my current job--other than nobody else will hire me--is because most places are getting rid of that. I knew if I ever got to work from home, I wouldn't want to leave it, and, well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:20 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I am never going into an office again.

I was working from home more or less even pre-pandemic and while I get it's not like this for everyone, working from home has been so good for my mental health. I don't need an office to feel more like "home" -- I have one of those, thanks. (I'm also not keen on coworkers being my friends. I have those! I don't have enough time for them as it is!)

But as someone who has had a series of pretty toxic jobs, I'm pretty dedicated to keeping my work and personal life separate. My job funds my real life. My job is not my life.
posted by edencosmic at 6:32 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

If anyone has some good links (or, cough, insider info) I'm really curious about how much RTO is related to companies' exposure to commercial real estate investments, or tax subsidies they'd lose if they don't fill their offices. I suspect that's a completely opaque and significant part of this problem.
posted by Riki tiki at 6:45 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

I think the main reason the companies want people to be back in the office is that they have invested billions in commercial office space - all those towers and campuses. As a group they recognize that they need to sustain the culture where people who do office work have to come into the office or else those buildings they invested in will become worthless.

There is some variation between individuals and individual companies or divisions. Some companies have managers who want people to line up in front of them to show submission and to be bossed around, more than those managers care about productivity or their bottom line. They increase productivity when people work from home. They would reduce expenses too. But whatever their individual motivation is, they all recognize that their interests are the same as those of the other corporations which invested in commercial office space, and they are showing solidarity with their peers who are demanding that the office space not be allowed to drop in value. If a company that owns a tower reduces their office space to only what they need to provide initial training space and a few other functions that can't be done by employees working from home they will still be stuck paying the property taxes and maintenance costs on their office buildings unless they sell them. They will only save money by having people working from home if they can sell the tower.

How do you sell an office tower right now in this economy? Imagine telling prospective buyers that THEY need an office tower because their employees can't work from home, but YOU don't need it anymore because your employees are special and can work from home. I'll bet that as soon as they looked into selling their building they saw that they couldn't find buyers and would end up having to justify the most enormous write off ever on their balance sheet. In 2021, the value of office towers in New York fell 16% - picture how anxious you'd be if your house lost that much value, especially if you were still paying a mortgage on it. So they have closed ranks and are doing everything they can to get their workers back into the office simply to restore the value of their real estate.

Ever look at the skyline of any decent sized city? It's all these big glass towers. The CEO's competed to have the showiest fanciest towers, or at least to have a tower of some size to prove they are a member of the exclusive club of leaders at the helm of a company that has built an extremely big visible and ugly building. Leaving these guys with a huge empty building with no one working in it is like laughing at their penis. Oh what a huge, tall phallic power symbol you have, which no one wants and which no one admires.

For a completely nightmarish scenario for a CEO, imagine that the value on those office towers collapses completely. Imagine being stuck with a thirty story office tower which you can't sell. You'd still be on the hook for maintenance or demolishing it. They can't be renovated for housing - there isn't the below ground infrastructure such as the sewer lines that would be necessary. They've done a lot of feasiblity studies which show it would be as cost effective to knock them down and rebuild a new apartment building as it would be to convert most of these buildings; more of a problem is the fact that the neighborhoods they are in can't be rezoned for residential as the population density would then be too high. Not to mention that if they added that many residential units the value of existing residential stock would plunge. Large banks aren't going to finance a conversion to residential because if they did all their other customers with residential property would end up having to lower rents and then defaulting on their loans.

So the banks and CEO's and mayors want us back in the office. If they fail to restore the daily office culture norm, there are going to be a lot of bankruptcies. They care about how their workers feel about coming back into the office, about as much as facebook cares about their users. They are pretty confident that they can do almost anything and they will only lose a tiny fraction of them, not enough to effect their bottom line. So what workers want and need in terms of working conditions is irrelevant to them. Their focus is on retaining the value of their investments and keeping their stock prices high.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:07 PM on February 19 [11 favorites]

I've come to the conclusion that these demands for RTO have nothing to do with anything other than irrational belief and/or a desire to exercise power and/or a lack of understanding/curiosity about how people actually get work done.

If there was any rational choice going on here, the people making these decisions would allow teams to make their own calls on when to come in, watch their productivity and real-estate usage, and quickly come to the conclusion that they can seriously downsize their real-estate costs, and increase productivity by letting teams WFH when they want/need.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 7:15 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

I've been working from home since 2009. Teaching online courses at an online school.

Lots of good things about it. Absolutely.

But a huge downside is that it's almost impossible to resist management decisions. I don't know who my colleagues are (except for one person who teaches the same course I do) , I don't know what the other teaches want or think. Impossible to have any solidarity.

I used to fight the endless bad-for-teaching-and - learning decisions tooth and nail. Losing fight after fight because of the extremely simple technique of "ignore the angry teacher" which is a lot easier to do when there's no face to face interaction.

I still resist bad decisions but the only colleague I have contact with keeps telling me not to "rock the boat" and it's perfectly true that I can be fired with no one batting an eye because no one cares how good I am at my job.
posted by Zumbador at 7:31 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

I was reading some financial disclosures for a large publicly traded company. The CEO owns his private jet but leases it back to the company. Some of these CEOs have personal financial interests in forcing RTO. Time for us to come for the private jets…
posted by shock muppet at 7:33 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Most midsize and up companies don't own their office buildings in big-city downtowns. They lease them long-term. Of course, being stuck with leases for space you aren't using isn't all that attractive a prospect, either.
posted by praemunire at 7:33 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Do I have to wear pants? Then I'm not taking your job. I hate pants. One day a week, I'd suck it up. But that's all you get.
posted by outgrown_hobnail at 7:46 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I think that commute times are as important a consideration as authoritarian bosses for dissuading RTO. I recently changed jobs and ended up living a ten minute walk from the office. Going to the office is fine, especially as the boss is super busy with their own priorities. The previous job, before COVID, involved almost two hours of commuting a day against all the other impatient commuters. I could never go back to that amount of stress in a day again.

In connection to the office layout topic, I had a fun experience. Our office was converted to low-wall cubicles with no assigned desks. Then there was a shooting incident in town. So the employer dusted off their emergency procedures book and held a drill for 'sheltering in place'. Step one in the emergency procedures book was : "Close your office door....".
posted by SnowRottie at 8:02 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

There already was a post RE Framery and it was deleted because it was an advertisement. See here. Same company. Same person posted it.
posted by user92371 at 12:15 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

Well damn.
posted by flamk at 12:21 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

And yet another post linking to a Framery ad campaign by the same user.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:41 AM on February 20

Fourth mefi post linking to a piece written by Framery.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:03 AM on February 20

Ah sorry – I didn't realize I can't post about the same subject more than once? Feel free to take down this post / I messaged the moderator about it too
posted by folklore724 at 2:13 AM on February 20

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