Official myths

I’ve read an untold number of articles about remote work in the past however many months, and among the recurring themes is the notion that young people need IRL cultures in order to grow and learn. Like a lot of storytelling about remote work, this analysis correctly identifies a challenge with remote culture but then presumes, absent any evidence, that offices must be better at resolving it. They are not.

First, let’s unpack what’s valid about this criticism. Junior staff are more likely to need regular hands-on support and training, both in terms of skill-building around the work itself (e.g., learning how to present a design, or how to document their code) and in terms of navigating the social and cultural elements of a workplace (e.g., building cross-functional relationships, or learning how to work with a manager). Not all junior staff are young—a great many people will make career shifts in the broad middle of their careers, taking on junior roles despite already having a decade-plus of job experience—but many junior staff are considerably younger, and likely require more social support and guidance than your average middle-aged worker.

So it is the case that remote practices that default to the needs of an experienced mid-career worker are probably missing a lot of things that someone more junior both needs and yearns for.

The mistake from here is assuming that offices are naturally better at building those kinds of social and supportive structures. In many a remote-critical piece I’ve read, there’s a kind of mythical office that remote culture is being compared to, a place where everyone is welcomed, where collaboration and support is easy-going and automatic, where everyone is always whiteboarding or talking in the hallways. It’s kind of astonishing to see how much this presumed office utopia has become implicit, given we have literal decades of satire about offices as locales of poorly lit, soul-sucking, isolated work, where you are more likely to be abused by your boss than sponsored by them. Dilbert did not become a cultural lodestone by avoiding the realities of offices but by highlighting them.

Offices can, of course, be great places to learn and grow. But that’s the exception not the rule. I’ve witnessed and heard about tons of office cultures in which junior staff were tucked into a back room, given a long list of menial tasks, and then abandoned save for a once-a-week brown bag lunch in which a guest speaker showed up without any preparation or context. I’ve known more than one company where it was common for senior staff to order food or leave early for the pub without inviting the junior folks to join them. I once heard the very senior leader of a prestigious organization say, out loud, that there was no point trying to retain junior staff since colleges would just graduate more of them next year. To claim that young people won’t get the support they need over Slack does not in and of itself prove they will get any more simply by subjecting themselves to a commute.

The other claim I’ve seen oft repeated is that unless a manager can see you—sitting at your desk, performing productivity—they are likely to forget about you. Setting aside the fact that this is a pretty infantilizing description of managers, it also assumes that simply being in an office is enough to be noticed and attended to—and that such attention will always be positive. I do not think I need to tell you that a disabled, BIPOC, or LGBTQ+ member of the team is much less likely to receive doting support from senior staff than folks who are none of those things. In fact, the reverse is more often the case: members of minoritized groups are more likely to be subject to surveillance and judgment—e.g., a manager noticing every time they step away from their desk—than folks from more privileged backgrounds.

Supporting junior staff is work. It’s work whether you’re in an office some or all of the time, and it’s work if Slack is the only office you know. Hauling staff back to the office doesn’t make supporting junior staff easier or even more likely. The only way to make sure that junior staff get the support they need is to hold managers accountable for their growth. Managers should be able to speak to how their junior staff want to grow, and how they and the rest of the organization are working to support that growth. Support needs to come in the form of humane and useful feedback, access to training and opportunties to learn, abundant peer support, and committed sponsorship. Whether that support is delivered IRL or via Slack or Zoom or subspace is neither here nor there—it’s the support that matters. Until or if a company comes to terms with that, junior staff are unlikely to get what they need, regardless of whether they commute to an office or stay on their couch.

Ultimately the real problem with the argument that we need offices to support junior staff isn’t about those junior staff at all—most of whom, I think, can see right through those claims. It’s that by constantly comparing remote work to an office straw man, we’re not engaging seriously with the challenges of remote work. And no matter how committed a company may be to bringing people back to the office, remote work isn’t going away for anyone anytime soon. Even the most diehard IRL culture will find that people won’t commute in on days when the forecast warns of flash floods, or the air quality has plummeted because of nearby wildfires, or the local energy utility is warning of brownouts after the seventh straight day of triple-digit temperatures. The most anti-remote employee isn’t going to be welcome in the office when they have a cold or when their kid just tested positive for COVID. Millions of immunocompromised people are still at risk from COVID, while millions of others are suffering from the effects of long COVID. And we’re years if not decades away from repairing our broken childcare and elder care systems, which will require that many caretakers, like it or not, will have to work from home, at least some of the time.

And yet there are real difficulties associated with remote work, and we shouldn’t sidestep them. Many people reasonably find remote work to be very isolating, and they may also lack the skills or infrastructure (abundant local cafés, neighborhood friends, libraries) to cope with that isolation. Lots of people live with others—kids, elders, roommates—and don’t have the space or quiet to make it feasible to work from home on the regular. Many (if not most) managers struggle to communicate clearly across multiple mediums, and all-remote practices are bringing those struggles to the fore. Plus plenty of people simply prefer to go to an office every day than to work from their kitchen, and we should respect those preferences. But comparisons between remote and IRL practices that presume that offices are naturally more productive, equitable, accessible, or collaborative simply by existing are not going to help us solve these very real problems.

Put another way: remote work isn’t, by definition, better or worse than IRL work. But it is different, and it is a necessary adaptation in an era marked by climate change and the slow collapse of long-neglected infrastructures. It’s past time to engage with its flaws directly, instead of always harking back to a fabricated office history we never lived in and cannot return to.