Anne Helen Petersen is the co-author of a new book on the future of remote work. She says companies need to clearly know what goal they are pursuing when asking remote workers to come back in person.



How many of us who've been working from home for the last 20 months will eventually go back to the office? It's a topic writer Anne Helen Petersen explores in the upcoming book she co-authored called "Out Of Office." She says that on the other side of the pandemic, there's a chance work will rotate more around people's lives instead of the other way around.

ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: The thing that we have to remember about working from home during the pandemic is that people's productivity went up. People were producing more. They were working more hours. They were getting their work done. And for some people, they figured out I actually can work fewer hours and produce more. And so I think what companies have to be thinking about is how do we keep our workers in that high level of productivity while also figuring out a schedule that allows people to have that collaborative space when and if they need it or want it? But the thing that I see a lot of is, like, we want all of the productivity that you had from working from home, but we also want you to be in the office a lot. And the thing about the office is the office is not generally a productive space for a lot of people.

MARTIN: Just because there are distractions that aren't central to your actual work?

PETERSEN: Yeah. So there is a lot of waste inherent to going into the office. Some of that is just the commute, right? But I think people also forget that, like, the office required a lot of sitting around and being in your chair when you didn't need to be. And a lot of it, too, is just, like, hanging out with co-workers. That's part of the great part. It's part of what people really miss, but it's also not necessarily getting work done.

MARTIN: This is a conundrum - right? - because employees have gotten used to having more ownership over their time. But if you look at it from an employer's point of view, I mean, how do you create a policy that is equitable but also taking into consideration the fact that you might actually need certain employees physically in the building?

PETERSEN: So some of it is just re-examining tradition, and, like, the pandemic forced that - right? - forced people to think, what does customer service look like not in an office building? What does a receptionist look like not in an office building? And then the other thing, too, is actually asking your employees what schedules work well. And what I've seen for companies that are figuring out this back-to-the-office transition is figuring out, OK, what do we want the office for? What are the reasons why we want to go back? What sort of tasks are really important to do in the office? And once you figure that out, then you can figure out, OK, so we can allow people to shape their week around, let's say, we want everyone to be in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 2. That allows so much flexibility in terms of not having to go into the office during peak commute times, being able to facilitate pickups and drop-offs from school, right? There's all sorts of things that parents in particular still need in terms of a flexible work day, and you can make that work. You really can. You just have to listen to employees and also not have arbitrary understandings of when the workday should start and stop.

MARTIN: Are there any concerns, though, about companies who've gone fully remote? I mean, what are some of the drawbacks to having undergone a really big culture change through all this and now having all your employees remote?

PETERSEN: I think there still are going to be ways that they figure out to be in this space together, whether that means a once-yearly retreat, a quarterly retreat, more innovative ways of being online with one another and figuring that out. But also an important thing is understanding what is culture for? Is there an actual reason to, like, cultivate friendship with your co-workers? And this is sometimes the most controversial...

MARTIN: Right, because everybody's all about a corporate culture, and so many organizations and companies are like, we're one big, happy family.

PETERSEN: No, that's toxic.


PETERSEN: Like, when you think of your corporation as a family, it's a toxic family. And so one of the things that I think a lot of people, particularly millennials, have gotten used to is using their workplace as their primary source of friendship or companionship. And that is the result of working all of the time and having your identity be solely defined by your job. And so as we start to disarticulate ourselves from that understanding, to try to figure out, like, who we are apart from work, part of that means I don't have to be best friends with everyone that I work with. And if you have a more flexible life that isn't in the office all of the time, you can cultivate and sustain friendships that are not associated with the workplace, and that is so important.

MARTIN: You write about the lengths that certain employers are taking to kind of keep tabs on their own employees. So corporations who have maybe allowed telework in the pandemic - they don't trust their employees. Basically, they're spying on them.

PETERSEN: Yeah, so I think a lot of this has to do with managers feeling very insecure about how to manage. And I don't necessarily think that this is a character flaw or that there's ill intent. Historically, managing has involved surveillance of some sort - right? - like, eyes on the people that you are managing, seeing them every single day in the office or seeing when they come and leave, how they interact with other people. It's been a very physical act. So I think that a lot of managers are hoping that if employees come back into the office, then managing will get easier and also that their jobs as managers will become more visible. Like, the work that they're doing will be more tangible and easier to ascertain, to value.

So I think that companies who are moving into this more flexible and remote style have to really be thinking about what does management look like? What does good, remote management look like? It's not something that you can say, oh, I've just been doing it for these last 18 months. I know how to do it. It's a real skill. And the other thing too is I think especially people who are in power in organizations and whose job really is to kind of walk around and just, like, check on people - they want to feel that power again. They want to feel like they are doing a good job, and the way that they know that they are doing a good job is by walking around. And that's not enough reason to make an entire organization come back into the office.

MARTIN: Anne Helen Petersen is the co-author of "Out Of Office," which is out December 7. Anne, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you.

PETERSEN: Thank you so much.

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