Like so many others with a desk job, I’ve spent the pandemic working from home — or more specifically, the bed in a bedroom of our microscopic Brooklyn apartment, which is also home to a 6-year-old, a cat named James Bond and a Roomba named DB5. When I have zooms for work, I try to put on something that passes for business casual and make sure my hair doesn’t look like I spent my free time in the local wind tunnel. But strictly speaking, this effort may be wasted as many formalities of white-collar work have eroded.
For so-called knowledge workers, the shift towards the culture of casual work has been happening since decades, but Covid has accelerated the trend by demonstrating that some office demands are arbitrary and counterproductive, and make workers blatantly miserable. I don’t miss the long unnecessary trips that sap my energy before the work day even begins. And having walked through snow and ice more than once in stilettos while carrying heavy pitch books, I think the relaxed dress codes undo decades of Satan’s work on acceptable work clothes – especially for the women, which are often subject to different and more rigorous standards. (I’m not alone here; in a 2019 survey, 33% of workers said they would forego an additional $5,000 salary for a casual dress code.)
There are trade-offs, however. The loss of formalities in the workplace like fixed start and end times, managerial hierarchies with clear paths to advancement, and professional norms that create boundaries between personal and professionally acceptable behavior only hurt workers . While the transformation of white-collar work in the age of the pandemic seems at first glance empowering, we should make no mistake: many of these changes primarily benefit employers.
On the surface, for example, remote work seems to give workers more freedom to do their jobs where and when they want. But while employees may feel more productive when working from home, we can just work more, no more efficient. A 2020 Harvard Business School study of digital communications in nearly 21,500 companies found that the average workday increased by 8.2% during the first weeks of pandemic closures.
Employers are incentivized to embrace this 24-hour culture, not because it gives workers more choice about when and how they get the job done, but because it allows them to extract more work from employees than they want. compensate for. When employers can monopolize workers’ time and attention at all times, it allows them to exploit people who can no longer check when the workday is supposed to be over or when they have to rest. There is no balance between work and private life, as the two integrate fully and seamlessly. Your home is no longer the office; the office is now your home.
Another one accelerated by the pandemic trend is the flattening of hierarchies, where top-level employees manage their front lines directly, rather than through a pyramid of middle managers. This also seems to be an advantage, as it means workers have to wade through less bureaucracy to get things done. But it often means that employers can offer workers avenues for advancement, especially if they are younger and less experienced. It is easier to assign junior employees more ad hoc responsibilities in a more informal environment and to do so without formal promotions. These workers have the least ability to push back when this happens because they have the least power in the organization.
The confinement linked to Covid has also contributed to the erosion of borders between colleagues because we are all invited to each other’s homes, thanks to videoconferencing. You can finally see where QA’s Tyler lives whether you like it or not. There are obvious areas where this has gone too far – no one should ever take a bath on a work zoom – but most importantly, this can easily lead to a failure to treat others professionally as a matter of course.
What will work and life look like after the pandemic?
This is more likely to affect people at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy, who are at greater risk of becoming the target of harassment and inappropriate behavior. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also identifies the following as risk factors for workplace harassment: a young workforce, places where workers are isolated or work alone most of the time and decentralized workplaces. Young workers may not feel comfortable pushing back against inappropriate conduct and may not know how to do so (especially in more casual workplaces – the many start-ups where HR does not exist) . Isolation means there are fewer people to intervene in cases of harassment, and decentralization can make managers feel like it is okay to operate outside of workplace norms because they don’t feel not as accountable to specific people. Finally, young workers may violate standards because they do not interact with managers who would otherwise model professional behavior for them.
I’m not one who particularly likes formalities, and I resent them when I think they’re arbitrary. My 6 year old does the same, which means when I give him a new rule to follow, he needs to know why it’s important. “Is it good for me or for you? he asks, like a little Alec Baldwin in “The Departed” (“Cui bono?”).
This is a question that should be asked about every Covid-induced change that has changed the way we work, and in particular relaxed professional standards. It is particularly worth considering in the context of how it affects younger workers, who lack training and often find their bosses less accessible, rather than more (24/7 availability only works from top to bottom).
This is not an issue that only workers should worry about. Employers who care about their employees should be aware that the lack of boundaries is a major contributor to burnout. People will overwork themselves because the corporate culture encourages it and they can believe their self-esteem is related to their work. So, unless the hours are formally limited, they will continue until their health and productivity suffer. Their personal needs are not being met because work has taken over their personal life so much that there is no time for non-work life.
None of this is an argument for sending everyone back to the office and imposing rigid formalities on their own account. It is, however, a reason to examine which parts of office culture have been erased by Covid and need to be restored as they benefit workers more than businesses.
Some of the questions are easy: Who benefits most from a 112-hour work week? Unless you’re the business owner, it’s probably not you.
Elisabeth Spiers (@espiers) is a writer and digital media strategist. She was editor of the New York Observer and founding editor of Gawker.
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