Once again, middle-aged executives said they wanted employees to return to the office.
On this occasion, young workers were also present, and they were just as vehement that they wanted to work mainly from home. The only exception to this generational divide was a middle-aged software CEO, whose staff had always worked remotely.
The arguments were intense and driven by culture as much as logistics and economics. As a family therapist would say, the debates showed that the generations “often talk to each other”. The same words can mean very different things to people because their assumptions collide.
Socializing at the office
Take productivity. Workers like me who started their careers towards the end of the 20th century believed that offices were more “productive” than the home. “Going to work” is synonymous with “going to the office” and is defined as opposed to home, which is linked to the time spent not working.
But for anthropologists, this mental division was an anomaly compared to most cultures throughout history. Today’s workforce that uses laptops seems to be emphasizing this. For them, being in an office may seem less productive since “you end up socializing and it gets in the way of you doing your job”, as one young banker said during the EY debate.
To this, the older generation would retort that conversation is never a waste of time; it promotes teamwork and leads to unexpected encounters that stimulate creativity, not to mention the personal contact necessary for managing people. All of this was repeated to me many times by the CEOs I interviewed.
But digital natives have grown up managing social relationships in cyberspace as much as in the real world. The latter does not always outweigh the former in their eyes; they think “managers just need to learn how to manage remotely,” one said.
Immersion in the office
There is a third key point of tension: learning. Although the concept is most often associated with blue-collar work in the West, it also mattered to white-collar workers in the 20th century. Today’s established lawyers, bankers, accountants, or journalists have typically learned their craft by observing others and immersing themselves in an office.
It wasn’t just because they needed to learn technical skills. The key issue was the transmission of culture. Offices were where the younger generation learned how to network, how to behave at work, how to manage their time, etc.
In anthropology, the office was an environment where deeply rooted rhythms were transmitted and reproduced seamlessly from one generation to the next.
Today’s business leaders take it for granted that culture transfer matters, hence the existence of summer internships. But not everyone shares this view, especially when so much else is changing and many members of the older generation are struggling to make sense of an increasingly digital world.
This might turn out to be a temporary clash. Another theme that emerged from these debates was that most older executives blithely assume it will be easier for them to end remote work once the summer is over — and if a recession hits.
But this assumption may also be wrong; Surveys from groups such as Gallup consistently show that most people working from home today expect to continue doing so, most of the time. It’s a fascinating time to be a corporate anthropologist and a nightmare for these CEOs.