Anne Helen Petersen

362: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home

This week’s conversation is with Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist, author, and cultural critic known for her writing on celebrity culture, feminism, the future of work, and media.

Anne’s career took off as a senior Culture Writer at BuzzFeed where she wrote several viral articles on pop culture and celebrity analysis – however, in 2020 she left the mainstream to start up her wildly popular Substack newsletter, Culture Study.

In some of her more recent work – including her latest book, Out of Office – Anne thoughtfully covers some of society’s most pressing workplace trends like the burnout epidemic and the transition to hybrid work.

Anne and I were lucky enough to share the stage as speakers at a Microsoft event last year and after meeting her, I was intrigued to take a deeper dive into her insights about the future of work. This is a conversation for employers, employees, and managers alike on how we can optimize remote work – and re-examine what “work” means in the first place.

“When a boss is miserable, that misery floats down. If a boss is burnt out, that burnout floats down too… These problems are not limited to one individual, they’re very much a problem that the entire organization has to grapple with.”

In This Episode:

“Flexibility” in the workplace

I talk about this in the book in Out of Office. For a long time, flexibility was a word that was used by organizations to talk about organizational flexibility. Their ability to rapidly hire and fire employees. To expand and retract. And now this is the pivot point of the pandemic. Now we think about flex, that word flex that kind of gets thrown around a business environment as employees’ freedom to change their workday, or their work week, or their work month in ways that work better for their lives.

Why she wrote her latest book, “Out of Office”

My partner and I Charlie Warzel, came up with this idea to write this book about three or four months into the pandemic, when we were seeing a lot of people struggling with working from home. Not necessarily because of the technology or anything like that. More, how do I show my boss that I’m working really hard? How do I prevent work from seeping into every crevice of my life? And at that point in the pandemic, it was a specific moment when there just wasn’t a lot of freedom. There wasn’t a lot else to do. So I think in some cases people are like, “Well, I guess I’ll work. If I can’t hang out with my friends and I can’t really leave my house, I guess I’ll work.” But I think that there were a lot of bad habits that we adopted during that time.

Labor and value

Part of going through grad school, especially the type of grad school that I was in, is also being exposed to Marxist thinkers. So people who are just questioning what work is for. And I think part of my thought process, my journey through reading all of these different theorists is saying I am a person outside of my ability to labor. My value is not uniquely my ability to labor. If that were true, then people who can’t labor – disabled people, older people, babies – would have no value in our society. And sometimes, I think that we actually do treat people who can’t labor for money that way. And I think that that’s wrong.

“Work” is what you define it as

One way I think about it is how I talk about the work that I do outside of my physical home. So I call that gardening. And it is a hobby for me. And I would not say that I have found mastery. I would say that I am finding mastery. Part of the joy is watching things grow, and part of the joy in growth is watching things die. And my partner on the other hand calls it yard work, because it is not something that he derives pleasure from. It is not something that fills his mind that he loves thinking about, right? It is just hauling bags from one place to the other. And I think that to me is instructive.

Taking the romance out of work

“Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” It’s a famous phrase I think mostly popularized by Steve Jobs and his commencement speech back in the early two thousands. Just a watchword, just an incredible guiding phrase for so many millennials who graduated into that time. And really what it means is do what you love and you’ll work every day for the rest of your life for not enough pay, bad health insurance benefits, no raises ever. So I’m very careful with passion work, thinking through how do we value our labor, without also constantly just breaking down the stuff that we do every day of our lives into these increments of how much am I paid for each activity? Which I think really takes the love out of it, the romance out of work.

Human capital

You think from the very beginning of kids as human capital with potential, that will continue to grow in value. And the way that you grow their value as human capital is to do things like find the right preschool, put them in enrichment programs. All of these things that are very much in line with how we grow money or grow a company, and have very little understanding of the way that humans don’t grow that way. Part of how you grew was by not having preschool. Part of how I grew as a person, I might not have had all of the AP options in high school that a lot of the people that I went to school with later on had when they were in high school. I grew up in a small town in Idaho. But I grew up in a small town in Idaho, and that taught me a lot of other things too. And none of those things are things that we traditionally think of in terms of beneficiaries to human capital.

Teenagers and busyness

If your teen does not have time to babysit for two to three hours a week, your teen is too busy. Because so much of my development as a writer, as a thinker, as a person involved staring at the ceiling while listening to a Fiona Apple CD on repeat. That space of nothingness. And I think we understand this to some extent, even if we don’t practice it with young kids, that boredom is valuable. But boredom is also valuable with teens, and giving space to try to figure things out instead of the impulse to over-program to mature that human capital. Which I think is at work with a lot of parents who are concerned about their kids getting into college.

Work surveillance and “good work”

A lot of workers have this internalized surveillance. So like you said, it’s not like you are watching them all the time. But they want to behave as if you are watching them all the time. They are almost paranoid that if someone were to pop in at some moment they’d be like, “You could be doing more work here.” And then I think there is also this understanding in contemporary work culture that immediate responsiveness is the same as good work. We mistake all of these different things that are associated with contemporary work culture. Responsiveness, meetings. I think constantly demonstrating presence on apps like Slack, and through emails, and through various different things that ping you constantly. We mistake those things for getting good work done.

Rest and recovery

Sometimes the thing that allows us to do the best work is incredibly invisible. And to me, those things are thinking or spending time with other people’s thoughts. So reading deeply and immersively. Creative work, which oftentimes just involves not doing the thing that you’re doing. And then rest. And this is the thing that my thinking on this as a person who thinks about work is really, really mixed in with my evolution as an athlete too in terms of understanding the purpose of rest. That you cannot just work all the time. You cannot have five hard workouts, and expect to just continually increase in your abilities. Rest is so essential. And any athlete will tell you if you try to do that, if you just try to continue to work out hard every single day, you’re just going to injure yourself, and you’re going to be chronically injured, and you’re going to put yourself out of the game. And that’s the same with work. You are going to be a chronically injured employee in terms of work. And that I think, we are very bad at seeing that clearly.

Alleviating precarity and motivation to do so

How can you alleviate precarity? Well, you can financially alleviate it. You can have a salary that makes someone feel comfortable, and have benefits that make it so they’re not constantly worried about their physical health. But then you can also alleviate it from a management’s perspective as well. And I think a lot of times, people who are doing that, who are trying to demonstrate their busyness constantly. Who are always trying to reply to emails at midnight on weekends or trying to demonstrate their responsiveness, they do not have enough clear communication from their managers about the work that they are doing. Or, they are subconsciously being praised for that. So they see that as doing good work. And maybe they see that actually modeled by their managers who do that sort of performance of busyness for their bosses. So it’s endemic in the organization.

Who prefers hybrid work?

People want two to three days [in the office]. But the desire for flexibility both in where they work and when they work is highest amongst parents, mothers and fathers. And is also highest amongst employees of color. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that, and they have a lot of data on this. Feelings of belonging in the workplace actually went up as workplaces went remote. So what do you think is going on there? It’s that the workplace itself is a place where people who are white, the monoculture, the status quo, is it’s a place that’s very comfortable for white people. And whether it’s having to police yourself in terms of how you dress in order to look professional, or just dealing with microaggressions, all sorts of things. It just feels better I think for many employees of color to not have to be in the office every day. It’s less exhausting.

Upper management and burnout

People who are higher in the management chain are more burnt out, specifically middle managers are super burnt out. And executives are incredibly miserable right now. The data is just stunning, and especially over the last quarter. And I think a lot of that misery comes from trying to balance the fact that they very clearly see the benefits of being in the office. In part because the work that they do is very much and historically has been rooted in being around other people. Managing by walking around. And also statistically, people who are in the C-suite live a lot closer to the office. So the commute, not as much of a big deal. They’re probably older so they’re not dealing with smaller children and things like school pickup, that sort of thing. So right now, they’re dealing with that. They’re like, “We’ve done all these nice things. Why do these other people not want to come back into the office?” And don’t understand this pushback, this continual pushback of, “No, this ship is sailed. We are not coming back into the office five days a week. No way.” So you can see that sort of misery derived from trying to balance those competing desires of what they personally experience with what they’re hearing from their workforce

Trusting your employees in hybrid work

It’s kind of like parenting in terms of if you trust your workers, like you trust your teens, they’re going to behave in ways that are trustable. If you treat them like small children who you have to watch everything that they do, they’re going to act out. And I’m not trying to be infantilizing here. I just think that when you infantilize your employees, then they behave like infants… especially if the C-suite is older, and I’m talking probably older than 45, older than 50. They do not understand the potential for actually building meaningful friendship and culture in online spaces. And that’s not their fault. They just didn’t grow up making good friends online. So they don’t understand that that’s something that actually can be forged. It takes hard work, especially on an organizational level. But it is possible.

Middle management is struggling

I think those people are dealing with a lot of burnout. And part of it is they’re trying to juggle the demands of the people in the C-suite, with the equally strong demands of the people, the rest of the workforce. And they are forced to be interpreters for both sides. And that’s exhausting. And I also think that they’re burnt out because most places have not done extensive training in management generally, but specifically in management in hybrid scenarios. Because it’s a different skillset. It really is. And you can’t solve it by having a one-time optional webinar. It’s ongoing training and thinking about the skills that need to be refined in order to master that type of management.

Misery floats down

When a boss is miserable, that misery floats down. If a boss is burnt out, that burnout floats down too. Because if you’re burnt out, then you’re not managing your work well. And it overflows onto other people who then burn out, and it overflows. These are problems that are not limited to one individual. They’re very much a problem that the entire organization has to grapple with.

Modeling recovery

Leadership is really trying to figure out how to model rest. And it’s hard. Because part of the way that you get to the top is by not resting, at least in our current understanding of how work works. But if the other employees in an organization look upwards for their understanding of what good work looks like, work that is valued within the organization. Then if you have a burnout problem, it starts at the top almost always.

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