Of Course I Worked There. So What?

a rant about the New York Times’ anti-remote work propaganda

Wed, 8 Sep 2021

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times has chosen to post one dumbass article after another about how remote work is terrible for bosses, extroverts, and neurotypical people. Their latest asks, “If You Never Met Your Co-Workers in Person, Did You Even Work There?” (The article is archived on archive.is if you hit a paywall.)

While Betteridge’s Law of Headlines suggests that the answer is “no”, I’m going to take the contrary position. Even if I never set foot in the office, I still worked there. I’ve got the bank statements showing direct deposits and W2 forms to prove it. However, that does not matter.

The real meat of this dumbass article is the notion that remote work diminishes workers’ attachment to their jobs. Apparently it is necessary to meet one’s coworkers in person to actually care about one’s job and want to stick around.

The coronavirus pandemic, now more than 17 months in, has created a new quirk in the work force: a growing number of people who have started jobs and left them without having once met their colleagues in person. For many of these largely white-collar office workers, personal interactions were limited to video calls for the entirety of their employment.

Never having to be in the same conference room or cubicle as a co-worker may sound like a dream to some people. But the phenomenon of job hoppers who have not physically met their colleagues illustrates how emotional and personal attachments to jobs may be fraying. That has contributed to an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces and created uncertainty among employers over how to retain people they barely know.

It’s hard for me to refrain from dismissing this entire article as arrant bullshit because it presents a perspective at such variance with my own experience. It is entirely possible to work in an office, in person, and not have more than a nodding acquaintance with one’s coworkers. It is not necessarily an easy feat to accomplish, especially in close-knit workplaces where one is encouraged to mistake one’s coworkers for family, but I never let that stop me. To paraphrase (or parody, if you like) T. S. Eliot, In every office my coworkers come and go / Sometimes they even talk of Michelangelo.

This is especially the case at my current day job, which is one of the United States’ four major consulting firms. I work with people located on the other side of the continent, and the company is not about to go to the expense of paying for me to fly across the US to schmooze with them in person, a small mercy for which I might thank God if we were on speaking terms.

It is not my coworkers’ fault that I prefer to keep my distance and not get to know them too well. I am confident that most of them are perfectly decent people, and might even be worth befriending if I did not work with them. The problem is that I do work with them, and that I have always tended to compartmentalize. I went to work as I went to school, and refused to bring either home with me.

There is work, and then there is the rest of my life, and I prefer to erect the same wall of separation between work and life that Thomas Jefferson wanted to build between church and state. Refusing to get close to coworkers is how I protect work/life balance and ensure that my day job doesn’t get more than the 40 hours a week for which I am paid.

There is no point in loving a job that is inherently incapable of loving me back, and I only dream of labor when I’m having a nightmare. I understand that my attitude is atypical, and perhaps extreme. But as I sometimes tell my wife, Healthy people have boundaries. I have an Absolute Terror Field.

“If you’re in a workplace or a job where there is not the emphasis on attachment, it’s easier to change jobs, emotionally,” said Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Stanford University.

I am not convinced that Sutton has the whole picture, but I have always considered my jobs to be ephemeral because employment in most of the United States is governed by the doctrine of employment at will. As an “at will” employee without the protection of a contract or the backing of a trade union I can be fired at any time for no reason. Conversely, I am under no legal or moral obligation to give notice before quitting a job; that I do so is a mere courtesy.

I do find it interesting that corporations continue to try to keep people by encouraging them to befriend coworkers, because I have always thought of myself as a mercenary. I do the job, and then I get paid. That is the extent of my attachment to an employer, and I am content with it. I saw how scantily my late father’s employers rewarded his loyalty and devotion, and am resolved to avoid his mistakes.

But my current employer is not content with ensuring that I am adequately and promptly paid for my services. Instead, they concern themselves with the fostering of community over video calls.

“They can’t just say, ‘Oh, be social, go to virtual happy hours,’” Dr. Rhymer said. “That by itself is not going to create a culture of building friendships.”

She said companies could help isolated workers feel motivated by embracing socialization, rather than making employees take the initiative. That includes scheduling small group activities, hosting in-person retreats and setting aside time for day-to-day chatter, she said.

These ideas all seem to favor sociable people who insist on identifying with their jobs, careerists rather than mercenaries like me who seek emotional and social fulfillment by other means. None of these activities are fun or pleasurable; they’re just additional work, and if they are scheduled outside standard business hours then they require that I work unpaid overtime.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I have no particular need for friends at work. Cordial acquaintance is enough, since that makes others more comfortable and thus makes my job easier. I have my wife. I have cats. I have my online writing group. I suppose I have other Final Fantasy XIV players, though I know better than to lean too heavily on them. (I generally play a healer role, and it’s often a case of magician, heal thyself.) Unlike my health insurance, none of these are dependent on who signs my paychecks.

It is not that hard to keep me around. I don’t ask much from my day job.

My current employer does a reasonable job of meeting my demands, and I have found that I can ignore most of the company’s social bullshit. It might not get me promoted, but I am fine with that because I do not have a career — and never wanted one.

Software development was the closest I could get to getting paid to sit on my ass and dick around with computers. That’s all. It pays better than sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets.

There is also the converse, that remote work supposedly makes it easier for employers to dump workers.

Mr. Pressler, 35, said not physically meeting and getting to know his bosses and peers made him expendable. If he had built in-person relationships, he said, he would have been able to get feedback on his pan videos and riff on ideas with colleagues, and may have even sensed that cutbacks were coming well before he was let go.

I’m not sure how somebody Sean Pressler’s age or younger can believe that American workers are anything but expendable to most employers. These vaunted in-person relationships did not prevent people in my generation or my parents’ generation from being laid off without notice or fired for no good reason. We are costs to be reduced or eliminated. We are not human beings to our bosses, with lives that matter, but merely human resources to be exploited until exhausted.

Darth Vader ending a meeting that could have been an email

Sometimes I just want to force choke my more naïve coworkers as I say, I find your lack of cynicism disturbing. It is a desire I generally keep to myself, lest I make my coworkers too nervous and thus find myself fired for cause.