The way we work isn’t working. Author Charlie Warzel blames middle management

An interview with one of the authors of “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home.”
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Frank Scialabba

· 7 min read

In the US, a job has become a means of cultivating identity and self-worth, a way of striving for personal fulfillment and purpose. But the isolation and economic upheaval wrought by the pandemic has prompted a moment of mass reflection. Nearly two years after the first office closures and economic shutdowns, American society is in the throes of a widespread rejection of many of the old ways of working. Employees across the US are quitting their jobs in record numbers, and many of those who haven’t quit are clamoring for greater work-life balance and reckoning with the question of how to make a living without their jobs defining their lives.

Journalists Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen examine this renegotiation of life and work in their new book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. Their book is a sweeping exploration of “the future of work” that tackles the very daunting question of how we got here and where our working lives are going.

HR Brew recently spoke with Warzel about the book and the many ways work is changing and why.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I hope you don’t mind me asking you the most painfully obvious question you’ve probably ever been asked, but what is your book about?

It’s a reported look at what has gone wrong with work. It’s sort of a look at the history of modern knowledge work and the real promises of it. And then the ways in which those promises over the course of the last century really have been slowly eroded by all kinds of capitalist imperatives [like] growth, shareholder value, and expectations.

And it’s about how they’ve kind of led us to this place where we are right now, from the intro of the pandemic to now in the Great Resignation, where people are burnt out, extremely frustrated, quitting en masse, and also realizing that the way they’ve been working is just not working for them.

What does the book add to the discussion about the future of work that maybe hasn’t been explored so much?

This is definitely something everyone’s been thinking about for a long time. In one way, we have a personal story there, which is that in 2017, [Petersen and I] moved from New York City out to Montana, and started doing our jobs remotely. And at least for me, I struggled intensely, and sort of had my entire work and life collapse into only work. I was so worried about preserving the privilege of working from home that I only worked—and to the point of exhaustion and complete burnout.

So then my partner and I were able to really look at our lives and...started reorienting our lives away from that axis of just constant work and dedication to our employer, and [we] found this was extremely rewarding. It sounds sort of silly to say, but you know, simply cultivating hobbies...

I started getting into a lot of the outdoor stuff that Montana has to offer...and [afternoon exercise]  breaks up my day in this really nice way. And a lot of people will look at that, if they’ve kind of been conditioned to work the way that we all do, and say that that’s like an extravagant luxury, right? But I actually think that’s a really shitty way of looking at that.

Charlie Warzel

Anne Helen Petersen

You talked to a lot of people across different professional fields for this book. Was there anything similar about their experience in terms of renegotiating their devotion to work?

Most companies right now have a sort of unsustainable and broken culture, even ones that are trying really hard to do the right thing by their employees. What we found is that a lot of these cultures are sort of rooted in really poor communication. And a lot of really bad middle management. We talked to a number of management consultants who basically only work with middle managers to try to figure out what’s wrong.

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A big problem that we’ve identified is this style of management where you take people who’ve excelled as workers—this is very popular in tech companies—and [management] said, “You’re a really good programmer. Do you want to manage a team of programmers?” And they promote them in this position, they don’t really train them, they don’t really give them the tools they need to succeed.

What ends up happening is they get inserted into this layer and they struggle mightily. But they don’t want to tell anyone because they’re afraid they’ll get demoted because that bump up came with a pay increase. We call this phenomenon add-on management. And [the manager] ends up creating this layer of confusion, this lack of communication between workers and executives, because middle management’s the connective tissue of the company, and it’s often the place where the culture starts to rot.

If you had to grab your crystal ball and reference all of the reporting both of you did in putting this book together, what would you say is ultimately going to come from this reckoning with work that society has been going through?

It’s obviously really hard to predict. There's going to be so many different companies that act in different ways. You’ll have the big top tech companies that have a lot of ability to recruit and so much money that they can really adapt and give people the flexibility they want, or the types of perks that they want.

And then I think you’ll have smaller businesses, or businesses outside of major cities, that are mostly just scared and are going to force a lot of their employees right back into the old ways, because they’re too afraid to lead on this, or they don’t understand it, or they have managers who are really out of touch and don’t want to listen to employees.

But I think broadly what we’re seeing right now with this Great Resignation is for the first time in a while, you’re seeing a small glimmer of worker power. You see people who have the means for the first time in a while, due to excess savings over the pandemic, to hold out on a job. And this isn’t just in the knowledge-work sector. I think that’s rightly reaching a lot of companies and a lot of a lot of managers.

I think you are going to see some adaptations, right? I think over time, there’ve been companies that are exploring things like a four-day work week, and those companies are, sort of across the board, seeing productivity gains. I think slowly those types of things will get picked up by business-school case studies, and then they’ll eventually be taught, and you’ll even have C-suites and high-powered consultants who come in and, basically, force the hands of companies to adapt.  I think you will see the broader trend of companies granting some of this flexibility and perks, becauseI do think where we’re at right now is that people feel work generally is unsustainable.

And so I think there's something profound happening. I don't know where it goes, necessarily, but people who...have that career skepticism, you know, I don't think that companies and managers have had to deal with that, in this way, in a really long time. I think that that will, hopefully, mean some actual power there, to negotiate and to get some of those protections and benefits.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.