Book Review: “Out of Office” by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

I’ve been looking at the New Way of Work for a while now, particularly the development of coworking spaces, along with the overall gig economy and remote working.

This new book is a response to the sudden, unplanned pandemic-induced experiment in mass remote working.  Millions of office workers were suddenly required to work from home, ready or not.  And mostly we weren’t ready.

I’ve pontificated on this topic myself, so, yeah, this is something I kind of had to read.

Warzel and Petersen’s basic findings are sort of a mash up of Why We Gather, How To Do Nothing, and The Sum of Us.

So–no real surprises here to anyone who is paying attention.

Though, I must say that none of those books above were sold as business advice, or as “the future of work”, which W & P seems to be.  So it’s interesting to see W & P tie these themes together in a book of business advice about the future of work.

First of all, the authors discovered that this isn’t really about remote work, per se.  It’s about how people work.

“The true issue at hand is not where we will work but how we will work.” (p. 232)

The main theme throughout is that work is broken, and that “flexibility”—at home or not—has generally come to mean working all the time.  This is bad for workers, obviously, and for families and communities. W & P argue that it’s mostly bad for organizations, too. 

This book is a useful survey of the ways that “flexible” work is broken.  Even after decades in the workforce, I learned stuff, including the terms “Hustle Porn” (p. 86) and “LARPing your job” (p. 169).  (These have nothing to do with “gamification”, although, worst case, I guess they could.)

But it’s hard to break out of these patterns, to get off “the treadmill” of continuous, precarious, work.

“We are trying to get off the treadmill so we can remember all the purpose and dignity that can come from the whole of our lives.” ( p. 239)

W & P argue that real flexible work means working less, not working more.  And workers must be allowed to choose when and how to work. 

Achieving this requires guardrails: real rules and norms that prevent “flexible” from becoming “infinite” work.  This also requires trust, between workers and managers, and among workers.  We have to trust each other to get things done well, in the ways they choose, without penalties for taking time for other things.

What do W & P  have to tell us about the future of coworking?

From W & P’s POV, much of the coworking and freelancing propaganda is definitely the wrong stuff

‘Flexibility’ (e.g., renting a bare bones desk by the hour) that mainly enables more work rather than less work is bad for workers, bad for everyone.  From this  point of view, freelancing is mostly the wrong thing for workers, organizations, and society.  The whole gig economy is the logical end of a long history of negative trends.

On the other hand, as I have consistently argued, real coworking is about community, which is mostly the right stuff.  Especially when the solidarity is real, not just rhetorical cover for reduced pay, benefits, and security.

On the other other hand, a coworking community may or may not be connected to the wider surrounding community.  To the degree that coworking communities are self-selected groups of people with similar interests (which is a big part of why workers like them), they are hardly representative of all workers, let alone everyone living in the area. So that’s not good. 

The book discusses the rise of “Zoom Towns”, including the rather lavishly intentional Tulsa project which curated and paid workers to move to Tulsa to work remotely.  (I had not heard of this project.)

It is important to note that, while coworking spaces were involved in Tulsa, and were probably very valuable to some workers, they were only a tiny, relatively insignificant part of the overall effort. Most of the work went into selection of candidates, housing, child care, connecting to non-work activities, and so on. Working at home or in a coworking space or any other workspace was nearly irrelevant to the big picture.

At the moment, it’s still far from clear how coworking mixes into the ‘hybrid’ organizations emerging.  Obviously, remote workers might benefit from working in a coworking space at least some of the time. 

But what happens when your company selects and assigns you to a coworking space?  This is increasingly popular. Is this anything other than a poorly resourced satellite office?  

And to the degree that the worker participates in the culture of his or her local coworking space, they are not participating in the culture of their own organization.  Is this dual loyalty good or bad for workers and  organizations?  I dunno.

In any case, a coworking space, per se, hardly addresses the issues of guardrails and the flexibility to not work.  There are no guardrails in coworking, and the trust, if any, is between otherwise unaffiliated co- workers, not within working groups. 

So, coworking as conventionally designed seems largely irrelevant to W & P’s program to improve work and life.

Hmm.  I didn’t expect that.

  1. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2021.