Whenever Anne Helen Petersen and her partner Charlie Warzel, both journalists, were on a trip, they’d find themselves talking about moving to wherever they were visiting. “It would happen when we went to Santa Fe and to the Catskills,” Petersen said. “It was every single place.”
That told them that they weren’t happy in New York. “Sometimes people’s tolerance for living in the city just exhausts itself,” she said.
In 2017, she and Warzel both pitched an idea to their bosses: Could they work from home? Given the green light, they were off to Missoula, Montana, with dreams of skiing and daily hikes in the mountains.
Their hopes for remote work were mostly dashed. Petersen’s life revolved around work just as much, if not more than, it did in New York. “The backdrop was just more beautiful,” she and Warzel write in their book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.
During the pandemic, Petersen and Warzel saw so many others experiencing their same frustrations and disappointments with working from home. They realized that there was a brokenness underlying how we work, wherever we do it.
I interviewed Petersen about her new book. The exchange has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Annie Nova: A lot of my friends talk about remote work and how we’ve been able to work from home mostly as a win for workers. But you write about how the arrangement is benefitting companies just as much, if not more. How so?
Anne Helen Petersen: Well productivity rates have gone up across the board. And I think it’s because in times of precariousness, whether in your industry or globally, like what happened with Covid, a lot of people have the impulse to combat that precariousness by thinking, ‘How can I work all the time to evidence that I’m a really, really committed worker?’
AN: Many companies have repeatedly pushed back their return-to-work date throughout the pandemic, most recently due to the omicron variant. What impact do you think this has on workers?
AHP: Psychologically, I think people have been getting ready mentally for the date and then it all falls apart, and that’s really difficult. Whatever you feel about the office, you’re preparing for a change and it’s not happening.
AN: You write that managers use online communication tools as surveillance and to incentivize placating our bosses instead of actually doing our jobs. If productivity is up, why is there still this need to prove that workers aren’t goofing off?
AHP: Some of it is just this very old-school idea that if you can’t see someone doing their job, they’re screwing around. But people still have to keep their jobs. They need to do the things that are required of them.
AN: Rather than constantly monitoring workers, what would be a more meaningful way for managers to measure productivity?
AHP: I always felt like I had to be saying something in Slack to show that I was working, when really the thing that would be more valuable to my work would be concentrating for long periods of time on reading a book. And so I think the big one is just a paradigm shift. It’s less about productivity and more about, what are you producing?
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AN: You write that being less productive can make us more creative. In what ways?
AHP: Watching Mad Men, I remember always being like, ‘Oh, Don has such a hard job. He just takes naps and goes to the movies all the time.’ But that’s how he came up with his good ideas. When you’re not working on something, your brain is still working on it. But it can only do that kind of interesting background processing if you stop staring at your computer. When you return, you’re going to have better ideas because your brain will be working on it subconsciously.
AN: How can people try to work less but more meaningfully?
AHP: If your workplace incentivizes and rewards overwork, if your workplace is a burnout machine, the individual can only resist it so much. So sometimes protecting yourself from workaholism is recognizing that that’s what the system you’re in demands, and then deciding, is this what I want the rest of my life to be?