Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home is a weird, weird book. I picked it up because I’m a big fan of Anne Helen Petersen’s work, from her newsletter “Culture Study” to her writing at Buzzfeed and then even earlier at the Hairpin (RIP earlier internet generation). She’s a media studies scholar whose sweet spot seems to lie somewhere in the intersection of history and sociology, and her newsletter series on Peloton is fascinating and horrifying in just the right measure. Charlie Warzel also has a newsletter, is a former New York Times op-ed writer, and he’s Petersen’s partner, and that ends my interest in him.
To be completely honest, I feel a bit like I’m still waiting for a book from Petersen that matches the writing skill and insight I find in her newsletter. I started but never finished her earlier book Can’t Even (which I would describe as “the book that tried to summarize, debunk, and analyze every millennial burnout story you read between 2008 and 2020”), and I found Out of Office in turns both engaging and intensely strange — I don’t totally know what kind of book this is supposed to be and the parts of it that I liked were the parts that seemed least interested in pointing the reader toward the “promise” of working from home.
A few initial points to make: This book doesn’t talk about work that doesn’t happen in offices on laptops. I don’t think it’s a wholly pointless read if you don’t work in tech (I don’t), but be prepared for most of the examples to focus on people who work at companies that get talked about in the New York Times. This book characterizes the United States workplace circa 2021 as “unusually plastic, alive with the potential for change.” I find this description of the ongoing pandemic questionable; if you find it untenable, this is not the read for you. Is this book for workers or for bosses? I still have no idea.
Out of Office is partly interested in explaining how clerical and professional workers ended up where they did in 2020 when the pandemic forced people onto Zoom and into an incredibly belated reckoning with how much of their lives they had ceded to their jobs. It’s also partly interested in offering pathways toward renegotiating the relationship between work and life, which sometimes means denouncing the pressures and demands of contemporary capitalism and other times means highlighting new apps and workplace business solutions, in interludes that are reminiscent of TED Talks and magazine advertorials. In general, “work from home” is not a literal goal, but a shorthand for a desired relationship with work that is flexible, potentially hybrid in nature, and hopefully requires far fewer hours.
Warzel and Petersen divide the book up into sections: The introduction quickly draws a line between the benefits of what the authors might call “true” working from home and the reality of what we’re currently living through in this year of COVID 2022. They then proceed to diagnose how workers’ relationships with their jobs went off the rails and what might be done to bring balance to the force in four subsequent sections, “Flexibility,” “Culture,” “Technologies of the Office,” and “Community.” In these chapters, you’ll find succinct and insightful sections on the rise of Taylorism and management consulting; histories of the cubicle and the development of the modern tech campus; a great mini-section on the impossible conceit of workplace DEIA initiatives; and many, many acknowledgments by inventors of various commonplace technologies (like email, for instance) that they have ruined our lives.
But over and over again, Petersen and Warzel reach the same conclusion: the problem with work is a social one and it’s taken over our lives not just because it has the technological means to do so, but because those with power have pushed harder and harder for more work, done more efficiently, for more hours, for either the same or less take-home pay. The location of that work doesn’t really matter — the promise of working from home is to claw back space and time from your job so you can spend more of your life elsewhere. What’s needed to fix the power imbalance, they suggest, is accountability, accommodation, trust, guardrails between workers and the office, a renewed sense of collectivism — and above all, the time and energy to rededicate ourselves to the communities we can cultivate away from work. The final chapter, “Community,” finally engages in the lightest, most depoliticized way with the word I was craving this entire time: union.
Ultimately, I don’t want to get mad at Out of Office because it wasn’t the book I ultimately realized I wanted (a condemnation of 20th-century American offices that ends with a union card you can punch out and bring to work), but I ended it feeling beyond frustrated. It is infuriating to me that Out of Office ends with a conclusion that begs people to turn away from individualism and to find and create communities of care, but is not really that interested in interrogating what collective action in a future hybrid workplace looks like, or what it could accomplish. Do I think working from home, better email norms, occasional Fridays off, and a more egalitarian office culture would improve my life? Absolutely, but I’m not sure that Petersen and Warzel are comfortable envisioning what it might really take to secure those benefits for an entire workforce.