COVID & the Obsolescence of the Office

No, not this one, but it’s more eye-catching than a random desk image from Google

Having taken as long a break as I did it from posting updates to this site, and having done so just as a pandemic got started to boot, it would be weird if I didn’t address the 2020 lbs elephant in the room. Namely, I’m fine and healthy, and have remained so for this whole year (so far, at least).

Part of the reason I managed to avoid COVID like the proverbial plague is the fact that, unlike many of my fellow Americans who serve as essential workers in our struggling economy, my place of employment was able to transition its staff into a work-from-home setup early on in this ordeal. Hence, I was fortunate that the burden of figuring out how to properly socially distance from my coworkers was never a serious threat to me, even when the confirmed number of infections continued to climb.

When we consider the fact that the people who had to remain in continuous contact with the public, day in and day out, and put their health at risk so that the rest of us could reserve the services we needed to uphold some level of comfort during this trialing time, are also by far among the lowest paid workers in American society, it doesn’t take a whole lot of big-brain thinking to figure out that something in our society is seriously messed up. But I digress.

The point of this post isn’t to complain about the imbalance in the modern day economic model. What I really want to discuss is a realization I made during my seven month (and counting!) tenure as a remote worker. It’s a realization that many have already made long before me, and long before corona was on everyone’s lips (and mucus): the traditional office is obsolete and serves no purpose in a 21st century workforce.

Now, hold on. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I do come carrying caveats, just in case.

Let’s just start out by saying how this statement is not absolute, of course. Putting that out there right off the bat, before readers start emailing me a list of office jobs that can’t be done remotely. I know these roles exist, and I know that they’re vital, and I know that there will always be a place carved out for them in the white collar workforce. However, allegorical counterexamples don’t change the fact that, as a whole, a lot of what the average office worker does by going to a cubicle every day, could be just as well adapt into a home office setting. And workers could do so at a reduction of costs for themselves (save on gas, save on meals…hell, save on clothes if you don’t feel like wearing pants anymore as you work–it’s your living room, Bob, go nuts!). But it’s also a cost reduction for the employer, as they would no longer need as extensive of a physical office, if most of their staff is working remotely. Note, I said they’d have no need for an extensive physical office. I understand that there will always be a need for a skeleton crew of individuals to run the daily administrative responsibilities at a company’s corporate location, but the argument is that such a space needed to contain a handful of individuals ought to be a lot more affordable than the space that’s needed to house a staff of two dozen or more for forty hours a week.

The second thing I’d like to address is the appeal to the need to foster workplace camaraderie between coworkers, and how working remotely will cause us to lose this experience of bonding with the people we share an office with. While I don’t doubt that there are many out there who bond, socialize, and form lifelong companionship with their coworkers, I would guess that for every employee who falls into that category, there are are at least six or seven employees who have little to no interest in viewing the persons sitting in the desks around them as people to get chummy with. That’s not to say that most people necessarily view their coworkers negatively, but there is a big difference between being friendly with others, and being friends with them. I’d wager that for most of us, coworkers fall more in the former, than the latter camp. I can’t help but think that this idealized notion of camaraderie between employees exists mostly in the minds of a management class who doesn’t really grasp just how little time the average American worker has to fraternize with their colleagues while they’re rushing to meet deadlines, and process a full day’s workload.

I’ve also been told that productivity is a concern when it comes to work-from-home, and that it’s demonstrably higher when they need to go to an office away from their homes, as it enforces the separation between one’s professional and private life. Granted, I’m single, and live alone, and have no children. So I don’t want to lecture those whose living situation is different than mine, nor do I want to resort to deferring to testimonials from married parents living in a multi-family home, who also happen to agree with me. I will simply say that, I’m amazed employers are having trouble figuring out what they should do with unproductive employees, just because they happen to be working remotely. After all, if you’ve spent any amount of time grunting it out with us plebes on the floor of the office, you’d know that there is always one or two unproductive members of the staff sitting in a cubicle only a few feet away from management’s vigilant eye. And I have yet to hear anybody try to make the connection that these individuals’ lax attitudes must be tied to having to put on a tie and sit in a box for eight hours a day. I’m not saying it is; I’m saying that short of raw metadata into the subject, we’re both just speculating to fit our narratives.

I could go on for much longer, but I want to finish by admitting that this time last year, I was fairly open to the idea that traveling to a work office every morning was more ideal for most company jobs than having the majority of such employees work from home. Face-to-face training, interpersonal meetings, and even just the casual “Hello!” in the break room seemed like integral parts of the working experience to me, and I could have been swayed into believing that they were necessary parts we shouldn’t abandon. But now that I’ve worked remotely for the better part of the year, I just don’t see the point of having people shuffle to and fro to desks and cubicles, where they’ll be immersed in work for hours on end, only to occasionally look up from their daily reports to nod at the equally overworked person sitting next to them. The amount of genuine human engagement most of us experience in the office isn’t enough to satisfy the basic socializing needs of the most introverted members of society, let alone the majority of people who fall closer to the median of that spectrum. And if human engagement is why we’re holding on to an increasingly outdated concept, we’re probably better off figuring out how to find it elsewhere.

The Loose Meaning of Middle-Class

Just as “proletarian” once was to the communist model, “middle-class” has become a rallying term of endearment for a capitalist society.  Although frequently references, it exists nowadays loosely as a flexible term of political rhetoric, instead of any true economic bracket.  Election season demonstrates this better than most other times.  In the purview of political campaigns, I’m middle-class, and you’re middle-class; the guy cleaning the toilets at my work is middle-class, and the managers of major corporations are middle-class; just as the elected officials sitting in Congress are middle-class–sometimes it sounds as if everybody is middle-class, regardless of their actual earnings.  The reason for this is that the term serves as a nice label onto which one can project all things a society might deem as decent personal attributes.  Hence, giving skilled orators the opportunity to tweak its definition just enough to meet their specific agenda.  “We need to strengthen the middle-class!”, “I stand for the men and women of the middle-class America!”, “My plan is to help rebuild middle-class America!”  And, bit by bit, each tweak eventually brings us to an economic model where individuals earning $40,000 a year are placed in the same income group as individuals earning $140,000 a year, as if their interests and hardships can be addressed by the same universal platform.

It would be incorrect to ascribe middle-class as a word whose meaning has died, or is on the verge of dying.  Rather, it is a label that has become wholly undefinable, which makes its usage as good as dead from my perspective.  Literally speaking, there certainly exists a class of people whose earning wage places them in, or near, the center bracket of the population, and in that sense, it is fair to refer to such individuals as being middle-class.  However, the disparity between those on the high end of the “middle-class” spectrum has so drastically exceeded those on the low end, that to continually categorize the two within the same income realm seems to me as not just nonsensical, but incoherent.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that something is clearly off when those making over three times more than your income are considered your class equals.

A further issue I have with the term is that it so easily serves as a smokescreen against enacting substantial reform needed to alleviate the plight of the lower working class, as well as the downright poor.  And, sadly, this is an offense committed by the political Left, which claims to hold the plight of the poor far more to heart than the political Right.  Because, while the Left will rightly dismiss trickle-down economics when it’s set-up on the fallacious belief that wealth will naturally distribute itself evenly amongst all sectors of society as long as the affluent top is given the economic means and versatility to prosper, much of this same Left will often wholeheartedly embrace the equally fallacious idea that by focusing on the interests of the middle-class, it will trickle-down aid to the lower-class sectors of society.  It hasn’t, it doesn’t, it won’t; namely, because the concerns of the former do not evenly align with the concerns of the latter, and benefits enacted to aid one class can (and often will) conflict with the interests of the other.  To pretend otherwise, and insist that elevating the concerns of the middle-class will also somehow elevate the plight of the downright poor (not those tightening their belts, or just getting by living paycheck to paycheck–the actual no-belt, no-steady-paycheck, forgotten-and-ignored poor-poor), is to be willfully ignorant and choose a one-size fits all solution to a problem that cannot have one quick fix.

And no amount of political rhetoric will change that, regardless of which side of the political spectrum it’s coming from.