In WFH We Trust

The real reason your boss wants you in the office.

Illustration by Out Of Office

Millions of people wake up every morning and go to the same place: the office. But in a world with smartphones, laptops, and ubiquitous WiFi, have you ever stopped to wonder why? Well, I have. I started a company last year and not only did we make the decision to be fully remote, we also make apps for remote workers. And I have a theory about why your boss doesn’t want you to leave the office.

R.I.P. Casual Fridays

Remember when casual Friday was a thing? In my first job out of college, I wore a suit and tie to work every day for four years, so I definitely remember. Back then, casual Friday meant I could leave my tie at home...what a perk!

Nowadays most companies, including Goldman Sachs, previously the archetype of a buttoned-up Wall Street bank, have said screw it – No more dress code. We trust our employees to dress appropriately1.

What’s the first thing that happens when companies ditch dress code? Apparently, everyone goes online and searches for advice on what clothes to wear. Just look at the search trend for “business casual” since 2004:

Does this shirt match my progressive HR policy?

So why the sudden change from casual Friday to casual every day? Did corporations wake up one morning and start worrying about their employees’ dry cleaning bills? Unlikely.

I don’t think it’s a fashion thing either; it’s not like suits have gone out of style. And before you say “it’s a generational thing” or “millennials don’t like ties,” know that I’m attending two weddings of 30-somethings this year with black-tie dress codes.

The more likely explanation for the dress down of corporate America is competition for talent. It’s the same reason some companies started providing catered lunches and stocking the office fridge with Red Bull.

If they play their cards right, employees can ditch more than just the office dress code – they can ditch the office altogether.

The WFH Snowball

Workplace trends tend to snowball quickly when they’re driven by competition for talent, especially in a hot job market when employees can switch teams in a matter of days. The next big snowball trend is working from home (WFH). If they play their cards right, employees can ditch more than just the office dress code – they can ditch the office altogether. They got their denim, and now they want their freedom.

At progressive companies in the most competitive industries, HR policies have already shifted from “WFH Friday” to “work from anywhere, any day.” Just check out this list of 900 companies (mostly in tech) that are hiring remotely. Beyond tech, companies like JP Morgan Chase, Williams-Sonoma, and Hilton are listed as some of the top companies with remote job listings 2.

Companies that ignore the trend will be left in the dust. A 2019 survey showed that 1 in 4 employees would take a pay cut of 10% or more in order to work remotely3. If you’re an employer, just ask yourself: what would happen if your biggest competitor matched your star employee’s comp package, and sweetened the deal with unlimited work-from-home days? My guess is you’d be drafting a job description tomorrow.

But not every company is offering the flexibility employees want. What’s keeping them from joining the Remote Revolution and setting their employees free?

10,000 Years of Office History in 2 Minutes

Let’s start with a brief history of “the office” to shed light on how we wound up working in the same place every day. Over the last 10,000 years or so, there have been three major shifts in the reason people go to work – what started as a logistical necessity has now morphed into an emotional inconvenience.

The Age of Infrastructure

Before the first office existed, humans worked mostly on farms. The Agricultural Revolution lasted thousands of years, during which people (often families) worked together to plant and harvest crops. This made sense because running a farm required lots of manual labor and equipment. By working in the same place, farmers could share basic infrastructure costs like equipment, water, and land.

Over time, technological improvements in farming equipment lightened the load on manual labor, but even as the Industrial Revolution took hold in the mid-1700s, the reason workers colocated didn’t change. Plows were replaced by steam engines and milling machines, but people still worked together because performing their jobs necessitated shared infrastructure. Workers in Henry Ford’s factory didn’t come to work because they liked each other; they came because the assembly line required it.

Cubicle farms were still farms, in a way

Fast forward a couple hundred years to the 20th century and the birth of the modern office building. There’s no denying that the nature of work had changed dramatically since the days of family farming, but did the reason for working together? Think about the office your parents worked in – it was filled with equipment they simply didn’t have at home: telephones, filing cabinets, fax machines and, eventually, computers. People didn’t bring their work home with them because they couldn’t carry it!

The Age of Brand Temples

It wasn’t until work went mobile that the reason for coming to work changed. By the 1990s, personal computers were small enough to carry and relatively affordable. Pretty much everyone had a phone at home. If you were really fancy, you had a cordless phone at home and fought with your family whenever the battery died because someone left it off the hook. Oh, and this Internet thing came along, which meant you could do a lot more work away from the office.

Starting in the 90s and into the 2000s, the office became less a place where employees went to get work done, and more a place where companies expressed their identities. The idea of using office space to showcase your brand wasn’t anything new – for a hundred years, big law firms had been renting top-floor offices on famous streets to impress clients and make competitors envious. But when work went mobile, offices became primarily brand temples. I’m not saying no one was working at the office, just that they didn’t need to be there in order to work.

In the Age of Brand Temples, you don’t come to the office to do work — you come to be indoctrinated.

Of all the brand temples built during this period, the Googleplex in Mountain View, California is probably the most famous. Beginning in 2003, Google pioneered the suped-up corporate campus by turning 2 million square feet of office space into a recruitment and retention machine for thousands of the country’s top engineers4. I’m guessing the first time you heard about ping-pong tables in the office was from a story about Google. And the snacks...ohhh the snacks! Then came the WiFi-equipped buses that shuttled in Googlers from all over the San Francisco Bay Area, so employees didn’t have to deal with public transit. All of these amenities were designed to convey a simple message: if you want to work in tech, your first choice should be Google.

The brand temples of Apple, Amazon, and Google

It didn’t take long for other big tech companies – and anyone else competing for top talent – to follow suit. Facebook got Frank Gehry to design an entire town in Menlo Park, Apple landed a spaceship in Cupertino, and Amazon built giant “biospheres” in Seattle. Those biospheres, with more than 3,000 species of plants living inside them, might be making a statement about biodiversity5. Or they might be a metaphor for Amazon overcoming the laws of nature. Either way, the fantasy offices of the last 20 years were reflections of the companies that built them, each designed to communicate something about brand values. In the Age of Brand Temples, you don’t come to the office to do work – you come to be indoctrinated. It’s hard to forget your company’s mission statement when it’s plastered on the wall above your desk, and it’s hard to not love it when you’re sipping draft kombucha.

The Age of Trust

We’re now entering a new office age, in which talent isn’t as easily wooed by sushi lunches and dog-friendly workspace, because competitive companies have leveled up to offer similar benefits. Also, after a few months the spicy tuna rolls don’t taste as fresh as they used to. As soon as employees get used to the five-star perks, they start taking them for granted. The wasabi isn’t always greener on the other side.

Whether or not your office has free snacks, if your boss doesn’t let you work from home, chances are she doesn’t trust you to be productive unless she can see you.

You might have friends who work at one of these Disneyland offices, and you’ve probably noticed a new trend – they’re spending more and more time working from home. They might go into the office around 10am, stay for lunch, and then head home around 2pm “to avoid traffic,” but they’d prefer to avoid commuting entirely.

So let’s recap: we used to work in the same place because all the infrastructure we needed for work was there. Then as soon as work could be done anywhere, companies built highly amenitized brand temples to keep us fat, happy, and committed to the cause. Now people are waking up and realizing that, on most days, having the freedom to choose where you work is the real holy grail.

I call this the Age of Trust because trust, or the lack thereof, is often what determines where you spend your workday. Whether or not your office has free snacks, if your boss doesn’t let you work from home, chances are she doesn’t trust you to be productive unless she can see you.

But what about culture & collaboration?

The most common argument I’ve heard in defense of traditional offices is that the office contributes to a company’s “culture.” But what exactly is culture? The best definition I could find is from the Harvard Business Review:

“Culture is the tacit social order of an organization...Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group6.”

My interpretation is that “culture” is how a company’s employees are encouraged to treat each other and, by extension, its customers. So what does it say about your culture if your company won’t let you take a WFH day to focus, recharge, or simply spend more time with your family? Culture might be most visible in the office, but it isn’t a product of the office.

A second common objection to flexible WFH policies is that without being in the same space, breathing the same air, employees can’t collaborate. You just don’t get those “eureka!” moments if employees don’t run into each other on the way to the bathroom. Give me a break. While I believe there’s great value in IRL interaction (see my previous article on Social Debt), the reality is that most office chatter isn’t about innovation; it’s about the weather.

With a little effort, you can create an environment for serendipity without forcing everyone to schlep to the office every day. Some WFH-friendly teams, like ours at Out Of Office, regularly get together in person to talk about big ideas. For two days every quarter, we meet in person for a company offsite to recalibrate our strategy and dive deep into crazy ideas that don’t come up in our regular weekly meetings. For larger companies, I’ve heard of tools like Shuffl and Donut that create casual collisions across departments by randomly pairing employees for 1-on-1 conversations.

Recently we launched a product called Work Club to connect remote workers, and facilitate interactions across both companies and industries. If you ever studied in the library with friends before midterms, it’s kind of like that. You might be working on different projects, but you can still get quick advice and take social breaks to keep yourself sane.

We started Work Club to connect people who WFH

This article is too tech-focused

Before I get roasted in the comments by those of you working in retail, hardware, and sales, I fully acknowledge there are many jobs – even within the “knowledge economy” – that still require being in the office at least a couple days a week. But for people who need to regularly meet with customers or review physical prototypes, isn’t there enough administrative work in a given week to fill a full WFH day? If so, then you don’t need to be in the office EVERY day.

The fact is most people who go to the office every day do so because they’re told to, not because they need to. If employers had 100% trust in their employees, then the average American commute of 52 minutes a day would sound like an insane waste of time – companies everywhere would be terminating office leases and giving back employees those 200 hours a year spent in transit 7. But unfortunately, many companies don’t invest enough time in their recruiting, training, and relationships to build trust with employees. Instead, those untrusted employees keep going to the office every day.

More about Work Club: If you’re a trusted employee who can work from home, and you’re looking for social interaction to mix up your day, join us at Work Club. It’s a super casual way to connect with other remote workers IRL. Just show up, meet your coworkers for the day, and get to work.

1 Elizabeth Dilts. Reuters. (March 5 2019). Suits and ties now optional, Goldman Sachs hedges dress code. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-world-work-goldman-sachs/suits-and-ties-now-optional-goldman-sachs-hedges-dress-code-idUSKCN1QM283

2 Brie Weiler Reynolds. (January 14 2019). Flex Jobs. 100 Top Companies with Remote Jobs in 2019 https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/100-top-companies-with-remote-jobs-in-2019

3 Owl Labs. (September 2019). State of Remote Work 2019 https://www.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2019

4Wikipedia contributors. (November 13 2019). “Googleplex” in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:14, November 14, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Googleplex&oldid=925941396

5Nick Wingfield. The New York Times. (July 10 2016). Forget Beanbag Chairs. Amazon Is Giving Its Workers Treehouses https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/11/technology/forget-beanbag-chairs-amazon-is-giving-its-workers-treehouses.html

6Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng. Harvard Business Review. (January-February 2018). The Culture Factor https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-culture-factor

7United States Census Bureau. 2012–2016 American Community Survey https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/interactive/travel-time.jpg