Hybrid Work Is Doomed

Office workers work in offices, for better or for worse.

An octopus arm grabbing an office chair
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

I noticed the shoes first. That I was wearing them. Real shoes, the leather kind, with laces. After a year and a half, I was finally returning to the office, and that meant giving up the puffer slippers and slides that had sustained me for so long. Real shoes, I quickly remembered, are terrible. Likewise pants. Likewise getting to work, and being at work. Whew.

That was summer 2021. I’ve since acclimated to the office once again: I don the uniform; I make the commute; I pour the coffee; I do my job; and then I go back home. There are costs to this arrangement, clearly. I lose some time—time I could spend working!—transporting myself, in shoes and pants, from one building to another. I miss the chance to finish household tasks between my meetings, or fix myself a healthy and affordable lunch. As a university professor and administrator, I have more flexibility than most professionals, and I’m not required to go in each and every day. But even so, I have less control over each hour of my life than I used to—a fact that could very well be making me less productive overall. Indeed, it’s possible, or even likely, that my employer—and yours—could help their workers and the bottom line, simply by allowing us to work from home or come in on a hybrid plan. Remote, flexible employment might be a win for everyone.

But actually, it isn’t. A rational assessment of your time and productivity was never quite at issue, and I think it never will be. Companies have been pulling employees back to work in person irrespective of anyone’s well-being or efficiency. That’s because return-to-office plans are not concerned, in any fundamental way, with workers and their plight or preferences. Rather they serve as affirmations of a superseding value—one that spans every industry of knowledge work. If your boss is nudging you to come back to your cubicle, the policy has less to do with one specific firm than with the whole firmament of office life: the Office, as an institution. The Office must endure! To the office we must go.

This should be obvious, but somehow it is not: The existence of an office is the central premise of office work, and nothing—not even a pandemic—will make it go away.

What is an office, even? One answer: an institution that organizes labor, but does not carry it out. The office is the structure that makes work possible, a kind of mothership for productivity, centuries in the making; a place to construct and preserve a way of life.

The first offices were monasteries, Gideon Haigh argues in The Office: A Hardworking History, and the first office workers were monks. There, among the scrolls and codices they copied, religious professionals sat at desks and performed skilled labor that couldn’t be done elsewhere. The substance of their work—the duplication of religious texts—helped sustain the Church’s legacy. In another sense, their workplace did the same, by giving monks a way to demonstrate their lifelong dedication.

During the Early Modern period, Haigh observes, office took on another meaning too: a position held by a bureaucrat such as a magistrate, whose work was carried out in an official building. The specific role of such an officeholder was less important than the fact that his office structured, preserved, and handed down authority. Around the same time, office came to refer also to a space for administrative effort, as in the back office of a retail shop. To keep a law firm or a tailor or a tavern running, clerical tasks such as bookkeeping had to get done. Later on, in the 19th century, a factory would include an office for the bourgeoisie to oversee the proletariat.

From there the office expanded into office buildings, and then office towers and office parks. Along the way, the office sorted labor into novel categories: pedantic clericalism, bureaucratic management, executive power. As a kind of factory for knowledge work, it standardized what work should get done, how, by whom, and under what conditions. A worker’s output (for instance, a balanced ledger) became their role (say, an accountant), which was, in turn, slotted into work divisions and careers, a logic of office life shared across organizations. Employees dressed in uniforms and arranged themselves in rows and floors that rose, literally and figuratively, above the cities and the landscapes that their companies controlled.

Offices began to define those cities, and modern life itself. Skyscrapers erected in the International Style—made of glass and steel, self-contained thanks to air-conditioning—could be built anywhere: New York, Frankfurt, Tokyo. In America, the suburbs proliferated, called “bedroom communities” because they housed office workers from 5 to 9. “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill once said. The office has shaped knowledge workers, twice over. As a building, it defined where, when, and how their work should happen. As an institution, and as the culture that emerges from all those office buildings put together, it creates a superstructure for workers’ lives.

Back before telephones, and then computers and smartphones, allowed everyone to work (or “be at work”) from anywhere, the office kept its culture somewhat cordoned off. Yet even now, as office space expands like poison gas into our homes, we’re still drawn back to the mothership. We are called there, both by career ambition and by bosses’ demand, on account of what the office as a place represents in terms of the office as an institution: comfort, structure, reward, certainty, privilege, and prestige. The office imposed these values on its workers, and workers accepted them—whether willingly, under duress, or because no other option seemed possible.

The pandemic was supposed to change all that. When COVID-19 sent everyone home, the office, too, appeared to be at risk. Pandemic life was hardly easy, but at least you could do your work in slippers, or squeeze in a Peloton ride between Zoom meetings. Road traffic plummeted, and so did greenhouse-gas emissions. Headlines said there wasn’t any going back: Employees had tasted flexibility and freedom; employers saw a means of cutting costs. Gideon Haigh published a follow-up book, subtitled A Requiem for the Office, suggesting that his subject’s long, troubled history might end. With office towers and parks emptied, some speculated that the multitrillion-dollar commercial-real-estate market would collapse entirely. The pandemic, eventually, would pass. Office life might never be the same.

Disconfirming evidence soon arrived. With the rollout of vaccines came “return to work” or “back to office” updates pointing to the future. Though still aspirational and grounded in public-health considerations, that language should have been a red flag. “Return to work”? Employees had been working the whole time, and yet that work now seemed incomplete absent office life—and subject to review. Coronavirus variants delayed returns-to-work from one season to the next, and knowledge workers could have mistaken these delays for progress. It’s happening! Nobody wants to go back!

Then plans became reality. White-collar workers “returned to work,” and to the office, in large numbers last year, at least for meetings or retreats—sometimes outdoors, often masked. This year, when mask mandates ended and infection data languished, more and more offices reopened, perhaps one or two days a week at first. Though less occupied, the office hadn’t perished; its demands were resolute. Workers who refused to return were headed for a fight.

Perhaps they failed to understand the stakes. The office gives identity to office workers and firms alike, by imposing its practices across the workforce. That makes calls for flexibility much harder for the Office to adopt than workers may have thought. Office workers are also, as Haigh writes, “massively diverse” in their activities. Coders or graphic designers or accountants who work independently most of the time might not want to return to work, while their bosses, who have to coordinate those activities, may find it much easier to do so in the office. And looking beyond individual roles to cultural ones, the habits and rituals of office life develop slowly, shaped by ideology. The weekend, for example, was invented about a hundred years ago, a compromise struck between religiosity and management culture, and facilitated by the specific economic and political conditions of late industrialism. Hybrid work schedules could become standardized in the same way. And yet, standardization is the opposite of flexibility.

In May, more than 1,000 current and former Apple employees signed an open letter to the company, arguing that “office-bound work is a technology from the last century.” The letter cites the value of flexibility, and the diversity it brings to the workforce. It also notes the waste of time—and work—brought on by commuting. “We estimate that the average time getting to work is about 20% of a work day,” the workers wrote. Those relatively well-off Apple workers aren’t alone. Post-pandemic workers tend to lean on productivity as a rationale to avoid returning to the office, saying they feel no less productive working from home. And isn’t productivity the point?

Not really. Offices have never been about increased efficiency. Instead, the office has acted as a brake, slowing down a company’s mission to sell products or services. Haigh reminds his reader that the French novelist Honoré de Balzac lamented, in the early 19th century, the pointless waste of time that consumed the administrative professions. Balzac called it “slow and insolent,” useful “only to maintain the paper and stamp industries.” Two centuries later, not much has changed. The TPS reports and Workday forms persist, serving someone’s interests, though maybe not the bottom line. Many tiresome distractions have been tolerated because the Office needs them. The intrigue and plotting of office politics, the sense of importance or position afforded by a corner room, the holding of court in a meeting—these inefficiencies are not opposed to office life but central to it.

Even in the technology sector, where the tools of remote work are manufactured, the Office reigns supreme. Before the pandemic, Big Tech companies doubled down on the sorts of work environments that had been common for almost a century: urban high-rises and suburban office parks. (Think of Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington; Google’s and Facebook’s in Silicon Valley; Apple’s spaceship in Cupertino; and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.) Their deluxe office amenities—free food, gymnasiums, medical care, etc.—only underscore this point: The tech industry has a deep investment in the most conservative interpretation of office life.

If the companies that design and build the very foundations for remote work still adhere to the old-fashioned values of the Office, what should we expect from all the rest? It’s still possible that hybridized knowledge work will become the norm, with work-from-home days provided as a perk. But to get there, office workers must organize, and take the goals and power of the Office into account. It does not want to be flexible, and it cares little for efficiency. If the Office makes concessions, they will be minor, or they will take time; hybrid work is not a revolution.

If it once seemed otherwise, that was just a fantasy—one brought on by the psychedelic freedoms (and heavy burdens) of the pandemic. Given a taste of greater freedom, one might easily conclude that office work had changed, or that it was sure to do so. But if you’d been chained to the office before the pandemic, you’re no less captive to it now—even though, in certain comfy moments, you could let yourself forget it. You were at home, but still, you were in the office. For you are an office worker, and the office is your home.