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The Tyranny of the Pandemic Office

The New Republic: “I read Anderson’s book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) at the beginning of the pandemic. Over the last few months, I kept returning to it as the physical workplace, the book’s primary topic of interest, mutated and then, for many white-collar workers, effectively disappeared. (By the first week of April, an estimated 31 percent of office workers had switched to working from home.) Private Government, which is adapted from two lectures Anderson gave in 2015, discusses the ways in which modern American workplaces resemble little autocratic dictatorships. Authority in these workplaces “is sweeping, arbitrary, and unaccountable—not subject to notice, process, or appeal.” These workplaces, she explains, basically function as private governments. The people who are ruled don’t have a say in how they are ruled; they are simply required to follow orders, which are devised unilaterally and handed down from the top. This is, in part, what separates corporations from public, democratic governments. Voters have a voice—however small and highly contingent that voice may be—whereas most workers have absolutely no voice at all. In essence, Anderson’s book makes the argument that workplaces are sites of complete control. “The lowest-ranked may have their bodily movements and speech regulated for most of the day,” she writes. “Everyone lives under surveillance, to ensure that they are complying with orders.” Workers have little power to fight back against demands that can be oppressive or arbitrary. Is it any wonder, then, that as the pandemic stretches on, many bosses are hoping to get workers back in the office as soon as possible? “When you’re trying to create a new project, you want people around that water cooler. You want that sense of urgency,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told CNBC in August. “I feel like productivity is impacted a little bit in that.” In a note to employees, senior executives at the Jefferies Financial Group wrote: “We all miss each other,” and “at the end of the day, we all know we are more effective in person than on Zoom.” Both of these reflections begin with a chummy softener before pivoting, hard and fast, to business concerns. Reading them is like feeling a hand go from patting you on the shoulder to pushing you down into a desk chair. Camaraderie is reduced to a professional function, a fuel for productivity and effectiveness. By couching their desire for a return to in-person work in the language of social benefit for workers, executives sugarcoat their fundamental motivators: unease about output, loss, and the bottom line.

And many bosses are acting on those concerns. By April 2020, 26 percent of newly remote businesses surveyed by the law firm Blank Rome had fully developed a return-to-work strategy, and 56 percent had started to develop one. In August (months before a vaccine was approved), more than two-thirds of offices had either reopened or had never closed in the first place. The majority imperative has always been to get workers back into the workplace at the earliest opportunity. Profit over people, these businesses signal. Productivity over people. This doesn’t mean there aren’t genuinely good justifications for favoring a return to the office, Anderson reminded me when we spoke on a cold December morning. Collaboration and spontaneity, which may naturally breed from physical interaction, can feel stilted over Zoom. Mentoring young employees and acclimating them to life at the company—so they can, as Anderson put it, pick up on “the quality of relationships and what kinds of jokes are acceptable”—is much easier done in person. For some, the office can be a place of sociability, a happy medium between those closest to us and the short-lived interactions we have with strangers. “There’s a kind of synergy you get with face-to-face communication that you don’t get if you’re all on Zoom,” she said…”

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