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Is ‘hot-desking’ our future? Ask a Manager weighs in on the future of work

I cook something from scratch for lunch most days — quickly sauteing some vegetables to throw over pasta, or reviving leftovers with a fried egg and some experimental sauce. It’s never anything particularly gourmet, yet it’s one of the little luxuries of working from home that I am loath to relinquish.

Of course, it hasn’t all been a dream — my dog barks all day and work bleeds into private life. But, like many of us, I’m not sure how I feel about going back to work in an office again, trading my apartment’s sunny windows for fluorescents. Plus, I’m not sure what to expect. Will we wear masks all day? Will water cooler chats be a thing of the past?

Alison Green has been helping people navigate the shifting workplace throughout the pandemic with her column “Ask A Manager,” published on her own site as well as sometimes in New York Magazine and other publications. In each entry, Green tackles questions spanning the range of workplace needs, from whether the days of bra-wearing are over to how to deal with employers who counted remote work as vacation days — after requiring their employees to work from home.

Usually, I shy away from career-advice blogs, with their formulaic resume templates and chirpy tips on professional dress. But Green’s column is actually fun to read, balancing levelheaded advice with gossipy stories about unbelievably horrible bosses or employees. And her advice is human in a way workplace columns rarely are, advocating for empathetic offices that are not primarily guided by labyrinthine regulations.

Green has been a go-to resource for office etiquette since 2007, when she was the chief of staff for a nonprofit in D.C. and decided to use her hard-won expertise to advise both employees and employers. Today, advice is her full-time job, and she’s written two books on office culture, alongside doing some management consulting that sprang from the column’s success.

After a year of helping her readers adapt to the new paradigm of remote work, she spoke to me about our long-awaited return to the office — whether people are really going back, the big shifts in culture that might be here to stay, and what probably won’t change (which, unfortunately, probably includes wearing a bra).

Our conversation, edited for clarity and flow, is below.

The main site for Ask a Manager.

The main site for Ask a Manager. Courtesy of Ask a Manager

Obviously during the pandemic, workplaces have changed a lot. What were the themes of the questions in the beginning, and how have they shifted?

I think sometimes I can watch the whole history of the pandemic play out in my email.

In the beginning, there was a lot of panic about how to adjust to working at home literally overnight. If you remember, in February or March, people thought it would be just two weeks.

But more recently, as more people are vaccinated, I’m getting a lot of letters from people who are completely freaked out about going back — even vaccinated. They just don’t trust their employers to keep them safe, because everyone’s trust in institutions has been broken in the last year. And a lot of people just like working from home! They don’t want to go back.

Were there issues that have come up over and over?

In the first five or six months, one thing that seemed to be rampant was crazy levels of micromanaging for employers who really didn’t know how to manage people remotely, and so were just monitoring all of their activities very closely as a substitute. I had three letters from people whose managers wanted to check in with them three times a day, every day.

Also, for most of last year, a big change was a significant decrease in the number of letters I got complaining about interpersonal issues at work. For the last decade, my email has been full of, “My co-worker chews too loudly.” A lot of these annoyances seem to have gone away.

Were you getting questions that would have usually been directed to a different kind of advice column about relationships with roommates or spouses since they are now, functionally, co-workers?

Yes, the annoying co-workers have changed to your spouse or your kids. But there’s been some that I wouldn’t have predicted. I had a letter from someone who was increasingly concerned about what her husband must be like to work with, because she would hear him on work calls and he was kind of a jerk to his co-workers, and she hadn’t seen that side of him. She felt like she was learning something about him that she wasn’t very happy about.

There’s hope that this will shift the conversation around accommodations for those who need to work from home, but it sounds like employers are already pushing people to come back. Do you think this will have a long-term impact on accessibility?

I have heard from a lot of disabled people that they’re pretty pissed off that they have been pushing for these exact accommodations for years, and for years employers have been telling them it’s not possible. Now that they’re forced to do it for everyone, suddenly it is workable. Where was that understanding when they needed it?

But there’s mixed emotions because now it has been clearly demonstrated that it can work, so hopefully that bodes well for what accommodations are available to them in the future.

It’s still mixed, though. There are some employers who have been really pleasantly surprised by how well remote work has gone, and they are much more open to continuing. There’s a lot of employers — way more than I would have ever predicted — who are telling people “You can stay remote forever” or “You can do a hybrid.”

But there are definitely employers who are eager to bring people back as soon as it’s safe — or, in many cases, before it’s safe — who don’t intend to continue doing remote work. There are legitimate reasons why remote work can be less effective for certain types of jobs. But in some cases it’s just based on very old school ideas.

I’d imagine that committing to a remote or hybrid model has some upsides for employers too, like downsizing offices.

Yes, one thing that employers have been delighted to see in the last year is that they can save significant amounts of money on office real estate. What a lot are doing is what’s called hot-desking, where you don’t have a permanent workspace, you come in and you just grab a desk to work from that day. So it doesn’t have your framed photographs and your office décor.

Pre-pandemic, people hated that whenever it came up on my site. People were vociferously opposed to it. Now, I’m not hearing any opposition to that; people seem fine with it if, in exchange, they’re getting days at home.

Do you think hybrid will actually work?

I’m sure there are going to be problems with this model that we haven’t foreseen, because it’s so new. But I think it’s really smart. I’m really pleasantly surprised to see employers moving toward it.

I think the general principle I’d encourage employers to apply when they’re thinking about this is to be really rigorous about thinking through what is really necessary for this job. If this person only really needs to do one hour of in-office work, that’s not really a reason to have them come in. On the other hand, who is going to do that one hour of in-office work? Do you move it to someone else, and do they resent it, and is it an unrealistic workload now that they’re taking on extra work for their colleagues staying at home? Do you hire someone new for all of that?

What about onboarding or workplace culture — how is that supposed to work in a semi-permanent remote working environment?

I think people are still struggling with that. So much of getting acclimated at a new job is kind of watching how things are being done around you and overhearing conversations that you learn things from. All of that is absent when you’re starting a new job from home. So I think it’s really hard, and managers have to be very deliberate about constructing ways to try to replicate that.

As a largely Jewish workplace, we’ve been discussing how some of the upsides of remote work is that it may make it easier to take off Jewish holidays or stop working early for Shabbat even at a secular employer. Are you seeing that play out?

I’m Jewish, and I think readers who know that maybe are more likely to bring their Judaism-at-work questions to me. But yes, certainly.

There’s also a sort of invisibility people feel when they’re not part of a dominant religious culture in an office. There’s not a lot of organized praying in most offices. But it’s things like assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas or that a Christmas tree is a secular item that everyone will enjoy having in their office. It’s that sort of thing that makes Jews and Muslims and people who aren’t of any faith at all feel marginalized and invisible in that space.

In the remote workplace, you’re still going to get the scheduling issues on Rosh Hashanah and holidays no one bothered to put on the workplace calendar, but you don’t run into the social aspects in the same way. I think they cause fewer problems.

You do a roundup of worst bosses every year. What new kinds of terrible management have become the norm during the pandemic?

More than a handful of employers have been making people put spyware on their computers — in some cases their personal computers, because when everyone switched to working from home, they didn’t all get to take office equipment home.

And then of course, all of the safety stuff, the employers who didn’t enforce mask-wearing, who gave people a hard time about needing time off to quarantine after being exposed to COVID. All the employers who made it deeply clear that they value their profit over their people.

Are there any really out-there stories or weird behaviors remote work has enabled?

a self-given haircut

By iStock

People seem to very quickly go feral in terms of their appearance. Very early on, I was getting a lot of slightly confused letters from managers about whether it was OK that everyone was showing up looking like they’d been living in a cave for a few months. I was like yeah, it’s OK. It’s a stressful time.

Interestingly, those letters stopped after a while, and I don’t think it’s because everyone decided to get haircuts. I think our norms really shifted, at least temporarily.

It’s been really interesting to get questions from people who are genuinely asking whether they have to return to the professional standards of yore. I’m not going to say you have to wear a bra — you don’t have to wear a bra — but you probably do need to present yourself in a way in which it’s not obvious if you’re not wearing a bra when you return to work. We’re still probably stuck with that.

But it’s a very interesting cultural moment, because people are questioning all of this stuff that used to just go unsaid.

When I read your column, I get the impression of a very human workplace that allows people to be themselves, at least within certain boundaries, sort of less rigid and corporate than we often think of. Is your column trying to actively advocate for a different workplace culture?

I think what I’m doing is, in some ways, advocacy at its core, though I don’t think it presents that way at the surface.

I don’t want to give Pollyanna-ish, “this is how it should be so I’ll tell you that this is how it is” advice. I think there are advice-givers who come at it from that angle, and I don’t think that’s practical or realistic, and I think it can lead people to make bad decisions. So I want to be realistic.

But at the same time, I think it’s important to talk about, is this reasonable, is this good? Is there a better way that employers should be navigating this?

It’s interesting to read, for example, your bra answers, because you take this middle ground of saying “Well to be considered professional in a certain environment, you probably need to wear one,” but you also say you don’t necessarily agree with that — it’s just an honest assessment of how the world is.

I’ve always tried to strike that balance with “Ask a Manager.” I think a lot of what constitutes professionalism in general, not just professional appearance, is BS, frankly. I think it’s often oppressive and bad for women and bad for people of color. Yet it’s still very useful for you professionally to be aware of those things. If you want to choose to make the trade off that comes with breaking those norms, go for it — I just want to make sure that people know there is a tradeoff.

It’s interesting to hear someone who writes a column on workplace norms to say you think those norms are BS.

Yeah! I think it’s easier to write about them in a nuanced way when you recognize that.

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