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Working 9 to 5? 'Out of Office' author says maybe it's time to rethink that

<em>Out of Office </em>co-author Anne Helen Petersen says the pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of work life.
Luis Alvarez
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Out of Office co-author Anne Helen Petersen says the pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of work life.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced offices and businesses to shutter abruptly, fundamentally transforming the way people work.

Essential workers remained "in person," but millions of others lost their jobs. And journalist Anne Helen Petersen estimates that some 42% of Americans began to work remotely.

Now, with vaccines and boosters broadly available in the U.S., employers are beginning to craft return-to-office plans — and Petersen says many workers are demanding flexibility.

In the new book Out of Office, Petersen and her partner and co-author, Charlie Warzel, make the case that the pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of work life — including the 9-to-5 workday.

"The status quo of us being in offices from a certain time to a certain time every day ... [is] very arbitrary," Petersen says. "It's based on rhythms that are no longer ours. It's based on an understanding that there is a caretaker at home for most families in the United States, and that's not necessarily the case."

Now, as workplaces begin to reopen, it's a good time to revisit what she calls "arbitrary understandings of how many hours your butt should be in a chair in the office." After all, she says, "You don't need to be in an office to answer emails."

Petersen acknowledges that remote work isn't for everyone — or for all jobs. Many essential workers did not have the option to telework throughout the pandemic. But, she says, in an ideal world, it would be the nature of work, rather than blanket corporate policy, that determined whether employees were required to work in person.

"There's no one-size-fits-all solution to this," she says. "[It's] whatever fits for your industry, for your job, for the type of work that you do. Different types of work have different rhythms."

Interview highlights

/ Alfred A. Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf

On the difference between working from home in general and working from home during a pandemic

I worked from home before the pandemic hit, and it was not what it was like during the pandemic. We were working from home under duress, in confinement, in fear and oftentimes without child care. And that is a really different experience than what the future of working from home can look like. If you have full-time child care available to you, if you're able to work with other people, you know, go to someone's kitchen table and work with them together, going to co-working spaces, that's really different than what we've experienced over the course of the last few months, few years.

On why people like working from home

People like not commuting — that's a big one. I think people really like being able to figure out care schedules in a way that works for them. This is specific to parents, but there's all sorts of definitions of care — especially elder care is a big one that people don't talk about as much in terms of schedules. And I also think that people like not having to put on a professional face every day and think about what it means to present yourself for people who pay you, for bosses, for co-workers all the time — and that can mean different things for different people.

On creating boundaries while working from home

Work goes everywhere. Work is so slippery. Roll over in the morning, and you start working and then there's no real offramp from work in any capacity.

The hugest one is that work goes everywhere. Work is so slippery. Roll over in the morning, and you start working and then there's no real offramp from work in any capacity. You might stop to pick up your kids or to make dinner, but work is still there in the crevices of your life, and you keep working after dinner. I think this is particularly true during the depths of the pandemic, when there really was not very much else available for people to do in terms of socializing. But just that feeling that work was all over the place.

On the benefit of the hybrid work model, with some time in the office and some time working remotely

Any parent, any caregiver understands that desire to just be away from the spaces in which they're parenting all the time. And that's why I think you also hear from some parents who feel very conflicted about, "I am so sick of my kids, but I'm also addicted to my kids and I want to be around them all the time," and understanding that you can feel both of those things at once. Like, I don't want to leave the house, I don't want to put on makeup, I don't want to commute, but also I really need to get out of my space. So how do we hold those two ideas in our heads and find something that is a mix of those two things? And for me, there are ways in which I leave the house all the time and get a change of scenery in my working day and the rhythms of my day that don't involve a commute. And I think a lot of people can figure those out as well. But sometimes, too, it does mean going to the office. And sometimes I think the way that we've talked about this question about moving forward with this, there's this dichotomy of it's all remote or it's all office — and what we're advocating for is a real mix of the two.

On who thrives in office culture — and who doesn't

[The office] is not necessarily an environment in which I thrive, and I think that that has to do with being a little bit more introverted, but also because of my gender, the way that I interact with people. I am not the MVP of the office, and Charlie [my partner] loves the office. He cannot wait to get back into the office spaces. ... And so much of it was he's a white guy and he does really well in these white-guy spaces.

I think sometimes when we talk about who thrives in the office ... it's also about the cultures of offices and who is meant to thrive, what the dominant ways of communicating is [and] who it privileges. ... The way that offices were before, they were really built for a person who loves to socialize [and] whose understanding of socializing outside of the office is like, "Let's go get a drink afterwards," and who doesn't have to be torn away for other responsibilities. And I think that that says a lot about who really thrived in these mandatory office environments.

One why she believes companies should allow employees to work from home on Fridays

I understand why companies [don't] do this. They think that if you allow people to work from home on Fridays, they're just going to take a three-day weekend. And I think that what that does is one, most of all, it shows that you do not trust your employees. You think that they are going to sneak around and fake working and be less productive on a Friday. I think sometimes employees figure out ways to do the work that is demanded of them and push off at 3 p.m. on a Friday. I don't think that there is anything wrong with this.

This is where I think maybe some managers or executives who would be listening to this would be like, "How dare she suggest that there would be two hours in the day that an employee is not working and says that their working hours contracted to work!" But you know what I used to do, even when I had to be in the office from 3 to 5 on a Friday? I would do nothing. My ability to work any longer was over. And this would happen periodically throughout the week too. I was really just wasting time by being in the office. I had reached my creative limit and I was spinning my wheels. And so what I think companies would be smarter to do is to allow their employees, trust their employees in a way that shows that they can figure out when they do their best work. And for me, I work really poorly on Friday afternoons. It's just not a time for me, but I love working on a Sunday morning. So I exchange times throughout the week in order to do the amount of work that I need to do over the course of that week.

On burnout and putting your worth and identity in your work

For people who also came into the workforce post-recession at a time when work was really unstable and one's place in the workplace felt really unstable, I think that there is this impulse to always be putting in a little bit extra to find some sort of security. And I also think that when your identity is really aligned with work, as a calling, as doing what you love or however you want to phrase it, your worth as a person is also really bound up in your ability to be doing that work all the time. So to take a step back sometimes feels like failing: failing yourself, failing other people and failing your passion. But it's not sustainable. When you burn out, you're also failing your passion. You're also failing other people in all of these different ways. So I think if you want to cultivate that sort of longevity in your passion or in the sort of the thing that you do, there has to be boundaries around the work that you do.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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