‘Out of Office’ author Anne Helen Petersen says we should reconsider 9 to 5 hours: NPR

Outside of the house Co-author Anne Helen Petersen says the coronavirus pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of working life.

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Outside of the house Co-author Anne Helen Petersen says the coronavirus pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of working life.

Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

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

Key workers stayed “personal,” but millions of others lost their jobs. And journalist Anne Helen Petersen estimates that about 42% of Americans started working remotely.

Now that vaccines and booster vaccines are widely available in the US, employers are starting to make plans for going back to the office – and Petersen says many workers are asking for flexibility.

In the new book Outside of the house, Petersen and her partner and co-author Charlie Warzel argue that the pandemic has created a rare opportunity to rethink the shape of working life — including the 9-to-5 workday.

“The status quo that we’re in offices from a certain time to a certain time every day… [is] very random,” says Petersen. “It’s based on rhythms that aren’t ours anymore. It’s based on the understanding that for most families in the United States, there is a caretaker at home, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.”

Now that workplaces are reopening, it’s a good time to reconsider what she calls “arbitrary notions about how many hours your butt should be sitting in a chair in the office.” Finally, she says, “You don’t have to be in the office to answer emails.”

Petersen acknowledges that remote work isn’t for everyone — or for all jobs. Many essential workers have not had the opportunity to work remotely during the pandemic. But, she says, in an ideal world, the nature of work, rather than blanket company policy, would determine whether employees would need to work in person.

“There is no patent solution for this,” she says. “[It’s] whatever suits your industry, your job, the type of work you do. Different types of work have different rhythms.”

Interview Highlights

The cover for Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen.
The cover for Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen.

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

I was working from home before the pandemic and it wasn’t like it was during the pandemic. We worked from home under duress, in captivity, in fear and often without child care. And that’s a very different experience than what the future of work from home might look like. If you have full-time childcare available, if you’re able to work with other people, you know, going to someone’s kitchen table and working with them, going to co-working spaces, that’s it really different than what we’ve been doing over the last few months, few years.

Why people like to work from home

People like not to commute – that’s a big deal. I think people really like designing care plans to work for them. This is specific to parents, but there are all sorts of definitions of caring – elder care in particular is a big thing that people don’t talk that much about 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 constantly present yourself to people who pay you, to bosses, to colleagues – and that can be different things mean different people.

About creating boundaries in the home office

The biggest thing is that the work goes everywhere. The work is so slippery. When you turn around in the morning, you start to work, and then there is no real detachment from work in any way. You might stop to pick up your kids or to make dinner, but work is still in the cracks of your life and you keep working after dinner. I think that’s especially true in the depths of the pandemic when there really wasn’t much else available to people in terms of socializing. But just this feeling that work was everywhere.

About the advantages of the hybrid working model, with a time in the office and a time in the home office

All parents, all caregivers understand this desire to be away from the rooms where they are parents at all times. And that’s why I think you also hear from some parents who are very conflicted when they say, “I’m so sick of my kids, but I’m also addicted to my kids and I want to be with them all the time,” and understand that you can feel both at the same time. I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to put on makeup, I don’t want to commute, but I also really need to get out of my space. So how do we hold these two ideas in our heads and find something that is a mix of these two things? And for me, there are ways to get out of the house constantly and bring a change of scenery to my workday and daily rhythm that doesn’t involve commuting. And I think a lot of people can figure that out too. But sometimes it also means going to the office. And sometimes I think the way we’ve been talking about this question to move forward with it, there’s this dichotomy, it’s either all remote or all office – and we’re arguing for a real mix of both.

Who is successful in office culture – and who is not

[The office] isn’t exactly an environment where I thrive and I think that has to do with being a bit more introverted, but also because of my gender, the way I interact with people. I’m not the office’s MVP and Charlie [my partner] loves the office. He can’t wait to get back into the office space. … And so much of it was that he’s a white guy and he does really well in these white spaces.

I think sometimes when we talk about who is going to be successful in the office then it’s also about the office culture and who should be going to be successful, which is the predominant way of communicating [and] who it privileges. … The way offices used to be, they were really built for a person who loves to socialize [and] whose understanding of socializing outside of the office is “let’s go have a drink afterwards” and which doesn’t need to be diverted to other tasks. And I think that says a lot about who really thrived in those mandatory office environments.

One of the reasons she believes companies should allow their employees to work from home on Fridays

I understand why company [don’t] do that. They think if you allow people to work from home on Fridays, they’re just going to take a three-day weekend. And I think that shows above all that you don’t trust your employees. They think they’ll sneak around and fake work and be less productive on a Friday. I think sometimes employees find ways to do the work that’s asked of them and quit at 3pm on Fridays. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

At this point, I think some managers or executives listening to this would say, “How dare she suggest that an employee not work two hours a day and say that his hours are contractual! ” But do you know what I used to do, even if I had to be in the office from 3 to 5 p.m. on Fridays? I wouldn’t do anything. My ability to work was over. And this happened regularly during the week too. I was really wasting time , by being in the office I had reached my creative limit and was spinning my wheels so I think companies would be wiser if they allowed their employees to trust their employees in a way that shows they can figure out when they do their best work. And for me, I work really badly on Friday afternoons. It’s just not time for me, but I love working on a Sunday morning. So I swap times during the week to accommodate the amount of work to do that I have to do over the course of this week.

About burnout and how to bring your value and identity to your work

For people who entered the job market even after the recession at a time when work was really unstable and one’s place in the workplace felt really unstable, I think there’s this impulse to always invest that little bit extra to get a kind of work find security. And I also think that if your identity is really centered around work, as a calling, as doing what you love or how you choose to express it, then your value as a person really depends on your ability to do that work do the time. So taking a step back sometimes feels like failure: failure in yourself, failure in others and failure in your passion. But it’s not sustainable. When you burn out, you lose your passion too. They also let other people down in all these different ways. So I think if you want to cultivate that kind of longevity in your passion or in the types of things you do, there have to be limits to the work that you do.

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

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