Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen have tips for working from home : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Has working from home during the pandemic been frustrating for you? You're not alone. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen's new book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home tackles how remote work can improve, no matter what industry you're in. They talk to Sam about how companies can create sustainable and flexible work environments, the history of workplace culture in the U.S., and how employees can maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Working from home doesn't have to suck. Here's how 'Out Of Office' can be better

Working from home doesn't have to suck. Here's how 'Out Of Office' can be better

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The cover art for Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. Alfred A. Knopf hide caption

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Alfred A. Knopf

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

Alfred A. Knopf

Today, the phrase "work from home" comes with a lot of baggage. Though it has been several months since COVID-19 first led to office closures nationwide, remote work likely still involves Zoom fatigue, working on the couch, and rarely going outside.

But two writers want to make remote work better. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen are co-authors of the new book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. In the book, Warzel and Petersen explore the history of workplace culture in the United States, and how to use the shifting employment landscape during the pandemic to chart new ways of working.

"Whatever you were doing for the last 18 months, during the pandemic, whether it was those dark days of winter last year or even in the last few months, that's not what working from home has to be moving forward," Petersen says. "Whatever you were doing, it was not working from home, it was working from home during a pandemic."

In Out of Office, Warzel and Petersen write, "The thesis of this book is that remote work — not remote work during a pandemic, not remote work under duress — can change your life. It can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier."

Warzel and Petersen use this thesis to explore four topics: the nature of work flexibility outside of a 9-to-5 job, how companies create culture within a workplace, how technological design shapes our work habits, and how our work communities intersect with our communities outside of work.

Warzel and Petersen are not only co-authors, but also partners who have been working remotely since before the pandemic. After transitioning to remote work, they've both been able to successfully advance their careers on their own terms. Warzel currently writes "Galaxy Brain," a newsletter for The Atlantic, and Petersen writes the Substack newsletter "Culture Study."

On It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, they discuss how office culture got to where it is today and how it can change in the future.

Knowing the office monoculture

Chicago charter school teacher Angela McByrd poses for a photo before starting her day working remotely as a teacher in Chicago, on Sept. 24, 2020. Nam Y. Huh/AP hide caption

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Nam Y. Huh/AP

Chicago charter school teacher Angela McByrd poses for a photo before starting her day working remotely as a teacher in Chicago, on Sept. 24, 2020.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Warzel and Petersen say that all offices tend to have a monoculture: an unofficial set of expectations that all employees must follow to fit in.

"The monoculture is this unstated way that you need to carry yourself, and it's stifling for a lot of people," Warzel says. "It's set by industry norms, but it's also set by the norms of executives and founders, and that can date all the way back decades, or hundreds of years sometimes. These assumptions and norms that are forged stick. There's a certain type of person that excels in the monoculture."

An office monoculture can manifest in different ways, whether it's a culture that privileges white employees, or a post-work happy hour that might exclude employees taking care of children or elderly family members.

Remote work has the potential to disrupt an office's in-person monoculture. Research conducted by Slack during the pandemic found that many Black employees actually felt more belonging in their workplaces when working remotely.

"In the office, you have to deal with a real white male monoculture, no matter how ostensibly diverse a lot of workplaces are," Petersen says. "That monoculture is really there... [there are] a lot of microaggressions. That's not to say that you don't have microaggressions that happen on Zoom or in Slack, but some of that physical presence pressure is taken off."

The history of workplace culture

The way U.S. companies have historically treated their employees can still be seen in today's work culture. Warzel cites William H. Whyte's 1956 book The Organization Man as an early study into how companies in the mid-20th century tried to provide an entire way of living for their employees. For workers who had experienced the Great Depression and World War II, it was an attractive offer.

In their own book, Warzel and Petersen write that this security allowed employees not to question their strong allegiance to one company. "Workers conformed, but they did so, according to Whyte, with a placid smile," they write. "[They] were undergirded by real support, whether in the form of their salary, their pension, or their enduring job security."

"There was this idea of, 'Come on into the warm embrace of the company,'" Warzel says. "Like, the company is going to take care of you. If you give them everything you've got, if you give them the best of your creativity, if you give them the bulk of your time everyday, they are going to provide. And you are going to have all that stability and that safety net."

Warzel and Petersen say this all changed in the 1970s, when multiple recessions and economic stagnation hit the United States. From 1980 through 1988, Fortune 500 companies eliminated more than three million jobs. Companies were backtracking on their original promises.

"'The organization man' persists for a long time... until the economic turmoil when companies are like, 'Oh we gotta cut the fat,'" Warzel says. "And then that whole promise, the bottom falls out of it, and the precarity is back. And these people who organized their whole lives around their companies were out in the cold, and legitimately it was like a death in the family."

Warzel and Petersen note that the United States is still trying to find some stability in workplace culture. In their book, they argue that even when start-up companies from the 1990s became giant corporations, they created a workplace culture that included "the treatment of management as an afterthought, the hollow perks in place of actual benefits, the inattention to HR, the fetishization of productivity, and the reliance of the 'flexible' contract worker spread across corporate campuses with elaborate free sashimi bars and complimentary laundry services."

Petersen says that millennials in particular are often still forced into a "hustle culture," in which they end up working multiple jobs.

"For people who endured the precarity of the recession and the post-recession world, that was their real introduction into the workplace," Petersen says. "[That] working all the time is the norm, and it is incredibly difficult to unlearn some of those understandings of what work should look like, what you should be able to ask for, [or] what unions can do."

Building community outside of work

A computer desk built by Amos Diasas. Out of Office authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen say that working from home doesn't always need to look like sitting at a desk from 9-to-5, and can include options like more flexible work weeks. Maria Fabrizio hide caption

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Maria Fabrizio

A computer desk built by Amos Diasas. Out of Office authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen say that working from home doesn't always need to look like sitting at a desk from 9-to-5, and can include options like more flexible work weeks.

Maria Fabrizio

So how should people approach having a healthy relationship to work? Petersen says that employees need to set more boundaries, or what she calls "guardrails."

"If you say, 'It is not acceptable, it is not part of our company culture, to send emails after 8 p.m.,' to people — if they're the type of person who loves to send emails at 9 p.m., that's their happy email spot, you can still write that email at 9 p.m. But you can schedule-send it so it arrives in people's inboxes at 8 a.m."

Petersen also made sure to emphasize that it shouldn't be up to one person to enforce these "guardrails."

"If someone breaks that rule, that doesn't become a low-key way to show they are working harder than everyone else," she says. "It becomes a topic of conversation between you and your manager. It is something that is not cool."

Warzel says that in order for employees to have a healthy work culture, they also need to have a healthy life outside of work.

"If you do de-center work from your life, if you do manage to focus your efforts on other things, other than this all-consuming job, you have this opportunity to turn your time, your energy, your commitments, your devotions toward your family, toward your friends, toward your community. And that may almost sound a little bit hokey, but I think that's actually pretty profound."

In Out of Office, Warzel and Petersen highlight a program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which pays remote workers $10,000 stipends to move to the community and volunteer there. As NPR has previously reported, the low cost of living in Tulsa has driven more so-called "laptop workers" to apply for the program.

"[The program] creates very sustainable relationships not for a company, not just for the city, not just for the person, but for all these other people," Warzel says. "It confers the benefits widely. It really does bleed into the fabric of society."

Petersen says that only devoting your time to work can have negative consequences on a political level as well.

"The thing about working all the time is that it makes it hard to think about anything other than work, and you and yours, your very immediate family," Petersen says. "It really turns people inward. And when you turn inward in that way, there are a lot of ramifications for that, politically especially. When you vote in a way that is incredibly focused on protecting you and yours, there are whole systems, whole understandings of how care should work, how society should work, that get lost."

In fact, Petersen says that "work from home," and the flexibility it provides, can actually allow people to become more involved in their communities.

"Anything that allows you to get outside of your own little sphere, and also understand who needs care in your world ... that is what flexible work can help provide."

This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Anjuli Sastry, edited by Jordana Hochman, and adapted for the Web by Nathan Pugh. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.