Working from home is waning quickly & the “future of work” prognosis about the office-less organization are dissipating.
Attesting to this, grotesque traffic jams have returned. One of my commutes takes me 2-3 hours each direction for a 70 km commute twice a week! And that is the easier commute.
Why have people returned to work? I will attempt to provide my understanding of this nasty development in this short post.
Every organization has what I call a “purely political dimension”, that is a limited domain in which power is unequally distributed. Some people have positions of power and tell others what do. Other people do what they are told. Power has visible manifestations and symbols. These symbols of power and position create a clear pecking order, even if subtle. For example office size, parking slots, who has a conference room, brand of laptop. These symbols of power are emphasized by various titles, charts, work flow and ceremonies.
The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman discusses the term “status degradation ceremony” in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The status degradation ceremony transforms the identity or status of an individual into an identity/status lower down an organization’s hierarchy. In other words, it is a political (power related) tool that stratifies an organization. The status degredation ceremony is best played out “in situ”, on site, and not on Zoom or Teams because the degredation ceremony has many visual components.
Let me digress a moment and discuss the almost religious hype created around remote work-which made it into an ideology instead of a tragedy.
Media and especially social media create illusions that sometimes exist in parallel to reality (every country needs to do its part in climate control*; soon we will all be driving electric cars) and sometimes create a false reality (Zalensky is a hero, and not an idiot**).
Working for home became a serious topic of academic research on one hand. Unfortunately, it also became a hot topic on social media, which created the illusion that working from home is the future of work-peace in our time. Social media tends to ignore unpleasant truths. We all have bad breath in the morning;we all fart from time to time and politics is far more dominant in determining the future of work than Rob or Rachel from Twitter think.
So yes, social media created a positive hype about working from home, making it into the “new tomorrow”. Nonsense. A false prophet. A Zalensky, if you were, hailed by social media as his country goes to shit.
Management may not have lost control during the pandemic, but they certainly did lose the feeling of control, and lost some of the little “status degredation ceremonies” at their disposal. This loss of power was unbearable, as most people do not give away power easily.
And thus, as the pandemic crawls to an end for the time being, people are forced back to work where they will sit opposite their computers, attend a few meetings, and be at the beck and call of management who will assert their superiority from time to time via various degredation ceremonies.
*Some countries need to do a lot about climate control; others’ contributions are meaningless.
**If you live next to a bear, don’t poke him in the ribs.
Love this piece, Allon. Your reference to Goffman is appealing to me as his work was very influential when I was in school circa 1973.
Right now, I’d say we are witnessing some status degradation ceremonies writ large in the behavior of Elon Musk and others who are issuing edicts about “return to the office or else.”
Goffman’s daughter , Alice, is also worth reading.
It is great to see a quote from Goffman’s Presentation of Self – I recently used Durkheim’s anomie to describe how some individuals and organizations are facing the return to the office.