Insights · April 13th, 2023
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Note: this is a long, personal observation that is meant to stimulate thoughts, conversation and consideration.
Back in late 2019, I was involved with a high-level project inside Google that looked at the future of work. The scope was very broad – looking at better building practices, the movement of people and the technologies that can enable us to work better, fairer, more equitably. The energy in the group was great – made up of different domain experts (both internal and external to Google), futurists, and pragmatic architecture, product and engineering leaders. Over the course of the project many different ideas came into play. But the biggest takeaway was that we could potentially rethink what it means to work for a contemporary 21st century technology company. The lumbering office rituals and rites of the past – can now be put to bed? – after all it’s 2019, and we are all connected and online all the time – so why should we follow these outdated constructs? If Google – as a leading internet and technology company – can’t create viable ‘new’ ways of working, doesn’t that show that we are selling pipe-dreams of the future somewhat knowingly?
In one of the last workshops, my own thought process had moved one-level of abstraction higher: if we did end up creating this kind of future, what are the wider impacts? One scenario I envisioned was around the physical decentralization of companies. So for example, if today you want to work for any of the big tech firms it was required that you were physically present at one of the company HQs, which generally are always in high-cost coastal city real estate areas. So while you might get a ‘big salary’, you are also subjected to the ‘highest cost of living’. You will have to commute – largely by car, as public transport is spotty and inconsistent in many surrounding areas. So…
We created smaller company hubs, scattered across the US, so that people could stay where they largely are and because we have ultra-fast internet these ‘nodes’ can connect seamlessly (just like Google campuses can do currently). So what’s the upside? More equitable access and visibility to ‘Big Tech’ in more diverse municipalities. Hiring more local people, with local cultures – maybe even offering education to help up-skill and onboard potential candidates. The salaries of those employees would go into the local market, potentially injecting life into smaller communities. People could then buy the house they want, raise their family in the way they might be accustomed to and the successes are then spread across the US, rather than concentrated in the coastal cities of SF, LA and NY. The list of human potential upsides was strong. The ability to shake up the world of tech was invigorating. People were excited and engaged at the prospect.
And then, in February 2020 the pandemic hit.
As soon as it hit, and we were all told to go home, a mix of excitement and trepidation kicked in. THIS is the time to accelerate into the future – We simply have no choice. A perfect storm had arrived to force-function the hypothetical into reality. And so as we all know, people started to work remotely. Setting up little spaces to do their work. Everyone’s daily tools were web-based, and so sat at home I could see the exact same screens of information I would see inside of the office. I did need to get a better webcam setup (which was hard in those early days due to the run on webcams!), but I quickly settled into the exact same cadence and types of discussions I’d been having in the office. Talking with my teammates, we were positive that this would be the change we all saw in 2019. And as people took the opportunity to move away from the Bay Area either back to where they used to live, or somewhere they would have wanted to live, a sense of equitability descended.. People were buying local produce, putting their salaries into diverse local markets. It was happening. That’s not to say it was a bed of roses – it was especially hard for those who worked at the intersection of HW prototypes – you kind of need a lab for that. As the pandemic went on, I modified my work area and refined how I wanted to work to get it *just right*. It was great. Once pandemic lockdowns started to lift, I met up with a few colleagues for a chat. Once a week or so was great – it *is* nice to see a colleague in the flesh and break bread together. But overall this new way of working felt right. It felt honest – honest to the ideal that these companies try and sell – that technology will overcome so many historic barriers and enable your best work, wherever you are.
Towards late 2021 a new atmosphere started to emerge. It was what I’d been thinking about back in 2019. You see, in the process of envisioning this great future – one thing I was aware of is how every tech company is part of a larger ecosystem of value & services. Tech companies have helped the cities in which they reside become the most valuable and exclusive real estate in the whole country. There is also entire support industries that surround these corporate campuses – everything from cleaning firms to catering firms to security companies to well…a *lot* of things. And now these massive corporate offices were standing mostly empty. One time I was able to get high-level clearance in early 2021 to get back into my office to pick something up. The feeling of walking through the office building with no one there, seeing all the fallen and dead plants, moldy coffee cups and scattered design sketches on the floor was like an eerie frozen-in-time movie set. It felt like a symbol of an inability to adapt. A effigy of the past. The dusty factory floor. And it was costing the companies millions of dollars to keep running (HVAC!) while empty. And so the propaganda started.
Every office I’ve ever worked in has an adjacent microkitchen. These are utilitarian in nature – a coffee machine, a vending machine of snacks, a sink, some basic seating, some cups and some garbage bins. Water coolers, at least the popular image of one as a shiny white and blue plastic machine with that big water container on the top have largely been replaced by sleek kitchen-counter stainless steel models. They make ice now as well. But that’s just details. One thing I always noticed was that the human occupants of the kitchen wanted to be in there as little as possible. Go in, grab a coffee and get out. I cannot recall – ever – having a ‘water cooler conversation’. I also don’t ever remember overhearing anyone else’s conversations in there either. Project discussions were always hush-hush. After all, they are often secret – Google even has printed reminders on the walls telling employees not to talk about work. Makes sense – You never know who might be listening. So of course I was curious when the ‘anti-remote work’ propaganda started to appear toward the start of 2022: We need to get back to the office because that’s where innovation happens. It happens through those natural ‘water cooler conversations’ and if we don’t have them we will lose our competitive edge. We will die. Productivity is dropping. Managers find it hard to know what’s going on….etc etc etc. So what’s going on?
COMMAND AND CONTROL
One thing I’ve observed over many years working inside Big Tech firms is the theatre-of-work. A big part of joining a company and onboarding the employee is the ever-dangling-carrot of promotion. Promotion is used as the lure to push harder longer and faster but most importantly – with high visibility to your superiors. In a classic office setting, this portents to lots of face-time getting in front of leaders. Building relationships. Impressing peers. The least important part of all this is ironically the work itself – it could be any kind of work, as long as it shows your personal impact. I was once told by a long time employee that the most important job you have is to make your superior shine – so that some of that shine sticks on you, and tees you up for promotion in the next cycle. It’s usually powerful men who are well connected to other powerful men that get the glut of high promotion. It’s as close to ‘Mad Men’ as it can be in this modern era. So…to be clear, relationships matter the most. When the pandemic hit, and everyone went home and scrambled to set up their home office with varying degrees of success, this put paid to that part of the job – the you-scratch-my-back etc part of it. Suddenly, everyone was equal-sized boxes on a monitor screen. Bosses were scrambling to still look ‘in charge’ while stripped of the visual authority they were used to (their own offices, having PAs etc). Everybody had the same crummy webcam. They were dealing with the same challenges as the newest junior designer on the team. Of course, teams were still set the same tasks and workload as pre-pandemic, and largely getting the same good results, but something was missing – the old personal dynamic of command and control.
CITIES OF GOLD AND THE LURE OF WEALTH
As I mentioned earlier, nearly every major technology company HQ’s are in the most populous and expensive cities in the U.S. If you live in Wichita, and have studied and got ready to enter the workforce, then if you want a career in big tech you need to jump on that plane and start living and renting in these cities. This enforced-preselection dramatically inflates the value of properties in these cities. There is a housing shortage in SF/Bay Area, and so landlords could charge insane rental prices knowing that there is a stream of ‘tech’ people desperate to get a place and start work. For those that had bought a house here, they were watching the relentless climb of property value – median house prices coasting above $1.8M. You *had* to be physically here to work at these companies. You commuted daily into the office (either on a company shuttle bus, or sitting in your car stuck in traffic, idling your engine and pouring out exhaust fumes). This was it – the smell of success. The sheer ritual of it all. And then the pandemic hit, everyone went back and sat in their high-cost rentals, or sat staring at their gargantuan mortgages and started to wonder – wait a minute, do I really have to be here anymore? Articles started to espouse the benefits of remote work – both for your body and your mind. As long as you had a decent internet connection, you could basically live *anywhere* and do your job. A rebalance-of-sorts was occurring, after years and years of data deriding overvalued/overcrowded cities, the pollution, the impact on mental health, the crime etc. Of course, you didn’t have to leave – but for many this was a chance to live a better balance of work and life. Companies were also talking of this as ‘the way forward from now on’ to appease shareholders that the companies will continue to optimally function like before.
ENTER THE WATER COOLER – STAGE LEFT.
But once the pandemic started to ever-so-slightly recede, people started to move around en-mass again. Last summer, there was a tremendous amount of travel across the U.S – all the pent-up need to see family and loved ones was released in a torrent of unbound adventure, love and family arguments. But as we all started to hit the road again, something curious didn’t happen. The offices remained mostly empty. A lot of the tech firms started to try and casually entice people to come back – either it was ‘free artisanal coffee!’ or ‘the masseur is here again!’ teasers, or simply emphasizing how awesome and safe the office space is now that they have hand sanitizer on cubicle tables. Nonetheless, it did very little to get people back. Employees were living their best life, and in many cases doing their best work. SW Engineers could focus, without needing to sit in an office cubicle with big headphones on and a scowling look at anyone who walked over to chat. A lot of other reasons from employees reluctant to go back were real – even if you did go into the office, the chances are that at least one person you might need to engage with will be remote, and so it just means sitting-in-a-conference-room-staring-at-a-TV-again. Completely pointless. So Big Tech needed something more….extreme…to happen. The previous pandemic narrative needed to be reversed entirely. We need something…almost ephemeral..and unquantifiable as a central rationale for a mass return. And so the humble water cooler was used as the new symbol of American Creativity. Leaders of the companies spoke of a need to get back to ‘the magic’ – the magical thinking that happens ONLY when people are in the office physically. These ‘sparks of innovation’ that defined these companies were at terrible risk. These companies could LITERALLY DIE ANY SECOND unless some middle manager could ask an engineer stood next to the water cooler if they could add a new random untested feature in the next release. The horror. Anyway…this pleading with the innovators approach also didn’t really work. So now a ‘Nuke-from-Orbit’ option was needed. And so with a growing wobbly economy, and a well-known anti-hero together would make the perfect storm.
THE BALLMER EFFECT.
Early last year a rumor had been going around tech circles that Elon Musk (or Space Karen to some) was interested in buying Twitter – a large tech company that was struggling to make meaningful profit and stay afloat. As we know, he bought it. And what happened immediately afterwards was the kind of behavior that the big tech CEOs were secretly in awe of, even if they couldn’t come out and say it before. As we know Elon successfully (depends on the definition) and rapidly took Twitter from a large company to a small company, by simply laying everyone off unceremoniously. The sheer calculus and execution made the big tech firms sit up and take note. One of the things Elon did very very quickly was eradicate any chance of remote work – if you weren’t in the SF office being ‘hardcore’ for at least 80hrs a week, you were lined up and fired. At the same time, there were also growing concerns about a potential wider future recession. Alas, no more free money, it seems. This state of heightened anxiety was the perfect take-back-control situation that none of the tech companies up till that point were willing to do. It needed Elon’s brash don’t-give-a-f*** attitude to allow tech leaders a free pass to implement a similar approach.. Of course, one of the things that could be now safely removed as an option was remote work. Either you got back in the office, or you don’t have a job anymore. Simple, cold, unemotional. This was the restoring of the power dynamic of old. Workers back to the mills! Of course, why stop there? Not only push everyone back into the office buildings, but also remove some of the original enticements and benefits. Share a desk with someone else. Hell, sit on each other’s laps and suck it up
In the last 6 months Big Tech has laid-off huge amounts of people and largely removed remote working, some even removing that dangling-carrot promo path. These companies now far more closely resemble the ‘old era’ of big corporations – the IBM’s, the GE’s, old Microsoft. The fluffy hand-wavy ‘we can change the world for better/don’t be evil’ has largely gone away, in search of an unabashed focus on profit. And with it, that glimmer of a fairer more distributed, equitable and healthier future. I’m actually ok with it, because it is what I kind of suspected for a while. So what now?
SMALL LEAN INVENTION MACHINES
For a lot of people working in the tech sector, the past couple of years have allowed space to think about what really matters in life, while also still doing good work. A lot of those people will voluntarily leave the big companies as they roll out and enforce a RTO policy, in search of other more meaningful work. This opens up opportunity for the small-to medium size businesses to harvest that talent, simply by being more open and tolerant of the desires of their employees. Hybrid work will still make a lot of sense, but whereas before you needed to be within a certain commuting distance of a main office, hybrid may take place as off-sites in more inspiring locations. A lack of office HQ saves companies money and lets that budget be spent in smarter ways. Those companies will have all the positive energy, while big tech may end up becoming more of a classic ‘grind’ (or 80hr ‘hardcore’ weeks) going forward. It’s a shame that we still, in 2023, live very much within the same work dynamic of the last 40 years. It doesn’t need to be like this. We had the chance to adapt and build a new world – and ironically it’s the very companies that espouse leading the future that want the old dynamic back. Maybe it’s a generational thing and will only change once the old-men-in-charge eventually exit the companies. Either way I’ll be watching and still pushing for a better more sustainable and more distributed future for all. Just let the water cooler be a water cooler, please.
About Kharis O’Connell
Kharis O’Connell is a multi-disciplinary designer and artist who, on the one hand is deeply passionate about the role technology can play in helping us lead better and more sustainable lives, but on the other hand also embraces resilient infrastructureless off-gridism. Combine that with a second life of being an accomplished musician that has had numerous releases for the last 30 years, and performed across the world and it often adds up to a ton of confusion and disorientation for all but the most adventurous and open-minded.