The employee/employer dynamic has swung very quickly back to employers holding power. Elon Musk is making non-technical executives wonder if they can run technology divisions with 75% fewer employees. CEO’s are copycatting Salesforce, Google, Facebook, and others to take out 8-15% of their workforce, even if they’re still profitable. The news media is hysterical over layoffs even though most tech companies are letting go a fraction of those hired over COVID. Although, it doesn’t matter if companies are still up 15,000 employees vs. 2019 if you just had an offer rescinded. Or if you relocated for a new gig or put your heart into your work for years only to have your email shut off at 7am in the morning.
We are going back to the office. Apple has extended its halo by playing hardball on return-to-office (plus they didn’t hire like drunken VC-backed newbies with 5-years of expenses in the bank), showing confidence that their solutions will survive high profile defections from engineers who decided Coeur d’Alene is actually much nicer than Cupertino. In a conversation this week a friend referred to this transition as “survival of the nearest” and the phrase stuck with me. Some of us gambled and moved to locations hours from any company location that could plausibly stand in for “working from the office.” Worse, some of us pushed the boundaries of what “commuting” could mean, thinking one day in the office might be enough and 90 minutes, each way, was survivable long term.
In 2014 I took a job, with the encouragement of the CEO who hired me, that required a 3.5 hour commute each way. Well, that was doing it the cheap way – the only way I could afford. We agreed to two days a week in-office and I wasn’t going to pay $720 a month to ride Amtrak. For less than $10 bucks each way I got too and from NYC starting with a six minute walk from my house outside of Philadelphia to the SEPTA station, taking the R6 to the North Philadelphia station, then another SEPTA train to Trenton, then NJ Transit to Penn Station, ending with a marvelous one mile walk down Broadway. It felt like a miracle to pop up in Manhattan after leaving my house at 5:30AM. I could read, work, watch a movie on that commute and it was manageable one day a week. For maybe a year. I probably averaged 1.5 days a week (it was supposed to be 2) and my appetite for business travel probably went up because I could skip the NYC commute if I’d gone to Ohio for 3 days. I relocated to Austin, TX with that job partly to eliminate the commute but mostly to be in an office with colleagues on a regular basis. Building software is about conversations. Building anything is about human connection.
Small companies can crush it with remote. There’s a small cast of characters, you can skip the expense of an office and invest in quarterly in-person meetings instead, and everyone’s talking to everyone all day long anyway. But hit 50 employees? Or 100, certainly? You need face time.
The first job I had out of college, with GE, was in a small factory making locomotive engines, in Western PA. There were maybe 35 salary workers and 250 hourly workers at the time. The plant manager, “Big Bill,” was an imposing figure who kept an eye on the front door of the office to make sure everyone stuck to the 30 minute lunch break and demanded you bring him the cardboard back of a notepad before getting a new one. Theater? Bean counting? Maybe. But in the one year I was there he had to furlough maybe 100+ hourly workers. Who, believe it or not, didn’t have many other employment options living an hour north of Pittsburgh. He cancelled the Thanksgiving turkeys that were a long-standing gift from the company to each employee. How can you purchase turkeys when you’re furloughing workers?
He, and his small leadership team, brought all those workers back within a few months by converting a portion of the factory to rebuilding old engines. When railroads aren’t buying new locomotives they have to invest in maintenance of their old ones. It felt like a startup; there was nowhere to hide and a clear, common goal. If I sound poetic and admiring, it’s because I am. And was. But Bill had a rule, particularly for full-time engineers who would come to work at the factory, usually for a couple of years as they climbed GE’s corporate ladder: live within 15 minutes of the factory.
I don’t imagine it’s legal to make such a demand today. You certainly can’t ask where a person lives when interviewing them. You can ask, “can you be here during your assigned work hours?” But you can’t audit their commute and decide that living in downtown Pittsburgh, 60 minutes away, just ain’t gonna fly when the machine that sets the entire line’s cadence goes down at 2AM on a Saturday. Bill would put his big paw on a young engineer’s shoulder and explain his 15 minute rule, then suggest some nice communities to consider when looking for a home. Manufacturing taught the software industry agile, Kanban and lean; it probably has a lot to teach us about sustainable business.
Should companies make these demands? Three days in-office? Four days in-office? Is the freedom to sit in a spare bedroom and talk on Zoom 10 hours a day, at scale across the country, better for our communities than commuting three to eight hours a week to a vibrant workplace where you walk around to go to meetings and build friendships with new people? Like most things in life, it depends. If you need/want to work remote and have the skills that matter in the modern office workplace, there are still plenty of ways to do it. But you may need to switch employers and perhaps take a pay/benefits cut.
Or get an electric car with great active driving features (not ‘self-driving’!) to make your long commute more economical, safer, and less stressful. Better yet, get an electric bike if, like most, you live within 20 miles of your workplace. You’ll spend the same amount of time commuting (oh, the joy of buzzing by 30 cars lined up at a stoplight!) and get exercise in one activity. If you’re earlier in your career, most certainly get to the office. Scott Galloway is right on the money when he stresses face time, relationship building, and learning through osmosis are crucial in your 20s.
Will those who live closer to work end up with an advantage? Will those with two-hour commutes and kids to pick up miss crucial end-of-day conversations and line-of-sight recognition from leadership? Will their careers suffer in the long run? Will we still have some flexibility to meet the HVAC repair person or attend events at our kids’ schools? It’s tough to find a balance.
Once, leaving another GE factory at 5PM on a Friday, the General Manager of the plant greeted me and asked, “are you taking a half-day?” It was a scalding comment. He meant it humorously. Sort of. Not really. One of the things I despised about manufacturing culture was measurement-by-presence. Was your car in the lot at 6:30AM? On Saturday morning? I believe the modern technology world, for those lucky enough to work in it, is different. Our leverage is potentially much greater than an engineer keeping a production line going, making incremental improvements. Some personal flexibility plus required face time seems like an okay exchange and, overall, much healthier for most of us. Or maybe Google offices, in 30 years, will have the same furniture as they do today, with a handful of workers minding the AI machines that do all the work, pitching in their own money to buy coffee for the coffee maker.