With any massive societal change, there are inevitable growing pains that everyone needs to grapple with in some way.
In the most recent episode of See You at Work, we sat down with Charlie Warzel, a freelance journalist who has written for The Atlantic and The New York Times. Charlie has been writing about tech, culture and digital transformation for most of his career, and he’s been covering the shift to a more flexible working world for years.
An interview with Charlie Warzel, freelance journalist for The Atlantic and The New York Times
In this discussion, we explore the pros and potential pitfalls of the remote work revolution, and how organizations can best navigate the shift to optimize for a better workplace experience for all. We also discuss the importance of creating a sense of community and work/life balance within the workplace environment. Read on for some key highlights to remember from the episode.
1. Remote work is a double-edged sword
When it comes to the cultural and societal shift to remote work we’ve all paid witness to these past few years, Charlie views the story through a storyteller’s lens. As a tech reporter, he knows the remote work revolution is at its core, a technology story, but he also acknowledges the bigger picture and the major cultural shifts it’s brought about along with it.
In his view, the remote work revolution has provided us all with a golden opportunity to rethink the way we do just about everything in the working world, which doesn’t necessarily come along very often. However, Charlie believes that we should all continue to proceed with intention to avoid the potential pitfalls of the movement.
“I think this moment is one that we're able to have the possibility of a more flexible work future because of technology. But there is this chance that we are once again, going to use all these tools to undermine that thing that we want, which is more control over our working lives, more balance, and that this work from home revolution is going to just chain people to their desks all day at home and that it's going to be a complete and total collapse of any of that possible balance. So I think that the stakes are really high.”
Indeed, the stakes couldn’t be higher at this point in history. But that’s what makes this revolution so fascinating.
As Charlie suggests, our current circumstances present a variety of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for the working world, but he cautions that there are also some potential pitfalls we should continue to look out for in ourselves and our colleagues. In a sense, the movement is a double-edged sword that should be handled with care.
2. The office isn’t for everyone
With any major transition—whether in life, at work, or in society—it can be difficult to unlearn the old behaviors and adopt new ones. While many people have seamlessly transitioned into remote work life, and are perhaps even thriving, some have found it difficult to adjust given their working style, personality or tolerance for change.
However, Charlie reminds us that the concept of a 9-5 office job is, at the end of the day, a human invention that doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone.
“It's difficult to rewrite a lot of these practices, but I think the second that you start to have that mindset of questioning those first principles, I think you can start to see everything for what it is. For so long, we've been stuck in office mode, and I think we've forgotten the fact that offices are a human creation… The office is not a neutral space, it is a space that benefits certain types of workers, certain types of personalities, people from certain backgrounds. And there are other people for whom the office is an impediment to their success, it’s intimidating, it’s a place where they have to code switch all the time, where they don’t feel comfortable… and so the office might be holding them back from their best work.”
Again, Charlie underscores the privileged time we find ourselves in. The past few years have given us all a chance to take a closer look at the assumptions we’ve taken for granted for decades and challenge the status quo in a way that hasn’t been done before.
3. Inner reflection is key
During the pandemic, Charlie and his partner Anne Helen Petersen penned a book called Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home.Helen had already written a book in 2020 about burnout, and Charlie had begun thinking more critically about why we work the way we do, and how we might be able to make improvements.
A few years before the pandemic hit, in 2017, Charlie and Helen had convinced their bosses to let them move from New York City to Missoula, Montana, and work remotely. For Charlie, the adjustment proved to be unexpectedly difficult, and ultimately, a valuable learning experience.
“...I collapsed my work and personal life completely and worked all the time, and it really was untenable. It created a serious problem for me in which I was not only burning out, but I was just miserable and so I actually had to make some changes to my life because I couldn't just move back to the office. I had to figure out how to get through this and that began this process of really taking inventory of who I was as a person, but also as a worker.”
Over time, Charlie learned how to juggle his work life and his personal life while working remotely, striking a balance that would be energizing rather than draining. As part of this transformation, he had to take a good, hard look at his life, his priorities and the person he had become. While this isn’t always an easy process to contend with (or a particularly pleasant one), he believes the inner reflection was well worth the extra effort.
“What I really kind of realized was that I'd become a one-dimensional person. And it was a really hard, painful realization that I lived to work and worked to live.”
The human element
Overall, Charlie has reminded us of the critical need to strike a healthy balance between our work lives and personal lives to avoid the potential pitfalls of the remote work revolution. He believes that one of the keys to streamlining this new world of remote work is bringing the human element back to the working world, and elevating communication among teams.
Because at the end of the day, Charlie believes where you work isn’t as important as we may believe—it’s how we work together that counts.
“It's not necessarily about just where you work, but about how you work, and that sounds, I guess catchy and possibly reductive, but what we're really talking about is figuring out how to be productive, but also recognizing the humanity inside of our jobs. I think if there's one thing that remote work does is it introduces friction into the way that you do whatever it is you do, so you have to rethink how stuff is done, and it requires a little bit more communication.”
Listen to the full See You At Work podcast episode featuring Charlie Warzel here: