Two of my oldest friends have recently taken a strong dislike to their jobs. Both report the same symptoms: disillusionment, apathy and a conviction that the work is entirely pointless.
These two are part of a group of four of us, all of whom have had long, steady and largely happy relationships with our employers. Between us we have notched up about 110 years’ service.
Why is it, I’ve been wondering, that these particular two are so fed up, while the other two of us are fine? It doesn’t seem to be the work itself. All of us do relatively stimulating jobs. Neither is it the pressure. We are all old hands at dealing with that. What I think is ailing them is the very thing that was meant to set them free: they work largely from home.
One has a senior position in a large organisation that allows her to show up at work barely once a month. The other is an editor who goes in even less often than that.
This freedom made them both unbearably complacent when they started working from home about a decade ago. They were flexible and modern. They could play tennis mid-afternoon, efficiently dispatching work when it suited them.
Ten years on, the cynicism and pointlessness they now feel may be a result of having spent too much time in their slippers in the study at home. Under those conditions all work eventually starts to seem meaningless. By contrast, if you are toiling away with people doing the same thing you somehow convince each other that what you do matters.
From where I sit, surrounded by people all working for the Financial Times, the importance of the newspaper looks ginormous. So, too, does the importance of who has taken my coffee cup, and who is about to get promoted/shafted. These stupid things are not stupid at all. They are what lock us into a shared enterprise.
Yet when I suggested to one of my friends that the answer was to go to the office, she looked at me as if I had gone mad. There was no way, she said, that she was going to put up with the exhausting trivia of office life.
Possibly her hostility proves I am wrong. But I don’t think so. I think it proves how hard it is to go back. Because the pattern of office work is so unnatural, if you get out of the swing of it, it is almost impossible to pick it up again.
At the same time as thinking about my ageing friends, I have been fretting about my young ones. I was talking last week to a recent graduate who has recently landed a great job as a researcher for a television company, but when I asked him how it was going, he made a face. The work was good, but there was no office to go to, and so he spent his time in his room at home and in cafes. He hardly knows the other people he works with, and with no one to copy he is not learning much either.
When Marissa Mayer told Yahoo workers to renounce their slippers and come to work a couple of years ago, the whole world turned on her. But not only was she right, she was even more right than she thought. She said people had to come to the office to be collaborative and innovative, but the truth is bigger than that. We need to go to the office for five more reasons: to convince ourselves that what we do has some purpose, to make us feel human, to help us learn, to give us a feeling of work as distinct from home – and to facilitate the flow of gossip.
But despite all this, the work-from-home craze continues to spread. However, the reason may be not what we think – it has nothing to do with convenience, or even with saving our employers’ money on rent and electricity bills. According to a study published in the current Academy of Management Discoveries, the most powerful reason people work from home is not that it makes family life easier or saves on a commute, it is because others are doing so.
The researchers asked employees of a big US tech company why they did not come to work, and they found that it was because they so disliked turning up to an office in which half their colleagues were not there, that they opted to stay away themselves. The conclusion is worrying: working from home seems to be developing an unhealthy momentum of its own, thrusting loneliness on people without it suiting anyone.
I am uncomfortably aware of an irony in writing this column. As I type out these words, I am not surrounded by colleagues, I am sitting alone at home. But that is not because I do not believe what I write. It is because I have an appointment in town and there is no point in going to work first. Teleworking is fine for some of the people some of the time. But for most of the people most of the time it is the most backward progressive policy that has ever been invented.
The Financial Times Limited 2015