What We Lose When Work Gets Too Casual

Like so many with a desk job, I’ve spent the pandemic working from home — or more specifically, the bed in a bedroom of our microscopic Brooklyn apartment, which also houses a 6-year-old, a cat named James Bond and a Roomba named DB5. When I have Zooms for work, I try to put on something that passes for business casual and make sure my hair doesn’t look like I’ve been spending my free time in the local wind tunnel. But strictly speaking, this effort may be unnecessary because many of the formalities of the white-collar workplace have eroded.

For so-called knowledge workers, the slide into casual work culture has been happening for decades, but Covid accelerated the trend by demonstrating that some office requirements are arbitrary and counterproductive, and make workers palpably miserable. I don’t miss long, pointless commutes that sap my energy before the work day even starts. And having more than once trekked through snow and ice in stilettos while carrying heavy pitch books, I think relaxed dress codes are undoing decades of Satan’s work when it comes to acceptable work apparel — especially for women, who are often held to different and more rigorous standards. (I’m not alone here; in a 2019 survey, 33 percent of workers said they’d forgo an extra $5,000 in salary for a casual dress code.)

There are trade-offs, though. The loss of workplace formalities like fixed start and stop times, managerial hierarchies with clear pathways for advancement and professional norms that create boundaries between personal and professionally acceptable behavior only hurt workers. Though the pandemic-era transformation of white-collar work seems empowering at first, we should not be deceived: Many of these changes mostly benefit employers.

On the surface, for example, remote work appears to give workers more freedom to do their work wherever and whenever they choose. But even though employees may feel more productive when they work from home, we may just be working more, not more efficiently. A 2020 Harvard Business School study of digital communications across almost 21,500 companies found that the average workday increased by 8.2 percent during the early weeks of pandemic lockdowns.

Employers have an incentive to embrace this round-the-clock culture, not because it allows workers to make more choices about when and how they get work done, but because it allows them to squeeze more work out of employees than they’re willing to compensate for. When employers can monopolize worker time and attention at any moment, it allows them to exploit people who can no longer check out when the workday is supposed to be over or they need to take time off. There is no work-life balance because the two become fully and seamlessly integrated. Your home is no longer the office; the office is now your home.

Another pandemic-accelerated trend is the flattening of hierarchies, where top-level employees manage their front lines directly, rather than through a pyramid of middle managers. This also seems like a benefit, because it means workers have to slog through less bureaucracy to get things done. But it often means that employers can punt on providing workers with paths to advancement, especially if they’re younger and less experienced. It’s easier to assign junior employees more responsibilities ad hoc in a more informal environment and to do it without formal promotions. These workers have the least ability to push back when that happens because they have the least power in the organization.

The Covid lockdown has also contributed to the erosion of boundaries between co-workers because we’re all invited into one another’s homes, thanks to videoconferencing. You finally get to see where Tyler from quality assurance lives — whether you want to or not. There are some obvious areas where this has gone too far — no one should ever take a bath on a work Zoom — but most important, it can easily result in a failure to treat other people professionally as a matter of course.

This is most likely to affect people at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy, who are at greater risk of becoming targets of harassment and inappropriate behavior. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also identifies the following as risk factors for workplace harassment: a young work force, places where workers are isolated or working alone most of the time and decentralized workplaces. Younger workers may not feel comfortable pushing back against inappropriate conduct and may not know how to (especially in those most casual of casual workplaces — the many start-ups where H.R. does not exist). Isolation means there are fewer people to intervene when harassment happens, and decentralization may give managers the impression that it’s OK to operate outside of workplace norms because they don’t feel as accountable to specific people. Finally, younger workers may violate norms because they’re not interacting with managers who would otherwise model professional behavior for them.

I’m not someone who particularly likes formalities, and I actively rebel against them when I think they’re arbitrary. My 6-year-old does the same thing, which means that when I give him a new rule to follow, he needs to know why it’s important. “Is this good for me or for you?” he asks, like a tiny Alec Baldwin in “The Departed” (“Cui bono?”).

It’s a question that should be asked about every Covid-induced shift that has changed the way we work, and particularly of relaxed professional norms. It should especially be considered in the context of how it affects younger workers, who are missing out on training and often find their bosses less accessible, rather than more (24/7 availability only works top-down).

This isn’t a problem that only workers should worry about. Employers who care about their employees should be aware that the lack of boundaries is a major contributor to burnout. People will overwork themselves because corporate culture incentivizes it and they may believe their self-worth is tied to their job. So unless hours are formally limited, they will continue until their health and productivity suffer. Their personal needs don’t get met because work has so invaded their personal lives that there is no dedicated time for nonwork life.

None of this is an argument for sending everyone back to the office and imposing rigid formalities for their own sake. It is, however, a reason to examine which parts of office culture were obliterated by Covid and need to be restored because they benefit workers more than they benefit corporations.

Some of the questions are easy: Who gets the most benefit from a 112-hour workweek? Unless you’re the business owner, it’s probably not you.

Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) is a writer and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.

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