In Out of Office (Knopf, Dec.), Warzel and Petersen survey the current state of remote work and the future of flexibility.
You both moved to remote work well before the Covid-19 pandemic. How did the pandemic impact the book?
Petersen: It helped us immediately recognize the differences between regular work from home and what most people have been doing for the last 18 months. Pandemic-related remote work has been isolating, incredibly stressful, and constantly interrupted by family. We realized early that the pandemic was severely limiting people’s view of what is possible when your job has more flexibility built in. That was a huge reason why we wanted to write this book—to try and imagine and advocate for a more expansive vision of what work can mean and feel like.
The book delves into the historical antecedents of work practices and norms. What were the biggest surprises?
Warzel: Digging into the history of office technologies was endlessly fascinating. You start to recognize this insidious pattern where people invent new tools to make us more productive. Ideally, this would give us more time back. But productivity always tends to beget more productivity. Many of the problems “solved” by work technologies (see: email getting rid of piles of memos) morph into newer versions of the original problem (far too many emails), and another technology (Slack and other apps) is needed to solve that problem. It’s a vicious cycle.
How did thinking about balancing work and life impact your writing process?
Petersen: It’s a lifelong process of awareness, checking in with yourself, and being really intentional about how you structure and protect your time. It’s so hard. And, honestly, we struggled with that while writing the book. We wrote it during the winter months of 2021, which was a pretty dark time in the pandemic. And so we approached work-life balance on a more monthly basis. We wrote the book in a pretty concerted two-month sprint, but after that, we tried to really scale back our work lives in the spring and summer.
What change in people’s relationship to work would you most like to see?
Warzel: More than anything else, we’d like to see people expand their idea of what is possible when it comes to the role of work in our lives. The conversation around labor, burnout, and remote work often ends up being forced into this false binary. Will we all go to the office or will we all be isolated? It’s a flat conversation that’s mostly unhelpful. We try to argue that this remote work conversation isn’t about where we work, but how we work. That means figuring out what we value about our careers and how to protect it. This is hard work, but it’s entirely possible. That should give us a bit of hope.