The dream of the techno-utopian workplace is dead. Remote work proved that digitizing the workplace isn’t liberating, it’s a company-controlled nightmare.

laptop screen showing video meeting with pixelated blue participants with crossed out eyes and frowns
  • When the pandemic hit, companies embraced remote work, especially as productivity began to increase.
  • Instead of investing in luxury office spaces, companies are investing in employee monitoring software to maintain a sense of control.
  • As companies put profit over workers, it is clear that technology in the workplace was never going to be liberating.
  • Katya Schwenk is a journalist writing about tech and surveillance.
  • This is an opinion article. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey abruptly announced last year that his employees could work remotely “forever,” the move was hailed as no less than “the end of the office as we know it.”

A year later, the mythos of the digital workplace persists. Companies now insist that the pandemic has heralded in a new, if inevitable, age of work – one in which technology is enabling “workforce liberation,” as one CEO wrote in March. “Once a futuristic vision,” Boston Consulting Group has pronounced, “the bionic company is here.”

The new cyborg workplace promised by corporate America is placeless; perfectly digitized and perfectly efficient. Its workers have been freed from the old shackles of the office. For years, business executives have pushed to better integrate technologies like artificial intelligence in the workplace, arguing that greater employee autonomy will follow. The pandemic, they claim, has proved this to be true. “We are seeing a human transformation right before our eyes,” Dell’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Clarke told investors last year. Under this model, worker productivity has reached “an all-time high,” he said.

Don’t fall for this charade. A year into the pandemic, it is more clear than ever that Zoom calls and “people analytics” are no antidote to the woes of the office. Automation and new technologies have never liberated the workplace; they aren’t doing so now, either.

Instead, companies are deploying tech to cement their control over employees. This sort of control is certainly not new. In the early 20th century, Frederick Taylor pioneered a strategy of “scientific management,” which placed workers under close surveillance in a ruthless pursuit of efficiency. But the age-old trend accelerated rapidly when the pandemic forced more than a third of the US labor force to work virtually.

The ideal of a digitized, “flexible” workplace is a familiar one. It draws from techno-utopian thought birthed in Silicon Valley, which in the early days of the internet imagined technology as a democratizing force, a means to secure personal freedom.

“There was a strong sense back then … that wiring the world was good in and of itself,” Chris Hughes, a now-defected Facebook co-founder, told The New Yorker in 2019. It did not take long for this ethos to reach the workplace.

For years, gig platforms like Uber and Instacart have touted their “new model” for work – using the language of liberation to describe a labor model that, in reality, quite closely resembles exploitative practices of prior decades. Uber’s tech might be innovative, but its vision for labor is not.

An example of in-app messages sent by Uber in recent weeks
An example of in-app messages sent by Uber as part of their Prop. 22 campaign.

Uber’s lobbying campaign for Proposition 22 in California, which exempted app-based drivers from being classified as employees, deployed this same techno-utopian language. “We believe a better way to work is possible,” the company wrote to its employees, urging them to vote for the legislation. Ultimately, the ballot item passed, greenlighting an independent contractor system that takes advantage of drivers and is likely to be replicated across the country. The erosion of employee benefits is being dressed up in the language of innovation.

But the behemoth companies that have recently joined in to claim a liberated, office-free workforce were – just a year or so ago – fixated on the physical office.

From luxury offices to digital offices

In 2018, cloud-computing behemoth Salesforce unveiled its new corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco: a 1,070-foot skyscraper that, to date, stands as the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. The building is decked out with the usual luxuries of tech campuses: lounges, meditation rooms, and a “media center.”

Then, in February, the company bluntly announced that its 9-5 workday was “dead.” Salesforce did not plan to wholly abandon its offices, president Brent Hyder assured employees, but instead hoped to “create the office of the future” – one that hinged on remote work, significantly reducing office use. Its skyscraper, which has indelibly changed the San Francisco skyline, quickly went from crown jewel to disposable commodity.

Salesforce tower
The Salesforce tower dominates the San Francisco skyline.

This about-face is less confounding if workplace technologies are understood to function in much the same way as meticulous office design. As Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey writes, the utopian office – whether Salesforce’s skyscraper or Epic Systems’ bizarre, fairy-tale headquarters – entices workers to extend their hours, blurring the lines between work and leisure.

A virtual workplace, it turns out, does this better – or, at least, companies like Salesforce are banking on it. Studies have indeed demonstrated that “productivity” increases when employees work remotely, but attribute this effect, in large part, to longer working hours. Perhaps as a result, some studies have found that remote workers report burnout at higher rates than their in-person colleagues.

Companies, of course, could take measures to improve remote conditions by better regulating workers’ hours or easing expectations around productivity. But this is unlikely. For the most part, companies that have decided to adopt a remote or hybrid model have cited increased efficiency as a key reason for doing so.

A new form of employee surveillance

As companies invest in their virtual workplaces, they are at the same time investing in new technologies for worker surveillance. Employee monitoring has a storied history, particularly in the US, but its newfound popularity casts doubt on the “liberation” of employees in the virtual workplace.

One recent survey of 2,000 companies using remote work found a “rapid” uptick in use of such tools. More than three-quarters reported that they conducted employee surveillance. A stunning 57% of those companies said that they had implemented the tools within the last six months.

Driving the trend, the survey found, was fear held by company executives that they had “a lack of control” over their remote business. A majority reported that they “don’t trust” their employees to work without such digital supervision – an anxiety that will likely drive autocratic management practices in the virtual office.

Companies that peddle employee monitoring tools have happily capitalized on that fear, branding themselves as a cornerstone of the future of work. “With more and more employees working outside the office,” writes monitoring company InterGuard, “digital employee monitoring is more important than ever.”

Their tools are far-reaching. Teramind’s live demo of its monitoring platform demonstrates a sophisticated system, one that records keystrokes, sends live “alerts” when employees spend above-average time on social media sites, and ranks workers by their calculated “productivity.” This is our supposedly emancipated workplace.

Accidental accessibility

Yet, remote work – despite all of this – remains popular among workers. And for good reason: The fight for greater flexibility in the workplace, led by people with disabilities and working parents, dates back decades. If there is a grain of truth to companies’ claims of a liberated workforce, it is here. For many, remote work is an important accommodation. It is, maybe, a liberating one.

The issue is that the pivot to the virtual office was not intended as such. The change was forced by the pandemic and, subsequently, driven by the interests of employers – after years of companies refusing to make such changes. As StaffCop Enterprise, another employee monitoring vendor, explains it: “Gone are the days when remote work was only appealing to employees.”

As Marianne Eloise writes, disabled people still need accommodations, within a remote workplace or not. Unsurprisingly, there has been no new rush to provide greater accessibility. And many jobs, while increasingly digitized, cannot be done remotely – a reminder that the companies that claim to provide ubiquitous flexibility are generally doing so only for highly-paid, white-collar employees, widening the cracks of the fissured workplace.

A year of heightened virtual surveillance, amid false claims of freedom, has shattered the ideal of the techno-utopian office. Still, the status quo of the workplace is always under threat. Sometimes, this disruption does come in the form of technology: A ride-hailing app co-op that hopes to topple Uber and Lyft’s empire in New York City, for instance, or a company developing technologies that would aid worker unionization. But this is not innovation on its natural course; it is something we must fight for.

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How Boston Consulting Group’s vision of a ‘bionic workplace’ can help companies build a seamless and resilient hybrid model

microsoft middle east remote work
The “bionic company” combines tech with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

  • BCG’s “The Bionic Company” envisions a workplace where tech combines with human adaptability.
  • It’s one model for the future of the post-pandemic company considering going hybrid or fully remote.
  • It involves tech being a main focus, bucking traditional leadership, and giving employees autonomy.
  • This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.

With the Biden administration setting a goal of 70% of US adults having at least one vaccine shot by July 4, business owners and employers are now anticipating a return to the workplace in some form.

As much as dealing with the pandemic itself was a completely new challenge, envisioning the shape of the workplace in its aftermath has become a discipline all its own.

Brandy Aven, associate professor of organizational theory, strategy, and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told Insider that companies are not going to be able to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Brandy Aven
Brandy Aven.

“Leadership should consider each worker’s situation and circumstances in as nuanced a way as possible rather than try to generate a uniform or blanket policy,” she said. “Similarly, the motivation and rationale for bringing workers back to the office should also be carefully considered and discussed with your workforce.”

Aven’s recommendation for companies includes a “collective dialogue” to generate solutions.

“In general, I would first aim to get individual feelings in a manner that will allow as many people to share their concerns and situations – for example, a survey or one-on-ones,” Aven said. An online forum or discussion board are other options.

This is one path forward in what consultant Paula Rizzo, author of two books on organization, labels as “an opportunity to not go back to the way things were.”

Paula Rizzo
Paula Rizzo.

“None of us are the same. Now people have this new sort of freedom from working remotely, and now everything is changing again,” she told Insider. How companies handle this change, Rizzo added, will determine how successful they are at retaining their employees.

“We’ve got a challenge where when we come back into the world of mixing virtual and physical interaction again, companies really need to think about how they make it the best of both of those experiences,” Rich Hutchinson, managing director and senior partner and social impact practice leader at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), said. “I really believe that people thrive on engagement and seeing other people, but the flip side is that there are huge benefits in being more productive in what you’re doing, but also spending more time with your family or being more flexible with where you are.”

Rich Hutchinson
Rich Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was one of the authors of a recent BCG report envisioning the future of the workplace entitled “The Bionic Company.” In it, the consulting group envisions a workplace where technology combines with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

This breaks down into several actionable steps that all businesses should keep in mind.

Make technology a priority

First, companies must work to integrate the technology they’ve leveraged during the pandemic into their regular workflow, and evaluate how those processes can be further deployed as workers return to the workplace.

“How will the core processes of the business evolve?” and “How will humans and technology create a more efficient process?” are the key questions leaders should be asking, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson gave an example of outcomes he’s seen these questions produce in action at a leading retailer. The company “built an algorithm to choose fashions for the next season. The algorithm improved on human choices alone,” he said. “But the best results were achieved when human recommendations were both inputs to an improved algorithm and also experts audited the outcomes. It’s an example of leveraging the power of humans and technology together.”

Becoming a “bionic company” isn’t just for large enterprises, either.

“The trick for small companies and entrepreneurs is to think about their processes in this bionic or digital mindset from the beginning, or adopt them in order of the ones where they think they’ll get the biggest bang for the buck,” Hutchinson said. “But because you’re small, I actually think you can build in a lot of the agile organizational mindset or the technology mindset pretty easily,” he added.

Buck the traditional leadership model and remain transparent

The next consideration is how leadership functions as you come back to work after the pandemic.

In the bionic workplace, it differs from the traditional top-down model, Hutchinson said. In traditional leadership, direction comes from the top and flows down to employees without much input or room for questioning, whereas in bionic leadership, it’s team-based, where the teams build products or drive outcomes and are charged with accomplishing their missions on their own.

“Leadership becomes much more about how I structure my teams, what are they working on, what’s the mission, do I have the right composition of talent on those teams, can I help remove roadblocks from them along the way, and if the project just isn’t working, do I shut it down and redeploy that talent onto other teams that have better uses?” Hutchinson said. “It’s basically how do you set up the teams, charge them with the mission, remove the roadblocks, and let them go, rather than managing a team and sort of orchestrating its activities in a very controlled manner.”

Keeping workers motivated throughout the changes that encompass a return to the workplace is another critical consideration, Hutchinson said. He said that taking the time to explain how the changes are going to be beneficial not just for the company, not just for the customer, but also for the workers, is key to their success. Having reached an unprecedented level of transparency during the pandemic, there’s no going backward.

For example, many companies that are digital natives use agile staffing processes to supplement their core employee base. Hutchinson said that handled properly, employees don’t see this as a threat.

“Employees are restaffed to other work that is now higher value. They see that making the company efficient through technology helps it win,” he said. “Growth creates opportunities for the employee. And agile staffing makes work more interesting rather than stagnant.”

That type of communication is common among companies that originated during the digital age, Hutchinson said.

“One of the things the digital natives have done really well is helping people understand that if we can grow and become more efficient and leverage these techniques into a more bionic operating model, that actually creates more opportunity for all of us, and our sincere goal is to help people find new roles and grow,” he said. “So I think there’s a large part of it that’s down to how the company executes it and helps people see the positives in their journey.”

Give employees an opportunity to structure their days

As business owners start pondering how to move forward, employees’ views will be central to considerations, Hutchinson said. He predicts that more autonomy in the workplace is almost unavoidable.

Employees “sharing what worked and what didn’t – and what they are looking for in a job moving forward – both will shape how employers structure jobs post-pandemic,” Hutchinson said. “For some, the pandemic has meant they needed to and could work in a more independent manner. Where this worked, I think employees will push hard for it to stick.”

Rizzo also believes that employees should get a head start on showing employers what they want and need by planning out what they’d like their work model to look like.

“We have an advantage because we know it’s coming,” she said. “We were all blindsided when remote work became full time, now you have some perspective – use it! Make a list of what you’re better suited to do at home and what works better in the office as you design your hybrid work model. It’s a good time to craft your days in a particular way that will make you more efficient, no matter where you are.”

Hutchinson identified less management, or the feeling of less management, as a benefit of the bionic workplace as well.

“They find that they’re operating more agile, which can be really energizing because it doesn’t feel as managed, it feels much more self-directed and they’re much more empowered,” he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Hustle culture is overrated

9 to 5 Fox
The film “9 to 5,” a classic hit, spawned the Dolly Parton single of the same name.

  • People on Twitter have been debating what’s better: a nine-to-five or entrepreneurship.
  • Insider spoke with nine-to-fivers, entrepreneurs, and work coaches to gather insight into the topic.
  • Two experts said work burnout is on the rise, and that the future of work will change post-pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On March 29, Tino Masaya posted a tweet that sparked a debate on Twitter.

“A 9-to-5 job is not slavery. Leave us alone. Not everybody wants or can be an entrepreneur,” the 30-year-old UK native tweeted.

Masaya, who works for her local city council, told Insider that she tweeted her statement because she was tired of the narrative, especially peddled on social media, that everyone has to be an entrepreneurial “hustler” with multiple streams of income.

It got over 11,000 likes, nearly 2,500 retweets, and over 200 comments. “Somebody had to say it,” one person replied. “Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone.”

“When entrepreneurs say this, it tells me a lot about how they treat their own employees,” another commented.

Weeks later, the conversation was sparked again by an April 17 video in which a group of people debated which was better: a more traditional job or the path of entrepreneurship. “Your nine-to-five cannot sustain you,” one person said in the clip.

But Masaya said her nine-to-five does sustain her. She’s fine with having a boss and waking up at 8 a.m.

So is Simone Noble, who ran her own consulting company for about a year before moving to it part time. She loved the freedom it gave her, allowing her to set her own schedule and spend more time with her family.

But she didn’t like having to chase down money from her clients to pay the bills. Relying on this income, she was plagued by anxiety: Would she be able to pay for food, for her car, for her home? Eventually, she decided it was too much.

“Having to run around looking for ways to make money – that’s not for me,” she said. Noble went back into the full-time flow of a nine-to-five, where she has a boss and a more reliable income. Her business partner still runs the consultancy full time.

Entrepreneurship is glamorized on social media, where a crop of self-made creators document their lifestyles and career successes in real time. To the outsider, they appear to make quick money from their endeavors, but social media paints an overly rosy portrait of the true entrepreneurial experience, which is often gritty and unrewarding. Almost half of entrepreneurs reported struggling with mental health – and the true number is likely much higher.

Current and former entrepreneurs, as well as work coaches, told Insider that social media places undue pressure on people to become self-made by pursuing their passion. They agreed that a nine-to-five can provide a stable career path and also be rewarding, despite the online narrative. They added that the pandemic is redefining traditional work to be more flexible for employees, thanks to a widespread desire for a more entrepreneurial life and changes in work life.

Social media glamorizes what the life of an entrepreneur is like

There are some days Robreuana Ruiz wishes she worked a nine-to-five.

Ruiz, an entrepreneur in Atlanta, makes six figures a year from her cosmetic companies Fash N’ Lash and Curl Candi, which she started at the age of 24. But these days, she’s dealing with what she calls “entrepreneurial depression” from trying to keep up with supply and demand, and from the pressures of running her own company. “It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Ruiz said.

“Social media can make everyone feel like they have to be this boss entrepreneur, but businesses are not for everybody,” she said.

Ruiz is referring to messaging from groups such as “LLC Twitter” or “Roc Nation Brunch Twitter,” where a flood of followers – many of whom were inspired by the success of the mogul Jay Z – encourages others to chase an entrepreneurial life and invest any gains for the chance to seek higher returns. But it takes courage and patience to launch a business, Ruiz said – not to mention capital.

“Social media can make everyone feel like they have to be this boss entrepreneur, but businesses are not for everybody,” she said.

As her own employer, Ruiz has no fixed schedule, and making payroll is solely dependent upon customers, rather than a corporate enterprise. This means there are good months, but there are also months where she’s left worrying.

Entrepreneurial depression is “real, and it’s not talked about enough,” Ruiz said.

Despite this, she has been earning six figures. But social media makes that success feel inadequate. “It makes us feel like we aren’t doing enough,” Ruiz said. “I’ve been an entrepreneur for three years, and I haven’t made a million dollars yet.”

There are benefits to having a 9-to-5

Michael Greenberg, a serial entrepreneur in Denver, said social media has made it easier than ever to make money by equating an online persona with a moneymaking business.

“There’s a media machine built around the idea that you have to be hyperproductive to succeed, and that if you’re not hyperproductive, you’re somehow falling behind,” Greenberg said. “We are productivity-obsessed in the worst possible way.”

“We are productivity-obsessed in the worst possible way.”

Greenberg has never worked a traditional nine-to-five, but he’s now on the hunt for a more stable gig as he continues to run his side hustles. Specifically, he wants his baseline income to be handled by a job that takes “between 25 to 40 hours a week.”

In his own Twitter thread, Greenberg called entrepreneurship lonely and hard. He loved being able to work everywhere, but didn’t like not having a team of peers. He loved having control over the budget and hiring, but not that he had to often pay for mentorship opportunities. “Don’t let the entrepreneurship, startup, hustle porn fool you,” Greenberg tweeted. “The only right choice is the one you choose to make.”

After all, working a nine-to-five has its perks and practicalities. Masaya, the UK native who tweeted about the pressure of entrepreneurship, said paid sick leave and maternity leave were two major benefits to working a traditional job. Noble, who gave up her own consulting business for a nine-to-five, liked knowing that there would be money for the bills each month.

In the United States, healthcare benefits – as well as dental, vision, and retirement – are tied to employment. In 2011, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that there were over 20 million self-employed people in the US, 30% of whom lacked health insurance. And a study published in November of last year, by Agnieszka Kwapisz of Montana State University, found self-employed men were 62% less likely to be insured, and self-employed women 83% less likely, compared to the general public.

Heaven Williams
Heaven Williams and her candles.

Paid sick leave and disability benefits are also tied to employment. Even to qualify for unemployment benefits – as over 50 million Americans did during the height of the pandemic last year – one must prove they had been employed recently.

Up until the pandemic, the self-employed didn’t count.

“There are certain companies out there that do care about their employees and have amazing benefits,” said Heaven Williams, who works for a Sacramento homeless shelter during the day and runs a candle business on the side. “If you find something that you love to do and it’s a nine-to-five, there is nothing wrong with it.”

The structure of day jobs can learn a thing or two from entrepreneurship

One main part of entrepreneurship that most people like is flexibility and having agency over their time. Over 40% of those surveyed in 2017 for a report done by the accounting organization FreshBooks said becoming self-employed had given them better working hours, improved the quality of their childcare, and allowed them to spend more time with their families.

This is a trend that is looking more likely to be adopted into the traditional working environment, especially in a post-pandemic world. Insider’s reporting on the future of work has suggested the nine-to-five may not be the same after the crisis passes. Ashley Whillans, a professor at Harvard Business School, believed the traditional workweek could become more flexible, where workers come to the office three days a week, spend two days at home, and have two days off.

Microsoft is now allowing employees to work from home for less than 50% of their workweek. Both Twitter and Spotify are allowing employees to work from anywhere.

What’s more, Greenberg believed most people don’t even want to be entrepreneurs – they just hate the jobs they’re in. Matching workers with jobs they like could see an increase in employee satisfaction.

Joe Sanok, a podcast host and the author of the professional help book “Thursday Is the New Friday,” said he was a supporter of the four-day workweek, and that the concept of “summer Fridays” – the practice of giving employees part or full time off to enjoy the warmer months – should be more prevalent in modern workplaces.

Meanwhile, Paula Davis, a burnout consultant, said workplaces will be able to attract more people by offering more flexibility, such as the option for remote work and giving employees more free time.

“I also think a sense of meaning, impact, and purpose is something companies are really going to have to step their game up,” said Davis, who experienced burnout both as an entrepreneur and as a commercial lawyer. “You’re going to have to explain to people how this is changing the greater good.”

Even if the workweek is redefined and social media gets the story straight on entrepreneurship, society is still playing a dangerous game with productivity as more people seek to monetize their time and personas.

Burnout is at an all-time high, along with the number of side hustles. said she knew of many people who had started to work traditional jobs alongside side hustles, seeking to juggle both on their quests for uncertain success.

“That’s not productivity,” she said. “More, exhaustion.”

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West Virginia is offering remote workers $12,000 in cash if they relocate for 2 years

West Virginia river tubing
Three women float down the Potomac River by way of rafts in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

  • West Virginia is launching a new program aimed at luring remote workers to the state.
  • Called Ascend WV, the program offers $12,000 cash and other benefits to workers who relocate.
  • Some major companies, like Twitter and Ford, have already said employees may work from home forever.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

West Virginia is hoping to lure remote workers to the Mountain State with the promise of $12,000 and a year’s worth of free outdoor activities.

The state tourism office on Tuesday announced a new program called Ascend WV aimed enticing those who work from home to move to West Virginia. Ascend WV will provide relocation packages to incoming residents, starting with 50 slots for those interested in moving to Morgantown, home to West Virginia University. The program will eventually expand to more cities across the state.

The relocation package includes:

  • $12,000 cash
  • A year of free outdoor recreation including whitewater rafting, rock climbing, ziplining, ATV-ing, golfing, and skiing
  • Over $1,200 worth of free outdoor gear rentals
  • Free access to coworking spaces
  • Professional advancement through WVU, including access to the business school’s “entrepreneurship ecosystem” and the ability to obtain remote work certifications
  • Networking events with state business leaders
  • Social events to help incoming residents meet new people

Those who move will receive $10,000 paid in monthly installments for the first year and the additional $2,000 if they stay for a second year.

Read more: If you want to ask your boss to let you work from home forever, use this script

The program is funded by a $25 million donation from Intuit executive chairman Brad D. Smith and his wife, Alys, to the Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at WVU. The organization partnered with West Virginia’s department of tourism and department of economic development to create the program in six months.

Smith is a West Virginia native and said in a statement that he hopes the program will allow West Virginia to “capitalize on national workforce trends” by leveraging the state’s access to outdoor pursuits.

West Virginia is one of a handful of states hoping to entice remote workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Late last year, Tulsa, Oklahoma, announced a similar program that grants workers $10,000 to relocate to the city. And earlier this year, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez partnered with Softbank Capital to invest $100 million in making the city friendlier to tech startups hoping to relocate.

The efforts come as many major companies are reconsidering the future of work post-pandemic. Companies like Ford, Twitter, Dropbox, and Slack have said employees may work from home 100% of the time. Others, including Facebook, Microsoft, and Salesforce have announced policies that allow for some of their employees to work remotely while others will come into the office at least part of the time.

Read the original article on Business Insider