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I Won’t Go Back to an Office. And It’s Not Just the Commute. It’s the People

By | Wendy J. Fox |

In the early 2010’s, when I worked for a division of a Fortune 500 company as a manager running marketing for the technology business unit, I shared an office with an admin who smelled like her pet ferrets. When there was some restructuring, she was downsized—but not because of the ferrets or the Captain Crunch she had every day for breakfast in the shared office. I doubt anyone would be fired just for noisily eating children’s cereal or having pets whose odor follows you around, but I was not sorry to see her go.

Later, when that same company was moving offices, I was assigned to pack the common areas, inclusive of the bathrooms. I interpreted the packing assignment as punishment from a superior for some offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what the offense was. Maybe it was the fact that I’m a woman. Our admin had been let go and once she vacated the shared office, much of the administrative work came across my desk. It was hard for me to imagine this experience would have been the same for a male employee.

Now, as many organizations are desperate to have workers back at their desks—in some cases, it seems, because they’re eager to surveil them or make good on real estate leases—employees are resisting. I’m a freelancer now and my exposure to the smells and sounds of the office as well as the everyday sexism and disregard for workers’ emotional health that I’ve seen accompany shared spaces is thankfully limited. But I get where these employees are coming from. And I know the resistance to in-person work isn’t just about dreading the commute or having to dress a certain way or putting up with terrible coffee: It’s also because of the people.

For as much talk about culture as there is in the corporate discourse, there’s not a lot of real attention paid to the fact that offices create artificial social groups—and, by extension, conflicts. The push for open-office plans—which was at first coded as enabling “collaboration” but is now more accurately recognized as a cost-saving measure—exacerbated this problem, putting random humans within touching distance of one another. In one such office, when a coworker spilled her latte, it flooded my desk, too. Just a little accident, but also wholly avoidable with just a bit more space between us. Or, say, a wall.

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