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Rethinking the office with Anne Helen Petersen: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Anne Helen Petersen about the ways the pandemic has transformed where and how we work.

The pandemic has transformed the way work is done. For many, gone are the days of dressing up, commuting to an office, and working in-person five days a week. But with the broad availability of vaccines and boosters, as well as relaxed COVID guidelines, employers are increasingly encouraging employees to return to the office. Yet, not everyone wants to go back to the way things were. 87% of workers who have the chance to work flexibly take it, according to the American Opportunity Survey, conducted by McKinsey. Anne Helen Petersen is the author of four books including “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” which she co-wrote with Charlie Warzel. Petersen joins WITHpod to discuss why the future isn’t just about where we will work, but how. She also discusses the history of working from home, people returning to “ghost offices,” why reverting to pre-pandemic workplace norms could be problematic and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Anne Helen Petersen: Some people still have not regularly gone back to the office. You have people who have figured out how to make this work. How are you going to convince them to change how they're doing things now?

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" With me, your host, Chris Hayes.

You know, I have been watching, I just finished the first season of the Apple TV show "Severance," which I highly recommend. Maybe you've seen it, maybe you hadn't. It's one of those shows that has like a big premise, capital P, Premise, at the core of it. And the premise is, there's a company that offers people, in their employment, this opportunity to get severed. And what that means is there's a chip that's implanted in your brain, which means that your non-work person, like the non-work version of yourself, has no memories of what happens in work. And then the work version of yourself has no memories of what happens outside. You just remember work.

And every day you show up to the office and you go down this elevator, and when like you go down the elevator, you switch from one to the other. In fact, in the show, they call it the outie and the innie. The outie is the person who's out in the real world who doesn't remember work. The innie is the person who's in the office and doesn't remember the outside world.

Now, I think a show like that with a premise that sort of like looming can feel very overdetermined and plodding, but the show is fantastic. And isn't that way at all. I think it's really brilliant.

But one of the things that's so interesting about watching the show in this moment is that office culture, which is what in some ways the show is about, feels incredibly remote because for I think a lot of people who are office workers, they're not in the office that much. In fact the data backs us up. I know in New York City, weekday commuting on public transit is about 60 percent of what it was pre-pandemic, even the weekends have gotten up to like 85 percent. So people are going out and doing things during the weekends almost near where they were, but pre-pandemic numbers for commuting are very far down.

That's true in many major metro cities across the United States. The two-year shift to work from home, again, for certain kinds of workers, and I want to be very clear here, there's a certain kind of office worker, particularly of whom this is the case. Lots of workers have been going in the entire time if you're in a meatpacking plant or driving a bus, et cetera. But one of the things that Severance highlights and particularly the juxtaposition of watching these times, is what a strange place the office is as a sociological site.

It's a place where you have these human relationships with people, but under weird conditions, people that are your kind of your friends, but not really your friends. Sometimes you make real friends at work, but you have this form of relationship and honestly a form of yourself at the office that is a distinct epiphenomenon of this institution called the office.

And one thing that I think is becoming more and more clear is that maybe that's just gone for good. Like maybe the temporary disruption that happened to like, for instance, in person schooling, which was temporary, right? There was a big debate about it. It became pretty clear it wasn't great for kids. Now everyone's back in school and no one I think is like, "Maybe we just keep it remote." No. School is going to be in person, it has to be in person.

Offices, not so much. I mean, employer after employer trying to get people to come back to the office and workers, by and large, and not uniformly, but by and large, don't want to. And this raises this whole new set of questions about what the new office looks like, what work from home as a quasi-permanent institution looks like, the cascading effects that might have on everything from downtown business districts and commercial real estate in those places to patterns of commuting, real estate prices in different places, will it mean that folks can live in remote places and be able to work from those places? And so we'll have more opportunity for those places' real estate markets or will those real estate markets be flooded with a new crop of telecommuters who push up the prices?

So there's an incredible amount of social cultural effects that flow just from this simple thing of people aren't going to the office anymore. And I've been really fascinated with this topic and found the perfect guest to talk about it today.

Anne Helen Petersen writes a newsletter on Substack that's called Cultural Study. I've read her for a very long time. She's a great writer. She's also co-author of a book called "Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home" which she wrote along with Charlie Warzel, who was at "The New York Times" and I think now does his own Substack. And it's great to have you on the program.

Anne Helen Petersen: It's great to be here.

Chris Hayes: So you started writing about this before the pandemic. Why?

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I actually didn't start writing about it like in a concerted way until the pandemic hit. But I have been thinking about it for a long time, I think because I used to be an academic and academics learn to work in lots of spaces pretty early on and have really dynamic flexible schedules. And I understood that that flexibility, I craved it, right? I loved it. I hate it when I started at BuzzFeed News and it was like, "Oh, you have to stay in the office until 6 PM otherwise, people are going to look at you funny." Like, that seems so arbitrary and pointless to me.

But at the same time, I also understood that that flexibility opened up so much space for work to slip into every single corner of your life, right? Like the ability to work anywhere and everywhere is the ability to work anywhere and everywhere.

Chris Hayes: So let's talk about work from home before the pandemic, because I think, I remember there was a sense back in like, I remember the late '90s, in the sort of tech bubble, this sense that the paperless office was a term that was very hot and then like telecommuting. And this idea, I remember there being this idea of like, wait a second, we don't need the office anymore. People can basically work from everywhere now that we have the Internet. That did not happen.

In fact, the opposite happened. I mean you had this bizarre thing where like, Silicon Valley, like everybody wanted to move to San Francisco, like jacked up the price of housing there. It's like, well, no one actually has to be there physically. Isn't that what the whole Internet is for? Why didn't it take off? Like how do you understand the enduring power of the office into the pandemic?

Anne Helen Petersen: It's so interesting. And I think like anyone who has looked into the history of the office finds all of these fascinating twists and turns. And like the sheer number of people who have worked from home historically is higher than most people think of, in part because you know what's counted in the census as working from home, being a farmer. So the data is actually really skewed in ways that make it not as meaningful to look at like on a large scale.

But even in the 1980s, there are articles in "The New York Times" and other places that are really excited about the prospect of being able to hook up these connections in secretaries’ homes, that allow them to essentially plug into the mainframe and do their work remotely. And like any of these trend pieces, oftentimes, they were reflecting the movements at one company, like very, very early in the process before they figured out that it was much more cumbersome than it was worth.

But in the 1990s, there really was this huge movement to reimagine what the office could be. And a lot of that was actually connected to ongoing efforts to cost cut, right, to make offices less expensive and to make them flexible in a way that benefited companies’ bottom lines.

So one of the huge innovations in flexibility over the course of the '70s, '80s and '90s was actually figuring out how to take office space and put up these dividers, these cubicles that could be easily added and taken away so that when companies expanded and then laid off a bunch of people, it would be easier to modify the offices accordingly and then lease off other parts of the offices.

And one of the things we talk about in the book is this understanding that flexibility has always been something that benefited the company and the company's bottom line and how the new sort of flexibility, people are really thinking of it as something that benefits the individual worker instead and how that's a paradigm shift.

But going to your original question of why it's so hard to let go of the office, there's a great recent post by Ian Bogost from "The Atlantic" about the ideology of the office, which is much less about the physical space of the office and much more about what the office affords in terms of hierarchy and surveillance and the sort of norms that it promotes. And I think that that's what people are still clinging to, the organizations that are really reticent to move forward into this more flexible space is they're like, we want to force people to do what they don't want to do as a way of showing our power. Or also, when it comes to a lot of leaders and white male leaders in particular, like, this is a space that has always worked for me. This is a space where I feel powerful. And why would I ever want to get rid of that? Hey, why would I want to decentralize my power? Even if they're not saying that or admitting that explicitly, I think it's really part of a larger conversation.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, the point of surveillance is interesting, right, because when you think about a factory, so before, offices, we'll talk about why an office exists, but in a factory, there's two things, right? One, they centralize production as the industrial revolution happens for a few reasons, one is that it's more efficient. But two, it allows centralized management. I mean, in fact, before you get the factory, you have work from home. So you have individual people at a loom who you're buying piecemeal from, and you can't manage them and they're doing it sort of on their own time. And the factory gets created as a means of centralizing management, essentially, creating standardization, surveilling workers, right? That creates the wage system that we have now.

The office sort of flows from that same logic more or less, right? Like how should we think about the office as an institution? Is it purely a product of capitalism? Is it necessary to do quote unquote, "knowledge work" before the Internet? Like, why is there an office?

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. I think that's a really interesting comparison, because there was this understanding that like, of course, we leave the house to go do our work. Why wouldn't we do that as well, for what was really the original office, which was often a lot of time, like clerks, right? Like that was the beginning of what we think of as the knowledge worker.

Is this middle bourgeois of people who were assisting in the movement of money and goods from one place to another, right, assisting industry.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen: And we still have that now, right? Like, that's what knowledge workers are now. The difference is that, what those clerks were doing in forms of like correspondence and large books of numbers, that sort of thing, like, you needed to have those articles, that infrastructure of communication and of tallying in a centralized place.

And also where people could physically look over your numbers, right? Like you wouldn't have to --

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Anne Helen Petersen: -- deliver the books to someone else. And as that need has disappeared, there hasn't been the same sort of modification in our offices. So like, when I think of being a journalist, writing, you can't see the work that I'm doing when I'm writing, like I'm not a better or worse writer, because someone is there watching me.

But oftentimes, those same norms of like, we need to be in the presence of one another in order to do our work well, and also that the only way that someone will work is if someone is watching them, that norm, that has sustained.

And I think most people I know, who really struggle with doing their work are oftentimes people who work a crappy job or a bad job, right? When they're underpaid, under motivated, they don't understand why the work needs to be done in the way that it's being done.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and even that, I mean, even that's an interesting question, right? Because, I mean, even I think in, when I've done service work, I've always been sort of struck by like, how much at every level of work that I've ever done, whether it was like cashing people out at the Bronx Zoo concession stand or working in restaurants, that a lot of people just like, want to do a good job and take pride in their work, whatever it is.

And will bust their hump doing it. And now, that's not true of everyone, for sure, right? There's, there's definitely a range. And there's definitely a range that’s sort of context dependent. But the whole idea behind the factory or the office, the question of surveillance is really huge, right?

The ideology of management, and again, I don't know how much it's true or not. I mean, is that unless there's a set of watchful eyes to be like, are you putting the chocolate in the boxes? Or are you stamping this mold over and over that people are going to slack off.

And I think there's a lot of contrasting literature in psychology and in business management, all this about whether that's the case or not just. It just is a core empirical fact.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I also think that there is this interesting idea that hours in a seat are somehow related to hours doing knowledge work, right? So, it's one thing if you work an eight-hour shift where you are the cashier at the zoo, right? Like that is eight hours where you are doing you’re the job, very different from you are spending eight hours trying to come up with an idea, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen: Like creative work just works differently, and oftentimes demands not working in order to do your job well. And so, if someone is there saying, "Well, if this person isn't in their seat from nine to five every day, they're committing wage theft." It doesn't compute with many types of cerebral work.

I'm sure you shared this with me, I hate the word knowledge work, because it requires knowledge to do every sort of job.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen: I think of it more as like portable work, like work can be done in different spaces.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I think again, like yeah, all this stuff is so shot through with like, the kind of assumptions of value in capitalism, like --

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- the stuff that is better paid is the stuff that's more valuable. Again, I think one of the lessons we learned in the pandemic was that that's just not true. Like, actually, it turns out when the chips are down, like people working in grocery stores are one of the most valuable jobs in society, not like me making my cable news show. So --

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- it actually turns out that like, the wage scale doesn't really represent, and like nurses like nurses are not the highest paid people in America, but it turns out, actually nurses, really important. E.R. docs are not the highest paid doctors, orthopedic surgeons make a lot more money and plastic surgeons, but not as necessary, right? So, all of this stuff has this kind of embedded value in it, but the question of surveillance to me becomes, so there's two questions here, right? The office structured A, around surveillance, right? You watch people work.

The office is structured around the wage time system, right? People are paid for their time. And again, like this is an enormous transformation of capitalism, right? Like, we went from a system where people made things and sold them and sold them piecemeal and traded for them to the wage system, an enormous transformation of all of American, all of human society.

So the office also does that because it's like to your point about like, you're in the office for the eight hours, what you're getting paid for, in a literal sense, is your presence is a physical building. Like that, like at the most literal level, if you're filling out a timeshare or clocking in, the thing you're paid for isn't anything you do. It's being there.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I think that these jobs that are oftentimes portable, and don't necessarily need presence, but are still governed by some of those rules of wages and are unionized, right, like some jobs that are really protected, are the ones that have struggled to make this transition. Because there is not that flexibility of like, if you get the job done, that's good enough.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And a lot of tech companies, to their credit, really do have that understanding. Like, if you're doing your job, we don't care when or how you do it.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: But these jobs that I think, in a positive way, have union protections, have very clear understandings of when work starts and stops, have reached this point, especially at government jobs, where it's like, well, how do we figure out what the future looks like?

We understand that we still want our workers to be protected. How do we do that if we decouple it from the idea of butts in seats?

Chris Hayes: Right, and that gets to the point of like how evaluation works.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Because butts in seats is transparent.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

Chris Hayes: Like, you were there or you weren't, you worked these days. And when you're trying to create transparent and clear rules across a workforce for purposes of collective bargaining, which are incredibly important, like a huge, important thing. Like that is one way to do it, right?

But the other question becomes, when you talk about like creative work, this point that you're making about the time you spend doing it is irrelevant is a really important one. Like I remember when I was writing my first book, and I was feeling, I'd have these days where I would get nothing done.

And I would take solace in like you go through it. Kafka is a great example. But there's a million writers. You can go through their diaries and their diaries are like didn't write enough today. Took two naps. Had my first drink at 4:15 and this is Kafka, like, or pick a person.

Didion would do this, I mean, Hemingway, I mean, all these people that were incredibly prolific, brilliant people. The writers' diaries are filled with self-loathing. I'm not writing enough. I'm not writing enough. I'm not writing enough.

And what you realize is creative work is like, to me is like cooking a turkey, like it takes as long as it takes. There's no trick or hack to cook it faster. The ideas are going to take as long as they can take.

And then at a more fundamental than the physical question of the office is in tension with the butt in seat for a certain amount of time idea.

Anne Helen Petersen: It's also in tension with the entire concept of management as it has functioned for most over the last 100, 150 years, because I think most management and management skills are really contingent upon presence, right?

It's that observational like, "Oh, I see this person,” I’m sure our mutual friend, Ben Smith, his way of managing it at BuzzFeed was to walk around and just like start conversations, right?

And that is definitely a way to manage, how do you do the walk around as a manager, when all of your employees are virtual? Sure, you can Slack or Teams or chat them in some capacity, but it's a different, different paradigm.

And I think this is where a lot of managers and organizations broadly are running into problems, because management has always actually been a really difficult skill. It is an even more difficult skill, and it's actually probably an entirely new skill.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen: But no one is dedicating the time to actually learn it or consider it something that is absolutely vital to the cultivation of a new company culture.

Chris Hayes: Right. So you get the office out of essentially, like physical necessity, right, of collecting information necessary for the work to happen in one place, right, at a time when information can't move quickly.

Then it endures past the Internet, right? And then people do work from home and there's virtual jobs. And I remember working with Move On folks who 20 years ago were doing, they had a team across the country, right? They didn't have a physical location.

So that's been happening. But then the pandemic happens, like talk to me about that transition from within a matter of weeks. I mean, we were the first show to basically go all virtual. And I think when we first started to try to do it, people were like, you can't do a cable news show virtually.

You need a control room. I mean, the control room is our version of the clerks with their books, right? Like, we have like very expensive equipment. It's all in one room. It's lined up in racks with the stuff physically there for the purpose. Like we're like the clerks, right?

That we couldn't do that virtually. And then we figured out how to do it virtually. And I think my suspicion is that's what happened in all kinds of places that thought they couldn't do it.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. I think this is actually the really interesting thing about what the pandemic did, was it forced people who had convinced themselves, there is no way, no way we could ever do our job remotely.

I think a lot of media production, broadly speaking, really thought that. I think lawyers thought that. A lot of medical professionals thought that. We cannot do this work any other way, other than the way that we have developed to do it.

And then when you're forced to do it, you figure out a way. And so you see some of that paradigm shift that was just necessarily pressed upon people and people exploring possibilities that they never would have explored or that would have taken 50 more years for them to arrive at that place where they would consider exploring it.

And I think that that is good, generally. Our other problem, though, is that that first year of the pandemic, particularly, no one was actually working from home, right? They were working from home during the pandemic. They were working from home without childcare.

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Anne Helen Petersen: Without access to any third spaces. Like this is not what working from home is, and anyone who worked from home before the pandemic will be like, not the same, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: Not the same at all. And then the second year of the pandemic, I think, has been really difficult because there's an expectation. And this is true in so many different facets of our lives. But this expectation that everything is back to normal, coming up against the reality that everything is not back to normal.

And also all of these return to office plans getting postponed and postponed and postponed and postponed to the point that here we are almost 2.5 years, right, into the pandemic. Some people still have not regularly gone back to the office.

You have people who have figured out how to make this work. How are you going to convince them to change how they're doing things now, right?

Chris Hayes: I mean, return to office, it's like the spinal tap drummer joke. I mean it's like just keeps it's like, "oh, well, we're going to go back." They go like in Three Sisters, they sit there and they gaze out the orchard, they say "to Moscow to Moscow to Moscow."

The whole play is about the fact that they're finally going to get out of this backwater rural town and finally get to Moscow to Moscow to Moscow. It's like, that's the return to office plan for many people.

I mean, for myself, personally, like I started going back to the office in the fall 2020, very early on pre-vaccination. I was going to do the show from 30 Rock every night, because my kids were in school in New York City. They were in a remote school in New York City. But anyway, long story short, I've been in the office, an empty office, for coming up on two years.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I still do a lot of remote shows in the place that I can do it. But to go back to your point about they didn't think they could do it and they could. Here's a question I have. Is it a question of the tech or the will? Meaning did the tech get better? Because I do think it is. It's better.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, the tech felt better.

Chris Hayes: And it's better and more ubiquitous.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Or was it just will like, for instance, if there have been, I guess my question is, pandemic in 2000, pandemic in 2010, pandemic and 2020. How different would it have been? Like, how much was it we have to do it, so we'll make it work? And how much of it was the tech matured to the point where we can do it?

Anne Helen Petersen: I wonder, that's actually an interesting question that no one has ever asked me. And I wonder how differently things would have gone if we didn't have video conferencing capabilities, right?

Like, would people have made it work with a conference call? And in some ways, I wish we would have, right? I think people over-Zoom in so many different ways like you just do not need to be looking at your face or anyone else's face that much.

And I think people concentrate a whole lot better when they're just on physical phone. I'm also an elder millennial, so I have a lot of nostalgia for like the time of phone calls. But I don’t know if that would - like let's look at the courts, right? I don't know if lawyers would have been like, "OK, we can make virtual courtrooms work," right? "We can make this work in some capacity." They would have said, "We have to either stop altogether," --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: -- "Or we have to go back." And instead, I think there has been this kind of hybrid, flexible scenario that we're going to see continually iterate moving forward.

Same thing with I think medical care, I don't know how many doctors would feel comfortable doing the sort of tele-visits that took place if they couldn't see their patients physically.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen: Like couldn't see the images of their patients in front of them.


Chris Hayes: It's funny for us, we had developed a method, I've often traveled while doing the show, breaking news, other countries, on the road. And so we'd already developed a method to do the show when I was not in New York which centered around conference calls.

And we just carried that through. Our calls ware calls, we don't do Zoom. I mean, we do, we do it through Teams, but we voice, it's not cameras on.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I think there are people and the staff who probably wish it were, but I just don’t really like that.

Anne Helen Petersen: No. I don’t either.

Chris Hayes: I actually find like I focus better and more intensely that like think and talk than to be, you know.

And so for us, it was seamless in that way and it's funny because the teleconferencing has been such a huge part of it. I do think that there's something soul-sucking about a day full of teleconference meetings, that maybe is more soul-sucking than in-person, what do you think? I don't know.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. And it depends on how there's actually really interesting research that now that we've been in the pandemic this long has had the chance to develop, right?

Like we have enough data points that shows that teleconferences is particularly hard on women, on new employees and on people of color. And a lot of that is for the same reason that being in an office is harder on women, on new employees and people of color, because presentation stakes are so much higher. Like this thing I talk a lot to women about is like the work of arranging your face.

Chris Hayes: Uh-hm. Uh-hm.

Anne Helen Petersen: To react in a way that you don't come off as having a face that seems confrontational. A face that seems mad, a face that seems nonreactive.

Like you have to continually be using your face in a way that in a larger conference room, not everyone has that intimate window on to your face.

Chris Hayes: Interesting. Oh, yeah, that's quite a burden.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

Chris Hayes: I was about to say this sounds like problems that are the problems of American social hierarchy that manifest in the office in particular ways and are just being transposed remotely. But you're actually saying that there's ways that teleconferencing itself maybe exacerbates some of that.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And there are ways to address that.

One of the things that people do a lot is turn off their own view, right? So they're not constantly policing their own view in a way that has thus far resulted like astronomical increases in the rates of plastic surgery and Botox.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Anne Helen Petersen: But then also I think a lot of people do things like blurred backgrounds, so you don't have to worry about class presentation in the background of your shot.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen: And some companies have come to understand that it is really exhausting to have cameras on all the time. So let's come up with a policy where maybe the person speaking has camera on but everyone also doesn't have to have their camera on. And then the really smart companies I think are the ones that are constantly reassessing whether something actually needs to be a Zoom meeting or not, right?

Can this be a conference call? Can this be an e-mail? Can this be a Slack message? And going through and really looking at that again and again. I will say, going back to this idea that it is harder for women and people of color and new employees to be in these virtual office spaces, the data shows again and again that the people who want flexible and remote options, most of all are women, are parents, and mothers in particular, and are people of color.

If they're higher, you get higher rates of desire for permanent, flexible and entirely remote options for all of those people and a lot of it has to do with the fact that you don't have to be in that pretty white and pretty male space of the physical office and have some distance from it.

Chris Hayes: I mean that's a very profound statement, right? Because that's about the sort of psychological cauldron of the office.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I mean, the sort of psychosocial cauldron of the office and what office means, which is what the Severance stuff is sort of about, right?

Because the office is a strange space, it's a social space that's also not a social space. It's like you can joke around with a person and then, like you can have a friend and then that person can fire you.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like they could take away your livelihood. And that reality looms over everything, but it's also like we're human beings and we're social creatures, and so the liminality of that is always kind of fraught.

And I think what you're saying there is that like your read on that data is that fraughtness bites the most for certain kinds of people and those are the kinds of people who want to get out of it the most.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And the other thing, some of this data comes from Slack's Future Forum which is a really great survey of I think like 10,000 or 12,000 people across six countries and they do it every quarter. So it's been really interesting to watch people's reactions over time and they really appreciate like there is this sort of good data that's not just from like or whatever.

They also found that the sense of belonging with company culture has increased for people of color and for mothers as they've been away from the office, right? So if the company is like, "We are so on board with diversity, equity, and inclusion" and they want that continued to be a pillar of their institution, of recruitment, of retainment, of elevating people of color through leadership positions, like how do you square that with the fact that the people of color in your office like don't want to be in the office? I think it's really interesting.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, the one that I would just say is that like, again, in this context we're talking about tens and millions of people, right?

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: So the individuals have a million different, at the individual level huge varieties. Some people love the office, some people hate the office. So like just always when we're talking sort of demographic jumps to like recast the fact that --

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. One hundred percent.

Chris Hayes: -- in an individual office like --

Anne Helen Petersen: Not all universal.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right. At all. But I do think that these broad trends are interesting. I mean, the thing that I think about a lot in the pandemic transition, someone wrote a piece about this the other day and I saw a critique of it as being like management propaganda, but it was about young workers in the office. And I do think like when I worked as this socialist magazine in Chicago called "In These Times" which is sort of my first job where like I had an office. And I would often work from home because I was a writer, I'd be out reporting.

But I would go in, and it was like there was a group of people that were my age that we hung, like it was like we were 25 or 26, I didn't have any kids, I didn't have any, kind of any responsibilities. All I had to do is write, like you go out for drinks afterwards, you'd go for a bike ride. And that sort of esprit de corps and that camaraderie was very much born of physically being around each other. I think it was really good for creative process, collaboration, there's like lifetime mentorship stuff.

I mean, it does seem to me that there's a little bit of a divide of what the office provides for younger workers entering the workforce versus older ones, particularly ones with kids, where it's like, "Eh, I'm good. I'm not doing any post work beers with anyone at this point in my life. Like that's not happening. If you could save me two hours a day of commuting, like I'm going to take that and bank it with my kids, thank you very much." I do think there's a little bit of an age difference or cohort difference in that, but I wonder what you think.

Anne Helen Petersen: One hundred percent. I think that people who want to be in the office most are actually people who don't have any kids in their homes, right, so older generations who don't have those responsibilities.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: I do think you see a desire for more flexibility sometimes within those older generations because of elder care responsibilities that most jobs don't account for that sort of flexibility.

But I ask readers oftentimes who are my age or older to try to go back to their first jobs and think about how weird it would have been to onboard completely remote, right? So much of what company culture is, the best definition that I have for company culture is the way we do things here, right? And how do you learn that? You learn that through osmosis most of the time.

Chris Hayes: You learn that from being here in the literal sense.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Yes.

Chris Hayes: That's the way we do things here and here is where I work.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. And here you watch, right? You watch the time when people go to the elevators, you watch who leaves for lunch and who doesn't. You watch like who can eat what in the snack room, like all those sorts of things you watch and you absorb.

But I also think privilege is a certain sort, it's like ability to watch and perceive. One thing I really appreciate about companies that are all remote first is that they are incredibly explicit about what their norms are. In a way, that is really inviting for people who maybe not typical, right, like we need it said. If this is the way that we do things here, let's say it so that we are not creating this hidden curriculum that allows people to succeed and not succeed.

Chris Hayes: That's interesting.

Anne Helen Petersen: But I do think every company, every organization if they are going remote or if they are doing flexible work needs to have a much more robust understanding of how to onboard and cultivate mentorship with younger employees.


Chris Hayes: How did those companies you just referenced, if you have examples, like companies that were all remote going into the pandemic and what we can learn from them or what their experience was, how they were different because they existed.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, 100 percent. And like a bunch of them have had very famous studies written about them.

And I think that one thing is they're almost all tech companies and so they are interested from the start in rethinking and innovating and exploding ideas of what you have to have in order to make work work, right? Like why not have people all over the world? Why not operate on all of these different time zones? Why not try to make that work? If that gets us the best employees, like why not try that? And one thing they all do is they do have moments of presence, right? They do have moments when they come together and are with one another.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen: And pre-pandemic, that meant once a year, twice a year, four times a year they gathered. And that costs money but, you know what, you're not spending any money on an office or snacks but you are spending money on this yearly gathering.

And then the other thing that they do is that they are very clear about what work needs to be synchronous and what work can be asynchronous. And for most of these companies there's a very small amount of work that needs to be synchronous. And they work hard to collaborate and figure out those overlapping hours when they can be with one another in presence.

And sometimes that means that you have to wake up really early or really late, but they understand like we want to compromise so that this isn't always the taste for everyone all the time. But I think that also means being like incredibly un-precious about what actually demands synchronous presence, right? A lot of companies are like, "Oh, we're going to decide this new policy, we all need to be on the Zoom call and talking about it, it needs to be synchronous work" when that's not necessarily the case. There are some things where it really matters and some things where it just does not.

Chris Hayes: The point about sort of physical retreats is really interesting too, because as I've gotten older I've come to understand that intense stretches of time with people is preferable to small little glimpses.

So you can have 20 minutes of chitchat with someone every day, you never really get into it. If you spend a weekend with someone, friend or whatever, and I think it's true for co-workers too, like that sort of office chitchat is one thing, but being in those retreat environments when I've got on like trips abroad with other journalists, I've sort of formed the bonds that have lasted through the years from that intensity of that time together. And it does seem like that's also a key component for companies if they're going to be in this more permanent model.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And to be clear, it's not easy, right?

Like these sorts of retreats are complicated for logistical reasons. A lot of them I think need to provide childcare options or funding so that people can have care for their kids while they're away or bring their kids with them. And then there's also just like the difficulty of having a bunch of people from work in a hotel together and how do you make sure that things don't go sour or toxic in different ways.

But all of this is difficult. And that, again, is something that enough organizations are acknowledging. This is hard. Like we are dramatically changing the way that we do work, and you have to acknowledge that it's hard in order to direct the right resources and mindset towards it.

Chris Hayes: So am I wrong to think that some version of this is going to stay? That this is not temporary, that whatever it is, the mixture of what's happened. I mean, some people say that if the labor market weakens, managers and bosses have more power, they'll get people to get back the office. Right now the people not going back the office is a representation of labor power.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I'm pretty partial to that. I think that's probably true. But I still think there's probably a pretty important semi-permanent transformation has happened, what do you think?

Anne Helen Petersen: I agree that the pendulum is going to swing a little bit more towards the direction of capital, for lack of a better phrase, right?

Like of people who are deciding the direction of these companies. But what I don't think is going to go away is that the companies that have flexibility and that are cultivating dynamic flexible options are going to be the most desirable and dynamic, right? They're going to be the ones that people are going to want to work for. And I think one of the things we write in the conclusion of the book is that if you have decided that you're going to put your, dig your heels in and try to keep everyone in the office and really keep fighting for this, at some point you're probably going to call a consultant in in the next 10 years and you're going to pay that consultant a lot of money to tell you to do the changes that you should have just started with now, right?

Like this is the future, it's not going back and your decision as a company is like, are we going to try to start to innovate and figure out what works for us now or are we going to turn this into a toxic quagmire and then figure it out in time and probably cost a lot more money.

Chris Hayes: So there's a bunch of knock-on effects from this transformation.

The first and you see Eric Adams and other mayors railing about at this time is that midtown New York and central businesses that is everywhere are built around, there's a central place in the area, it's valuable because of it centrality, it could be commuted to from all different kinds of places in a radius around it, right? And that's literally why it's valuable.

You get your big white shoe law firm office in the downtown Dallas office tower or the downtown Cleveland office tower. People can commute in, they go out. Then there's like some restaurants, there's some food carts, there's some services around there in really vibrant cities, there's a whole lot going on, and it's really noticeable and it kind of sucks for the people that own those businesses and thrive on that that the foot traffic is way down and it might not ever be coming back.

And I guess, I don't know, if this is something you've reported on or not, but like there's a big question about if this holds, if you never get past 60 percent of pre-pandemic foot traffic, whatever, like what it means for all these places, physical places from a real estate perspective, from a business perspective, what do we do with these places that are no longer as valuable as they once were, that don't have the same level of street life and activity? What does that mean?

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. I think about this all the time. And one thing that has become clear to me as lots of, but who will think of the owners of Pret A Manger, right? Like, I'm not concerned about the owners of these global conglomerates who are like, oh, crap, what are we going to do about the fact that no one is eating our overpriced soup. But it requires real vision. Right? Cities change all the time. If we look historically, cities, their purpose, their utility, how and why we use them, they have changed.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And sometimes it happens through like real, huge pendulum swings of like white flight, like all these different things. There's a real opportunity to reimagine what Midtown is for.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: What brings people into the city? How do we continue to fund the subway system even if ridership is 60 percent down? How do we make sure that we have enough routes and enough sustainability for the system so that the people who do have to come in every day, right, who are working jobs that would demand presence still can use public transportation, even if we don't have people riding in in the same numbers? How do you do that? Right? You have to spend. Like you have to have an understanding of the fact that like, the way that we make our civilization work for each other, even for people who don't have jobs like ours, right, jobs that can be done in many different places, is that we have to fund that infrastructure. And we have to fund that vision. And I just think that vision is not there. Right?

Chris Hayes: No. There's no vision. I mean, right now, the vision is browbeating people to come back to the office because --

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

Chris Hayes: You know, the diner on 47th Street is going to go out of business, which I again, like I don't think that's a ridiculous concern. And if I were the mayor of New York, I'd be pretty freaked out, too. I mean, he's not wrong, like the mayor of any big city, these things, the structures are already there, like, so, you want them to thrive, you want them to, quote, unquote, "get back to normal," but I agree, it's not going to happen, then you got to come up with a plan, doesn’t mean. Obviously, Soho in New York City, and sorry, that's very New York City centric, but I'm a New Yorker. And that's the city that I know the best like, Soho in New York City was factories, garment factories, those then became artists' lofts, and then from artists' loft to basically like, the housing for like multimillion dollar financiers. So things transform all the time.

The Hell's Kitchen was dockworkers and stevedores, largely, and then the, it wasn't dockworkers anymore. The worry, though, is that a lot of those transformations happen with an enormous like, period of like blight and evacuation that you don't really want.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

Chris Hayes: Like that would be bad. Like there's a lot of capital invested already. And I mean, like, I don't mean capital in the sense of like, oh, I'm worried about commercial real estate holders. I mean, there's a there's a latticework of city life that exists in these places that abandoning to grow fallow would be crazy to do. And I'm a little worried about that. Less worried in New York, honestly, that I am worried about smaller cities, whose I think downtown business areas will be way less resilient to a 35, 40, 50 percent reduction.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. And I think that like as companies let go of their leases, we are going to see co-working spaces, and spaces that like want to bring people into this space, like people want to be out of their homes. This is the thing, most people who want to have a flexible work schedule, it's not that they don't want to leave their homes ever, right? They just don't want to leave their homes as much. And they don't want to have the compulsion to be in the office. But I do think that like, there are ways to transform these urban cores into places that are livable and walkable like the mini cities, all these different things that are urban planners talk about.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen: You're going to have to be imagining it with zoning, you're going to have to think about, how can we to do public private partnerships to rethink what we're going to do here, but again, like in order to avoid that decade, two decades of blight, that is what's going to happen if we just let things happen naturally.

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And aren't proactive in the redesign. I mean, this is my frustration with so much of American policy right now is there's just like, OK, so we're just going to let things kind of decline for another decade, two decades, and tell people like until it gets bad enough that we try to figure it out, like, you just let the natural forces of capital work as they will, it's not going to be good. So how do we convince people and politicians and voters to get on board on it with a more proactive approach to making civilization work as work changes?

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I think the thing I keep thinking about because we just did a podcast on housing affordability crunch in many of these cities is that there's like, you have too much commercial real estate, not enough housing. Here's the kind - they're fairly obvious now, it turns out, and I've talked to people about this, the actual conversion is way more difficult and complicated than the like, well, why don't we just take the units that used to be offices and turn them into apartments?

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup.

Chris Hayes: Believe me, it's not that easy.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

Chris Hayes: But it's also the case that like, yes, if you're going to have a lot more capacity, the other point you make about third spaces sort of leads me to where this sort of other point I wanted to get to about this new future or present that we're in, which is like, yeah, work from home can be great, but it also could be terrible. And it also, in some ways, I mean, people have made this point, as much as I think it's for a lot of people who have been able to do it, and office workers, has been a fundamentally kind of pro worker policy in many ways. It also amounts to the company outsourcing space requirements to the private domicile, like they used to pay for the space, and the physical computer and all this stuff.

Now, it's like you're the one paying for it, because you got to sit and do your Zoom somewhere. And I know, we've seen this throw real estate markets into absolute havoc, because people have been looking for larger to sort of upgrade in space. It's produced enormous cataclysm in affordability, all this movement up, right, people trying to sort of lever up, right. I was in an apartment with roommates. Now I want a one bedroom, I was in a one bedroom. Now I want a one and a half or two bedroom, I was in a two-bedroom apartment. Now I want a house. I was in a house, now I want a bigger house. I was in a house in the suburbs. Now I'm going to move to Idaho or rural Asheville, North Carolina, because I like it; my family's there. And I could do my job from there. So there's all these huge knock-on effects of the other real estate markets. The conception of what a house is, that also happen on the other end of this transformation, which is the coin flip side of the downtown business district.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well, and we've seen this happen, I think it's so many ways with jobs, like just basically you take on a lot of the responsibilities of employment, a lot of the liabilities of employment, oneself. Like we are continually moving towards this freelancer and contract labor model of the labor market. And it just makes it easier for that to happen when you take people out of physical offices, right? All of the costs of this become the responsibility of the individual themselves.

And I think that we not only do not have labor laws that are set up to accommodate this, right, to accommodate worker rights in these scenarios, including things like, if I'm contracted to you, you have to pay for my Internet, or a percentage of my Internet. Right? Like this is part of the arrangement or you have to pay me on top of your rate in a way that understands here are the additional liabilities that I am taking on as someone who is working from home. That's not happening, that's not happening with union negotiations, at least not that I've seen.

And it's also, it's not happening with the way that we conceive of like things like health insurance, all these sorts of things, like this is another, alongside this move to flex work amongst the office workers, we are seeing this move towards freelancification and not seeing corresponding understandings of labor laws and protections at the same time. So that's another thing that we have to be really imaginative and innovative in. And the only person that I see like speaking to this with any regularity is AOC, that she understands and sees very clearly that work is changing, the dynamic of this sort of work is changing. So we need to think differently about what work can look like.

Chris Hayes: Yes. And I also think there's a, again, there's a physical aspect too, which is just inescapable, which is that again, their square footage, like you like you need a room with a view. And you need a place to do your work. And now that place for a lot of people is home. And the square footage of the home is the same size as it was before. That's just a zero-sum problem. So solving that space solution, and to your point before, which I think is a really important one, right?

Like, when I was writing my first book, and we had a small apartment, like I went to public libraries all the time, I went to university libraries, which the ones that have were open public, like Georgetown University, you can go into without, like, they're open to the public. And I go and sit there, and I write, work on my book, and I would go to coffee shops, which I still like to do, because I like to distract myself by people watching.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: All of those spaces also become that much more important, and they were completely taken out of the equation during the pandemic, right, so people were just like in their closets, working. But now, I do think you'll see that ecosystem really flourish, I imagine, as we sort of come out of the worst part of the pandemic, but keep the kind of work from home.

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and this is where cities and municipalities could really be on the forefront of creating spaces that are set up to facilitate work that do not require purchase. Right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen: Like this is, the privatization of those third spaces is something that isn't particularly endemic to the United States. And the idea that like I have to buy something in order to be in a public space where I can read or I can work makes, like dis-incentivizes presence in a lot of those spaces. So let's say downtown Cleveland, since you brought it up, right? They have a big old office building, or a place that used to house public workers, make that into a space that functions a lot like a library, a lot, like many libraries do right now.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: Because a lot of libraries are decreasing the actual amount of stacks that they have.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: Have that be a co-working space.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And yes, that takes staff and that takes regulation, and it takes presence. But you bring people into that co-working space.

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And then you also open it up so that then they go to the Pret a Manger for lunch down the street, right.

Chris Hayes: Exactly right.

Anne Helen Petersen: Like there's a way to bring people in, and to have them be around other people. People want to be around other people periodically, on schedules that don’t necessarily align with peak commute times.

Chris Hayes: Well, and then that to me is the last thing that I tend to think. So, one of the interesting pieces of data I've seen is U.S. cities have come back much less than European cities.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

Chris Hayes: European cities are much closer to pre-pandemic like Milan, Paris, London in terms of what their sort of work commute looks like, what downtown looks like. And I think it's American commutes are just longer, they're much longer than in Europe. We have much more sprawl. We have our long commutes here, and that commuting sucks. And that, to me, the biggest thing, the biggest transformation for people is, you take two hours, an hour and a half of a day. That's whatever, that's seven and a half to 10 hours a week. It's a big chunk of time. And you give that back to people to do with as they wish, to go to kids' baseball games, to maybe go get a cocktail at six o'clock instead of sitting on a PATH train? That to me is the thing more than anything no one wants to give up. I honestly think like that is the core of the thing is that commute time has been given back to people and they do not want to donate it back to commuting.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. One hundred percent. I mean, I was just in Paris. And for better or for worse, there's no pandemic there anymore, right? Like, no one behaves like there's a pandemic, but at the same time, their public transportation is fantastic. And it goes out into the far suburbs in a way that even you our most robust systems in New York simply do not have that sort of connectivity and ease. That makes it possible to have a, not pleasurable commute, but a non-horrible commute. And so, people in the Bay Area who were getting on like a carpool van or their companies' bus and working on a bus for two hours as they sat and stop, and go traffic, , like, you're never going back. It's never going to happen.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Yes. That to me, that's more than anything else, more than like physically being in the office, more than I do think that like, that's the killer. Like that's, that's the thing that you just can't, like, you can't get people to start doing again, now that you've given them back those hours of their life.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. And that's where the empathy also I think, we have an empathy divide because if you look at the data, it's really fascinating that the higher up in the company you are, the closer you live to the office, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: So a CEO is like I love my commute to the office. It's a 10-minute walk. Or I know someone in Seattle who just moved their office, is trying to bring people back into the office and he just moved the company, so that he takes the ferry over from Bainbridge Island, and then just walks right into the office, like, of course, he wants to go back into the office, but someone who has to come over from the east side of Seattle and sit in traffic for an hour, how do you convince that person that they want to do it? You have to think outside of your own experience?

Chris Hayes: That is such a great point. I think it points to the sort of tug of war over all these issues, which again, just to sort of close out, I mean, these have now become enormous sites of push and pull between management labor, sometimes in collective bargaining circumstances I know a bunch of entities, that are unionized, that are in the media, for instance, or other places that are office work, unionized office work, where work from home is the number one collective bargaining issue.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

Chris Hayes: It's the number one thing that they're negotiating with management about, and I think, in non-unionized workplaces, it's the number one thing that individual workers are raising in there. But how do you think that gets resolved?

Anne Helen Petersen: I think a lot of leaders aren't actually listening to their employees, when it comes to why they want to work from home. And it's not like, just, it's not limited to, I don't want to put on makeup every day, or I don't want to sit in the commute every day. And actually, if companies look at the information about the times when their employees are doing work, a lot of them, especially managers, are, have replaced their commute with more work.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Anne Helen Petersen: And this is the thing that I think workers actually have to protect against, is replacing whatever time they've regained with more work.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right? But if you can see that your employees work better, work smarter, work more concisely, more creatively in this different scenario, and you're holding on to the office simply because of this understanding of how good work happens, you're not listening, right?

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Anne Helen Petersen: Like you are not listening to what your employees need. And the companies that are excelling right now are ones that are trying to be iterative, are trying to figure out, OK, so we decided on a three day a week policy, too much, let's do two days a week, or we decided you can come back whenever you want. People are coming back to ghost offices. There's no one in the office. It doesn't make sense, though, like, why would I ever want to come back? We need to figure out a common day when we're all here, and just continually trying to figure out what works moving forward. And I think this works in companies that are unionized and companies that are not unionized. Like if you only think of this as workers trying to be selfish, I think workers are trying to figure out how to do their work well, right. And if you can get on board with that, and evidence that trust, that's the way forward.

Chris Hayes: Anne Helen Petersen writes a newsletter on Substack called Culture Study, and she's also the co-author of "Out of Office: the Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home." She wrote that along with Charlie Warzel. Once again, the Substack is called Culture Study.

Anne, it was a great pleasure having the program. Thank you.

Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you so much.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Anne Helen Petersen. You could tweet us with your experience of work from home, or not work from home, or returning to the office. We would love to hear all of them. Tweet us to #WITHpod. E-mail Be sure to follow us as well on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.

"Why is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to