Back to the office: a solution in search of a problem

by John Q on February 27, 2024

My latest in Inside Story, reposted from Substack

Managers need to recognise that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise

Authority is powerful yet intangible. The capacity to give an order and expect it to be obeyed may rest ultimately on a threat to sanction those who disobey but it can rarely survive large-scale disobedience.

The modern era has seen many kinds of traditional authority come under challenge, but until now the “right of managers to manage” has remained largely immune. If anything, the managers’ power has increased as the countervailing power of unions has declined. But the rise of working from home and, more recently, Labor’s right to disconnect legislation pose unprecedented threats to the power of managers over information workers — those employees formerly known as “office workers.”

To see how this might play out, it’s worth considering the decline of another once-powerful authority, the Catholic Church.

In the early 1960s, following the development of reliable oral contraception, the leaders of the church had to decide whether to accept the Pill as a permissible way for married couples to plan their families. Pope John XXIII established a pontifical commission on birth control to reconsider Catholic doctrine on this topic.

It was a crucial decision precisely because marriage and sex were the most important areas in which the authority of the Church remained supreme and precise rules could be laid down — and generally enforced — among the faithful.

Most people, after all, have no trouble observing the commandments against theft and murder. Other sins like anger, pride and sloth are very much in the eye of the beholder. But the rules regulating who can marry whom and what kind of sexual behaviour is permissible are precise and demanding, to the point that the term “morals” is commonly taken to imply sexual morals. The official celibacy of priests, who thereby showed even more restraint than was demanded of ordinary Catholics, added to the mystique of clerical power.

By the time the commission reported in 1966 John XXIII had been replaced by Pope Paul VI. The commission concluded that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods they employed. But five of the commission’s sixty-nine members took the opposite view in a minority report.

In the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI made his fateful rejection of all forms of artificial contraception. As an attempt to exercise and shore up authority it failed completely. The realities of raising large families and dealing with unplanned pregnancies were far removed from the experience of priests and theologians. And the church’s evident demographic motive (the desire for big Catholic families to fill the pews) further undermined the legitimacy of the prohibition.

Previously loyal Catholics ignored Pope Paul’s ruling, in many cases marking their first step away from the Church. Doctrines restricting marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics, including the requirement that children be raised as Catholics, also became little more than formalities commanding at most notional obedience.

The breakdown of clerical authority set the scene for the exposure of clerical child abuse from the 1990s on. Although accusations of this kind had been around for many years, the authority of the church had ensured that critics were silenced or disbelieved.

It is hard to know for sure what would have happened if Pope Paul had chosen differently. The membership and social standing of Protestant denominations, nearly all which accepted contraception, have also declined, though not as much as a Catholic Church that pinned its authority on personal morality. Humanae Vitae’s attempt to exercise papal authority succeeded only in exposing its illusory nature.

In the struggle over working from home and the “freedom to disconnect” we’re seeing something similar happen to the authority of managers.

Following the arrival of Covid-19 in early 2020, working from home went from being a rare indulgence to a general necessity, at least for those whose work could be done with a telephone and a computer. Hardly any time was available for preparation: in mid March, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese were still planning to attend football matches; a week later, Australia was in lockdown.

Offices and schools closed. Workers had to convert their kitchen tables or (if they were lucky) spare bedrooms into workstations using whatever equipment they had available. And, to make things even tougher, parents had to take responsibility for the remote education of their children.

Despite the already extensive evidence of the benefits of remote work, many managers expected chaos and a massive reduction in productivity. But information-based work of all kinds carried on without any obvious interruption. Insurance policies were renewed, bills were issued and paid, newspapers and magazines continued to be published. Meetings, that scourge of modern working life, continued to take place, though now over Zoom.

Once the lockdown phase of the pandemic was over, workers were in no hurry to return to the office. The benefits of shorter commuting times and the flexibility to handle family responsibilities were obvious, while adverse impacts on productivity, if any, were hard to discern.

Sceptics argued that working from home, though fine for current employees, would pose major difficulties for the “onboarding” of new staff. Four years into the new era, though, around half of all workers are in jobs they started after the pandemic began. Far from lamenting the lack of office camaraderie and mentorship, these new hires are among the most resistant to the removal of a working condition they have taken for granted since the start.

Nevertheless, chief executives have issued an almost daily drumbeat of demands for a return to five-day office attendance and threatened dire consequences for those who don’t comply. Although these threats sometimes appear to have an effect, workers generally stop complying. As long as they are still doing their jobs, their immediate managers have little incentive to discipline them, especially as the most capable workers are often the most resistant to close supervision. Three days of office attendance a week has become the new normal for large parts of the workforce, and attempts to change this reality are proving largely fruitless.

The upshot is that attendance rates have barely changed after more than two years of back-to-the-office announcements. The Kastle Systems Back to Work Barometer, a weekly measure of US office attendance as a percentage of February 2020 levels, largely kept within the narrow range of 46 to 50 per cent over the course of 2023.

This fact is finally sinking in. Sandwiched between two pieces about back-to-the-office pushes by diehard employers, the Australian Financial Review recently ran up the white flag with a piece headlined “Return to Office Stalls as Companies Give Up on Five Days a Week.”

This trend, significant in itself, also marks a change in power relations between managers and workers. Behind all the talk about “water cooler conversations” and “synergies,” the real reason for demanding the physical presence of workers is that it makes it easier for managers to exercise authority. The failure of “back to the office” prefigures a major realignment of power relationships at work.

Conversely, the success of working from home in the face of dire predictions undermines one of the key foundations of the “right to manage,” namely the assumption that managers have a better understanding of the organisations they head than do the people who work in them. Despite a vast literature on leadership, the capacity of managers to lead their workers in their preferred direction has proved very limited.

The other side of the remote work debate is the right to disconnect. The same managers who insisted that workers should be physically present at the office in standard working hours (and sometimes longer) also came to expect responses to phone calls and emails at any time of the day or night. The supposed need for an urgent response typically reflected sloppiness on the part of managers incapable of organising their own work schedules to take account of the need for work–life balance.

Once again, managers have attempted to draw a line in the sand. Opposition leader Peter Dutton has backed them, promising to repeal the right to disconnect if the Coalition wins the next election. It’s a striking illustration of the importance of power to the managerial class that Dutton has chosen to fight on this issue while capitulating to the government’s broken promise on the Stage 3 tax cuts, which would have delivered big financial benefits to his strongest supporters.

Can this trend be reversed? The not-so-secret hope is that high unemployment will turn the tables. As Tim Gurner (of “avocado toast” fame) put it, “We need pain in the economy… and employees need to reminded of who is boss.” US tech firms have put that view to the test with large-scale sackings, many focused on remote workers. But the other side of remote work is mobility. Many of those fired in the recent tech layoffs have found new jobs, often also remote.

In the absence of a really deep recession, firms that demand and enforce full-time attendance will find themselves with a limited pool of disgruntled workers dominated by those with limited outside options.

Popular stories — from King Canute’s attempt to turn back the tide (apparently to make fools of obsequious courtiers who suggested he could do it) to Hans Christian Anderson’s naked emperor — have made the point that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise. Pope Paul ignored that lesson and the Catholic Church paid the price. Now, it seems, managers are doing the same. •Back to the office: a solution in search of a problem



Thomas Jørgensen 02.27.24 at 5:56 am

This whole drive to get workers back in office mostly seems to be an effort from mid-level managers to justify their own employment against the interests of the firm.

If the workforce is mostly remote and getting the job done just fine, obviously the corporation both could and also should thin the ranks of it’s middle management.

It’s a pretty rare middle manager who has enough loyalty to the stockholders and/or a lack of damns given to send that recommendation up the chain of authority, though. Hence the wailing and gnashing of teeth


MisterMr 02.27.24 at 8:37 am

I don’t think that the opposition to contraception is a realistic explanation of the fall in authority of the Catholic church.

That said, I suspect that the reason managers want people in the office is that, in reality, managers are often not really able to check if this or that worker is really producing, so at least if the workers are locked in the office they have few different options than working.


MisterMr 02.27.24 at 8:47 am

PS: you focus on contraception because it is what sounds important now, but I’ve seen many italian movies from the 60s and 70s that were abouth the right to divorce ( the CC is also against divorce, that was made legal in Italy only around 1974 IIRC), against strong CC opposition

In general the CC because of the way it works has accumulated a lot of believes starting from antiquity and then the middle ages etc., and cannot shake them away easiliy, so to be a “100% Catholic” you’d have to believe in a lot of weird metaphisical stuff like that bishops pass the holy spirit to each other in a continuous line since the original Pentecost, so a modern mind has difficulties in accepting this.
On the plus side, they accept evolution, and I think also some contraceptives if used inside a married couple.


Trader Joe 02.27.24 at 12:16 pm

The question I would pose is why do you assume that workers are fully able to make decisions about their jobs while managers cannot. Their job is to manage and a good manager should be able to spot the instances where individuals ‘hide’ within remote work and don’t perform as well as they would if they were on-site.

I fully agree many job functions CAN be done remotely, the question is whether ALL job functions can be done at best efficiency when you have a mixture of people who are on-site, not on-site but at home, off-site but available and just generally not available. The difficulty for a manager is trying to thread the policy needle and balance all of the above against individual abilities and commitments while still supporting the fact that workers have other lives that need attention as well.

I don’t think its right to equate “right to disconnect” with “return to office.” The former is almost always bad management whereas the later is extremely circumstantial considering both role and personnel.

To be clear I enjoy my WFH days as much as anyone and I certainly could WFH 100% but if I’m honest there is also considerable value to being on-site as well. The trick of management is – to manage, which is inherently a balance of executing power and its restraint.


M Caswell 02.27.24 at 12:35 pm

I hate working from home. There are dozens of us. Dozens!


Mr_Spoon 02.27.24 at 7:38 pm

When I was a lad there was a book in the school library about Living In The Future. It had pictures of the Home Of The Future. In this home Dad telecommuted to his job in a special high-tech Work Room (including a CRT monitor with a manager’s ugly face on it), and the kids teleschooled in a larger, less complex School Room. The covid lockdown was the first time anything in this book came true. I’m still waiting on moon colony holidays.


Bill Benzon 02.27.24 at 8:07 pm

Excellent, John.

I would add that we all have different biorhythms and are alive to various kinds of tasks at different times of the day. I’m a morning person and tend to do my most intellectually demanding work in the morning. Can I do intellectual work in the afternoon, or even the evening? Sure, but I’m best in the morning. And there are times, when I’m on a hot streak, that I’ll do excellent work in a one or even two-hour stretch in the middle of the night. When you work from home, as I’ve been able to do most of my adult life, you have more control over when you do what. And that likely increases one’s productivity rather than detracts from it.


Alex SL 02.27.24 at 9:14 pm

One thing to keep in mind here is that this blog has both an international set of writers and an international readership. I understood only one third into this particular post what country it was about, and that may matter if not every country on the planet introduces a right to disconnect law at the same time. Could one perhaps in cases like this provide a short context note at the start?

WFH is great as an option, but those who prize it highly also need to consider the health and safety implications (do you have an ergonomic home office to the standard you probably have at work?), the cost implications (does your employer pay for your office furniture and internet at home?), and the potential disruptions from other family members or flatmates (I find myself much more able to focus on site than at home). And, of course, there are whole swathes of jobs that cannot work from home, including truck drivers, dentists, lab technicians, etc.

So, again, WFH is great for those who can do it, but I often find that there is a myopia in this discussion of office workers assuming that everybody who matters is also an office worker, that “everybody” should be able to WFH. I have had similar experiences in discourse about how we can turn all office spaces into hot-desks these days because everything is in the cloud anyway. But sorry, the specimen boxes and DNA samples in my office aren’t online, and I doubt they ever will be…


John Q 02.28.24 at 4:19 am

Alex @8

While there are a couple of Australia-specific references, the issues are general. And the right to disconnect (as opposed to being on-call at all times) is even more important for in-person workers than for those who work remotely. In Australia, this issue came to the fore around the time of the 2007 election, which was followed by legislation restricted employers ability to vary hours without notice.


John Q 02.28.24 at 4:22 am

Alex: As an aside, I’m interested in the point about DNA samples. I would have thought that these would be scanned and digitized in some way, and that most of the work would deal with the data rather than the physical sample. Can you say a bit more about this?


J-D 02.28.24 at 5:05 am

… I think also some contraceptives if used inside a married couple.

I’d like to know where you’re getting that from. Everything I can find online indicates to the contrary.


Alison Page 02.28.24 at 6:08 am

I feel managers use hierarchies to meet their unconscious emotional needs. As the subordinate you have to learn to control your facial expression. You have to learn to deflect a bad instruction, while pretending to comply. You have to listen to factual errors without correcting. There’s even a phrase for it isn’t there: ‘Smile and nod’.

I am thinking that a remote interaction provides a less intense emotional pay-off? It’s certainly less emotionally draining as the smiler/nodder.


Alex SL 02.28.24 at 6:42 am

John Q,

I should probably have guessed from the spelling of Labor, but nonetheless I think that it would be helpful to some readers to provide context. On social media in general, I often find myself puzzled. Like, it is easy to figure out what is going on if somebody posts “Trump gave a speech” or if the post is in Finnish anyway, but not so much if they post “the government is considering to relax mining regulations” and only somewhere ten responses down I realise that the conversation is about New Zealand.

‘DNA samples’ here means plant leaves dried in silica gel, awaiting potential DNA extraction as and when needed. Details are irrelevant, but my research program is working with biological specimens, which we actually have to examine and curate. What is more, I often need to refer to obscure journals that may not yet be digitised, or use microscopes, expensive lab equipment, or the glasshouse.

I happily WFH some days when doing analyses or writing, but it still frustrates me how many people blithely assume that everybody can and perhaps should simply work from home in modern times and that we can shut most offices down and leave a bit of hotdesking. Not saying that you claimed that much, of course, but there are legitimate reasons for needing or wanting to be on-site apart from managerial pettiness, like having to run a lab, for example.

(As an aside, even before Covid there was a long-running discourse about whether students can simply study from home in the age of the internet and we don’t really need universities with physical lecture halls anymore. And I thought back to my studies and remembered field courses where we were taught plant and invertebrate diversity, lab practicals where we learned how to use Eppendorf pipettes and set up PCRs, botany practicals where we used identification keys on freshly harvested plants, anatomy courses where we dissected snails or counted chromosomes in root tip squashes…)


MisterMr 02.28.24 at 10:29 am

@J-D 11

From a couple of friends who are very religious.
They said to me that, in the pre-marriage courses the CC offers to believers, they explain that sex inside of marriage is not strictly purposed to procreation, which to me implies that stuff like condoms is OK (said friends of mine are sterile anyway).


J-D 02.28.24 at 11:52 pm

From a couple of friends who are very religious.
They said to me that, in the pre-marriage courses the CC offers to believers, they explain that sex inside of marriage is not strictly purposed to procreation, which to me implies that stuff like condoms is OK (said friends of mine are sterile anyway).

‘… which to me implies …’ Well, to you, maybe.

It’s easy to find official Catholic Church statements which say that sex inside marriage has other legitimate purposes in addition to procreation, but those same statements say that procreation is still the primary purpose, and none of them say ‘It’s okay for married couples to use contraception because marital sex doesn’t have to be procreative’.

It’s not at all surprising that many Catholics have little knowledge of the Church’s official position on many subjects (including contraception). It wouldn’t surprise me, either, if some Catholics hear in pre-marriage courses that marital sex has legitimate purposes in addition to procreation and think ‘Oh, that must mean that it’s okay for married couples to use contraception’; but I’ll bet you that if they asked the instructors that is not what they would be told (even though I’m also sure those instructors know that the majority of Catholic married couples, at least in Western countries, do use contraceptives). Here, as just one illustration of the Church’s official position, is a link to a webpage on the ‘Catholics for Choice’ website:
Catholics for Choice are clear that they think the Catholic Church hierarchy should allow the use of all forms of artificial contraception (including condoms), but they are equally clear that the official position of the Catholic Church hierarchy does forbid their use (with no exception for married couples).


TM 02.29.24 at 9:49 am

The encyclical Humanae Vitae (mentioned in the OP) does indeed explicitly ban all kinds of artificial contraception (and also sterilization) and officially, the church has never amended this position. But an encyclical is not a dogma (in church terminology), it is not an infallible papal declaration, and many theologians and local churches disagree. In practice, afaik, only the most extreme conservatives inside the church still insist on the strict ban on all artificial contraception methods; the others either advocate for a more realistic position or simply don’t talk about it. But it is correct that it is still the “official” church position.


somebody who remembers when we had all those jokes about postal workers shooting up their workplace 02.29.24 at 6:29 pm

let us not forget, of course, that one of the key features of the modern workplace is that it is a site where you can be paid to verbally, sexually and physically abuse someone you supervise with no consequences (or, often, positive consequences!). you cant grope someone who is working from home, screaming at someone over zoom doesnt hurt their feelings as much, and e-mails just arent as satisfying to an abuser as grinning viciously and leaning into someone’s personal space to snarl “we’re all a family here”

it is uncanny how close to the surface these extremely well documented managerial perks are to the surface in arguments against permitting work-from-home. “if i cant slam a claw hammer onto their desk and scream a slur at them, how can i make sure theyre even working at all?” – a normal, relaxed manager


engels 03.09.24 at 7:06 pm

I wonder what percentage of “work from home” jobs could actually be abolished altogether without anybody but the manager and the managee noticing.


John Q 03.10.24 at 9:49 am

Engels: As you’ve implied many times, the only real work is manual work, preferably done by men in factories.


Alby 03.10.24 at 10:38 am

It’s more basic than you seem to realize: Middle managers are for the most part not needed at all. Each layer of management exists to prevent problems from reaching the next-highest level of management, and to deal with crap the higher level doesn’t want to deal with. When the downsizing begins they are the least missed.


engels 03.10.24 at 11:16 am

Actually I was thinking of the dozens of NHS nurses, doctors and support staff who looked after me during a hospital stay last month. I suppose they could all be replaced by drones piloted from a beach in Thailand though.

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