A Perfect Storm Of Return To Office Stress

 A part cathartic rant, part emotional plee today about the state of the world, how employers care for the ‘wellbeing’ of their employees is really just cash-based (no surprises there, I’m afraid), and primarily how they should just let us all continue to work from home because things are bad enough already.

Let’s dig in, literally, and do stay for the bit where I say I care about you — because I really do.

It’s part of the reason why I write these things in the first place.

The Shadow of the Mushroom Tower

Many companies are requesting that their employee drones return to their company cattle pens at the office.

This necessarily brings forth the unfortunate prospect of not only decreasing work efficiency for the company, but also making employees extremely unhappy as they’ve generally had a more tolerable, lower stress, and generally better time of it as regards work¹ over the first two pandemic years².

With recent changes to the world, that frankly keep me awake at night in the same way that living under the shadow of the mushroom tower did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the world is not in any way returning to the way it used to be anytime soon. Who needs it?

Bearing that in mind, now is not the right time at all for any company to start mandating its employees to return to an office — unless they’re absolutely physically required to be there for a specific purpose.

Not only do we have an ongoing pandemic to deal with, but we also have spiraling fuel costs, rampant price inflation, and most importantly a general feeling of looming existential dread.

All of these factors do not in any way motivate your standard employee to pay through the nose to commute needlessly to a stressful, middle manager monitored, forced social engagement situation of a Victorian-era office anymore.

Beep Beep, Beep Beep, Woah!

Commuting was bad enough pre-pandemic.

Employees were expected and duly carried out, the unpaid time consuming, and stressful process of struggling with either crowded and costly public transport or having the overhead of maintaining a working vehicle. Let alone the sitting in endless traffic jams trying to navigate their way to a city center office, and often had excessive parking costs to boot.

Looking backward, as it’s always better with a degree of hindsight, is it not ridiculous how the workforce en masse just accepted this?

If a company chooses to set up shop in the most expensive and difficult to reach city center location — why do employees have to shoulder the additional cost and difficulty of getting there?

Perhaps the whole concept of locating offices in central crowded locations, or indeed in greenfield out-of-town ‘can only get their by car’ campuses, should be properly addressed in the more modern world.

Why not locate a company on primary public transport routes, or inaccessible locations, or perhaps in a series of scattered and smaller offices more like meeting spaces.

The age of the central company office is seriously coming to an end — there’s just not a need to have so many people so crowded together in a perceived ‘prestige’ location anymore.

We could do without that cost, stress, and inconvenience.

Being progressive software engineers we’re actually very good at online things — messaging, video calls, software repositories, and git, and really don’t like things like forced social engagement, washing regularly, and having to wear ill-fitting and uncomfortable clothes in an attempt to look normal in an office.

Why not bring out the best in us?

Money Money Money

Yes, it’s still there, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon either.

Most people in the grand game of software engineering are falling well behind ‘market rates’ in terms of pay thanks to several years of either delayed wage increases (“you should be happy just to have a job”), or wage restrictions (“market conditions prevent the company from carrying out performance reviews right now — maybe next year”).

Now, some employers are asking us to travel, on our own dime, to company office locations once again. It’s not just that our wages have been eroded by years of neglect (that’s why we’re all switching jobs, have you not noticed?) but the ongoing astronomical rises in fuel costs are a double hammer blow for us right now.

We would have to struggle with the stressful commuting, as detailed in the last section, but also pay many times as much for the privilege of your managerial classes popping out every five minutes between their biscuit breaks to check we’re all plugged in and staring at our screens once again!

Generally change just isn’t a good thing, it’s the elephant in the room, change is stressful. We have enough stress in our lives and don’t have the luxury of escaping to our personal fallout shelters, holiday homes in remote locations, or cushion of money to rely on if we’re suddenly let go due to ‘market forces’ (i.e. to preserve management and their wages, we’re going to lay off the developers to increase bottom line).

It’s a perfect storm of not only emotional but also financial, stress for a lot of people.

Faux Engagement

The most annoying thing, for me at least, well above the stress and cost of any kind of mandated return to Victorian conditions and the excessive personal cost involved is the way in which companies go about making it seem like they actually care.

They’d like us to return for our mental health (obviously HR never delved into the previous cost to the mental health of actually having to go to an office regularly and deal with the feckless and irritating people that work there), to foster creativity (I do that with developers on video calls, and never, ever with management — that’s just not possible), and for our need to socialize (I’m not going to explain, again, how software engineers lack the need to socialize for its own sake).

The way in which employee wellbeing as a thing has come to the forefront in the workplace/homeplace is a great development, don’t get me wrong, it’s just the way that it’s been twisted and used more as a self-congratulatory marketing tool for management and HR that grates.

Makes me think of agile³ really, a similar event in software engineering history — spun as a good idea, taken over by project management droids, trumpeted by marketing evangelists, but of little if any value in its application in the real world.

It’s a noble and necessary thing, of course, but the way in which it has been twisted by a number of organizations into hollow gesture-politics is absolutely astounding and incredibly infuriating to anyone who’s been in the grand game for a while and recognizes it for what it is.

I’ve seen engagement with employees used as a substitute for wage increases right across the board. From a paid day off for ‘wellbeing’ — taken when the company insists, not when you as a person would for example find them most useful to paid counseling sessions with external organizations for employees — surely, surely addressing the root cause of the stress rather than the symptoms would be a far more productive exercise for all?

Employees are thanked for their contribution verbally but are still expected to perform at 100% right across the board as if nothing has happened — and are now expected to fall right back in line, back to the office, en masse.

The HR machine rolls on, squeezing ever more productivity from increasingly burnt out and increasingly patronized employees day after day after day whilst they wave their hands around saying “we care, we really do!

Besides, as I’ve alluded to many times, the majority of the gestures undertaken by a company address the symptoms of employee stress but not the root causes. They’re also zero-cost, or as close to zero as they can be, options, smoke, and mirrors, the very least that an employer can get away with and put on their marketing press releases or on a fake Glassdoor review without falling around in laughter during a management meeting.

The salient point here is that employee engagement and the gesturing associated with it is just another cynical push to get everyone’s bums back on seats in the name of companies saying ‘they care’. Pfft.

Employers that really make a difference tend not to trumpet their duplicitousness thinking that we can’t see right through it.

A Way Forward

In this frankly, bizarre world that we’re living through right now it’s up to you to navigate a safe path that’s right for you and the bottom line is that it’s you, your fellow progressives, your friends and family that care about you and most definitely not your employer.

You may be just a number on a spreadsheet with a bad password, improper access rights, stored haphazardly on an insecure cloud system that’s non-GDPR compliant to them — but you’re a proper well-formed progressive software engineer to me, and don’t you forget that.

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