In the early 2010’s, when I worked for a division of a Fortune 500 company as a manager running marketing for the technology business unit, I shared an office with an admin who smelled like her pet ferrets. When there was some restructuring, she was downsized—but not because of the ferrets or the Captain Crunch she had every day for breakfast in the shared office. I doubt anyone would be fired just for noisily eating children’s cereal or having pets whose odor follows you around, but I was not sorry to see her go.
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Later, when that same company was moving offices, I was assigned to pack the common areas, inclusive of the bathrooms. I interpreted the packing assignment as punishment from a superior for some offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what the offense was. Maybe it was the fact that I’m a woman. Our admin had been let go and once she vacated the shared office, much of the administrative work came across my desk. It was hard for me to imagine this experience would have been the same for a male employee.
Now, as many organizations are desperate to have workers back at their desks—in some cases, it seems, because they’re eager to surveil them or make good on real estate leases—employees are resisting. I’m a freelancer now and my exposure to the smells and sounds of the office as well as the everyday sexism and disregard for workers’ emotional health that I’ve seen accompany shared spaces is thankfully limited. But I get where these employees are coming from. And I know the resistance to in-person work isn’t just about dreading the commute or having to dress a certain way or putting up with terrible coffee: It’s also because of the people.
For as much talk about culture as there is in the corporate discourse, there’s not a lot of real attention paid to the fact that offices create artificial social groups—and, by extension, conflicts. The push for open-office plans—which was at first coded as enabling “collaboration” but is now more accurately recognized as a cost-saving measure—exacerbated this problem, putting random humans within touching distance of one another. In one such office, when a coworker spilled her latte, it flooded my desk, too. Just a little accident, but also wholly avoidable with just a bit more space between us. Or, say, a wall.
When I left the office for good in 2019, I was giving up a senior VP role at a tech company. I didn’t take this decision lightly. I’m a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family. Leaving a six-figure job to freelance felt in many ways deeply irresponsible. But I was done with the office. My complaints ranged from the truly petty, like so many spilled lattes, to the way that some people feel free to tell women, and women specifically, that they “look tired,” or don’t hesitate to comment on their hair, or otherwise take it upon themselves to judge their appearance. I was tired, and my hair is no one’s business but my own. There were other incidents, like the time I was asked not to report an employee who’d arrived at the office drunk. Or when I had a broken and casted foot and was getting around on crutches, and my boss required me to go to a retreat at a location where the bathroom was in a different building and neither structure remotely approached ADA compliance. At a certain point, it adds up.
I’ve also had to come to terms with the ways in which I too was often an irritating coworker, thrust into a high-pressure environment with people I’d never otherwise have chosen to spend so much time around. I was super loud when I talked on the phone, and I did it all the time (I still do). My job required the calls, but not the volume. I was deeply passive aggressive about the state of the office kitchen: I left mean notes, asked people if they were so sloppy at home, and got frequently pissed off that no one changed the water filter. I admit I was a jerk at the office because my unreasonable workload was extremely difficult to handle, constant interruptions made it even harder, and I often had deep misgivings about what I was asked to do. Workers shoved together in a hiring coincidence often don’t have many incentives to be considerate. Being nice, for example, wasn’t going to get me a raise.
When I talk to people about my recent book of linked short stories, which follows a cadre of staff who’ve been laid off from their corporate jobs, readers often want to gripe about their own terrible bosses and infuriating coworkers. It’s a familiar litany that begins with being annoyed by the smell of microwaved fish in the breakroom or the thermostat wars that tend to leave women shivering at their desks and extends to experiencing both microaggressions and abject harassment.
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has a story about a coworker not-so-subtly checking their dating apps or social media under the conference table during an important presentation, only to ask questions that were already covered once they look up from their screen, or a supervisor who espouses an “open-door” policy (lucky them, to have a door), but actually doesn’t want to hear any feedback even when it’s literally right in front of them. Then there are are the female execs who are asked to order lunch if the admin is out and the parents who get some serious side-eye for stepping out to go to their kid’s school event because they’re not “prioritizing” their work.
And it’s not just an introvert versus extrovert argument. What return-to-office advocates are failing to acknowledge is how hard and hurtful the office can be for employees, with so many social and gendered expectations paired with too little care for individual concerns and triggers.
It’s not that most people are actually trying to be actively awful. It’s just that the mix of pressure and people can cause tempers to flare and nerves to be gotten on. So it’s not surprising that so many workers don’t want to deal with the continuous confrontations of the office.
Working from home doesn’t fix everything–there are still going to be personalities that chafe and meetings where everyone is mostly checked out, and bias in the workplace is definitely not solved by video calls. But just as couples fight on road trips after spending too much time together, and children who are picking at one another need a little separation, employees deserve to have some space. It helps to have even a few days at home to decompress, to have a no-shower day, to look tired and not have anyone tell you about it, to do your job without anyone making assumptions about your role or competence based on what you look like. Having that distance can put workers in a better place to parse how they feel about the physical workplace as well as the work culture that persists even when they’re remote—and to make decisions about their careers accordingly.
Personally, despite the issues that arise, there remain many things I love about working with people, like having truly collaborative experiences that make my own work better, or putting our heads together on a big project. I will keep working—most of us have to—and seeking out interactions with colleagues that make my day better rather than worse. But I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back to an office. And it has very little to do with the commute.