Lessons from Out of Office

Many of us are rethinking the future of work for ourselves and the organizations we lead. Many of us are thinking about the future of our work or the future of our workplace in radically different ways, especially those of us privileged to be able to do at least some of our work from home (40% of US workers). This movement was afoot before, but the COVID pandemic called the question. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, authors of Out of Office, are two journalists who have not only written about working from home, they have lived it. They moved from New York City to Montana in 2017 and now live on an island of the coast of Washington state. The book is not a how-to of recommendations to work from home better, it is bigger than that. It is a critical examination of the history, present, and future of work – at home, remotely, and in the office. The authors of Out of Office offer a systemic framing and explore ways to improve the work experience for workers, organizations, communities, and society through four lenses; flexibility, culture, technologies, and community.

Systemic Framing

The authors surprised me with their systemic framing of capitalism as exploitative system. Their capitalistic critique and systemic framing doesn’t get in their way of also acknowledging the reality that we live in an exploitative capitalist system and we are going to have to operate within it for the foreseeable future.

They argue apolitically for a collectivist rather than an individualistic perspective on work, community, and society. The authors call upon the mutual aid approach to community support and organizing as a model for how we can not just live but also work, better together.

They also acknowledge from the first paragraph that working from home is a privilege. Essential workers were underpaid and invisible before the pandemic and became even more essential, remain underpaid, and in many ways were made even more invisible through the pandemic.

They also draw attention to the ways decisions and experiences differ based on identity and relationship to systemic oppression. For some, work from home becomes a more arduous burden. For others, it can be a welcome relief from microaggressions, sexual harassment, objectification, unmet accommodations and access needs, and more.


Historically, employers have sold flexibility as an employee benefit, when it really has often functioned as an employer benefit. Often, employers advocate flexibility to justify cutting labor costs by shifting to gig work or part-time employees for whom they are required to offer minimal or no benefits.

If companies want to truly be nimble they need workers to be nimble. If workers are going to be nimble, then employers need to offer accommodations employees need to be nimble. Working from home options should not be a way to minimize expenses by shifting the burden of rent, office supplies, and utilities to employees.

One of the more powerful lessons from Out of Office was Warzel and Petersen’s reminder not to focus on where (office, home, etc.) but instead on the how. If we ask ourselves how we should work, then the where becomes apparent. How is a bigger question that encompasses the where?

They also remind us to think about how we want to work in the long term. By thinking about how we want to work (individually and organizationally) in the next three or five years, it helps us get beyond our immediate mindset, constraints, preferences, and needs and build toward something more proactive and intentional rather than reacting to the moment.


By culture, Warzel and Petersen really mean better management and leadership. They point out that many managers became managers because they were highly competent at doing the previous job, so they were promoted to manage those doing the job, which is an entirely different skill. We rarely provide good training about effective management, let alone leadership, for those who move from competent performers to managing and leading others.

Rethinking the workplace also gives us an opportunity to truly center diversity, equity, and inclusion. Too often we make considerations after the fact when we realize the status quo isn’t equitable or inclusive to the diversity of people in the organization. We then try and fix or amend around the edges to make things less harmful, without adjusting the fundamental status quo. How do we center diversity, equity, and inclusion in meaningful ways at the core of how we operate, not as an add-on?

The authors also remind us to manage and lead people, not just employees. I continue to see organizations and leaders dehumanize the people they work with by treating them simply as employees or cogs in a machine. People have had it. As I talk with people leaving organizations, it is rarely because of salary or benefits, but instead, they do not feel seen, heard, or cared for as people. Warzel and Petersen articulate the best case I’ve seen or heard yet for not referring to the workplace as a family. They point out that many families are dysfunctional and harmful and that most are in some ways. They also point out that in healthy families there is mutuality and reciprocity but rarely is that the case in hierarchical, power-based, organizational management structures.

The authors offer a couple of concrete strategies that I found very intriguing; peer and senior mentors and guardrails and boundaries. They recommend pairing each new employee with a peer and senior mentor, who are not supervisors. They recommend a peer mentor to help explain how things really work here and a senior mentor for career and long-term guidance. I also love their expansion from boundaries (individual responsibility) to guardrails (structural). If there are boundaries the organization encourages all employees to set, why not make them structural guardrails with accountability? Not all boundaries are a good fit for everyone, but some might be organizational expectations that are espoused but not followed. Some possibilities might include:

  • No emails, texts, or call beyond work hours unless it is an emergency.
  • Meetings expected to be 50 minutes or 25 minutes, rather than 60 and 30.
  • Do not allow emailing people on vacation, nor responding.
  • Prohibiting lunch meetings.

Technologies of the Office

Technologies won’t save us. Better technologies often increase productivity with the promise of free time to serve the employee but results in increased expectations for productivity to serve the business. Some technologies intended to increase our effectiveness and productivity end up being an obstacle to it. More technologies are often a drain on employees – training, transitions, multiple platforms, confusion, etc. Less is more.


Perhaps the central question of Out of Office is: How do we create work from home and re-create in the office work in a way that helps us live better lives for ourselves and our communities? Replicating the office life at home is not better. How do we create a worklife that helps us work better (not longer and more)? This is not a fantasy ideal, there are numerous examples of workers and organizations who have found ways to live better lives and do better work. For example, Buffer shifted to a four-day workweek (not four 10 hour days, just four days of the regular eight-hour). In fewer hours each week, they saw increases in productivity – coding projects took less time and were done better.

More Ideas

I’ve been gathering ideas from folks about what is working to create a new workplace. Out of Office helped me think, frame, and add more ideas to what folks have shared. For the full list, which I keep adding to check-out Rethinking the Workplace. What has been working for you? What Ideas do you have to create something better?

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