Illustration by Gabriela Tylenda
Illustration by Gabriela Tylenda

Virtual First

Why work flexibility should be the standard, not a luxury


Published on June 11, 2021

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No matter what kind of work you do, the past year probably changed the way you do it. Whether you’re a doctor practicing telemedicine, a teacher conducting classes on Zoom, or a musician moving from performances to online workshops, you've likely had to become flexible about how and where you work. But work flexibility is about more than location. It’s about having the freedom to decide when you’re working, and when you’re not.

Of course, not everyone is in a position to enjoy that freedom or demand more flexibility. So, many are starting to rethink not only what kind of work they want to do and where they want to do it, but what work means to them and where it should sit in their lives. 

As Culture Study founder Anne Helen Petersen reminds us: We weren’t just working from home. We were working from home during a pandemic. We were learning to skydive after being pushed out of a plane. And if you’re a parent, you’re probably so over remote working, remote learning, remote anything, you can’t remotely imagine not returning to the office. That’s why it can sound annoying when people get preachy about the potential for WFH. How can you get excited about the future of work when the present of work is such a nightmare? 

But after years of researching and discussing work flexibility with people across many industries, Petersen is here to tell you: It’s about to get better. 

When her 2019 essay on millennial burnout went viral, the concept of work flexibility was still somewhat nascent. Freelancers and early adopters had been proving the viability of remote work for a while, but most employers weren’t prepared, technically or culturally, to make the shift when the pandemic hit. But with the 2020 publication of her book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, Petersen’s insights hit home in a new way—not only for her peers, but for Zoomers, Boomers, and Gen-Xers as well.

“We can use remote work and actual flexibility to reimagine the placement of work in our lives.”—Anne Helen Petersen

We spoke with Petersen from her home in Montana where she and her partner, Charlie Warzel, are working on a forthcoming book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. Here’s why she wants to make sure workplace flexibility isn’t just a luxury reserved for knowledge workers and executives.  

DBX: How did you become a passionate advocate for workplace flexibility?

Anne Helen Petersen: That really was happenstance. I am not a person who has been an avid reader of workplace culture literature or anything like that. Historically, my office experiences have been kind of specialized, insomuch as I was an academic, which obviously has its own particulars of work culture, but isn't what most people think of as a traditional office culture. 

Then I was a journalist at BuzzFeed News, which is this really interesting collision of tech workplace, startup workplace, and passion workplace, with journalistic people who really want to do what they're doing, no matter how much they get paid to do it. Through academia, then at BuzzFeed, then going remote at BuzzFeed, I have worked in a lot of different areas of the country with different ages of people and different perspectives on work. 

But my real route to it was through writing about burnout, thinking through all of the parts of how work is arranged in our lives, and what it is about that current arrangement that is making us burnt out, and oftentimes pretty miserable.

How has the last year affected your perspective on how ready we are for the remote work revolution?

AHP: Here's the thing. The burnout stuff—I wrote that book, and it was in final copy edits when the pandemic hit. Then I thought, I guess I'll write a couple pages that are like, ‘Everything that I wrote about in the book is the same, only worse in the pandemic,’ which just absolutely came true. It was useful, for lack of a better word, that six months into the pandemic—when the book came out in September of last year—people really understood what burnout was. This wasn't a new concept. You could be like, ‘That thing that you're feeling right now. That is burnout.’ 

I started thinking about this remote book with my partner, Charlie Warzel, over the summer. We had watched people in those first early months of being forced to go remote, kind of flailing and being like, ‘How can we do this? This is ridiculous. What are we doing?’ 

Both Charlie and I had been working remotely at that point for about three years—him for the New York Times and me for BuzzFeed News. We were like, ‘Oh, this is doable. Here are the pitfalls. Here's how it actually can be a real problem because it can absorb your life.’ We already saw this happening to people who had gone remote. They're like, ‘Oh, I roll over and just work from 7am until 10pm at night.’ But also how if you are conscious of that, it can be really liberating, too, and allow you to invert the way that we think about work: Instead of building our lives around work, building our work around our lives. 

“I felt like I was coming alive here. I was like, ‘Oh, my job is easier when I'm in a place where the world is legible to me.’”

So there was a hope. That was what we pitched and how we sold the book. Then, as we continued to talk to different companies and read about the history of the office, and the history of office culture, and how things have really shifted over the last 100 years, there was this really fascinating portrait of all the ways in which culture, particularly, was broken, and exclusionary, and built to privilege the same types of people, which is oftentimes white men who are able to live in urban areas, and how we can try to use remote work and actual flexibility to reimagine the placement of work in our lives.

I love your comment in Culture Study that this isn’t remote work—this is remote work during a pandemic, which is a very different thing. 

AHP: Anyone who did remote work or distributed work or a flexible work schedule hybrid before the pandemic, they've been trying to say this in a quiet voice because it seems kind of rude. Like, ‘I promise, it's not that bad.’ But it really isn’t. There are so many different ways this type of work can be great. If we can make it work, it can be really great. But it's hard to see that, especially from the middle of the pandemic. Even now, it's hard to remember, ‘Oh, I'm vaccinated, and my friends are vaccinated, so we could work together at our dining room table.’

I’m curious how you chose Missoula, Montana as your new home. What was it about that location that called to you?

AHP: I grew up in northern Idaho, and I think that I wanted a place that wasn't my home—that wasn’t imprinted with all of the things about my home, but that had the landscape of my home, that lived in my heart in the same way. I had also come out here to do some reporting on a couple of different stories and work was just easy. I felt like I was coming alive here. I was like, ‘Oh, my job is easier when I'm in a place where the world is legible to me in some way.’ 

I think people from all over the world have that feeling after being away from the landscapes and people that are most familiar to them, like when they come back home. Sometimes there are parts of returning that are really traumatic and hard. Sometimes there are parts that are like, ‘Oh, I forgot what familiar feels like or I forgot that landscape of home.’ 

I loved being in the city, but I was exhausted in the city. So I really craved a town where it just felt more like this midsize experience and not the suburbs. I think a lot of people feel that and that's why so many of these midsize towns are exploding right now. 

Millennials in particular I think have been taught to not love the suburbs, but also are priced out of urban areas. So what's a place that feels alive and cosmopolitan, where you can be around people who are the same, but also different from you?

“Think of how much easier it would be to provide help if you also were available virtually for some of these hours.”

You've mentioned that although you gained two hours back by not commuting, those two hours were quickly gobbled back up by work. Over the past year, have you found new ways to protect your time?

AHP: I think any of your best principles during the pandemic were hard to keep, whatever they were, whatever your goals or aspirations were. I think that I am more mindful. This has less to do with the pandemic and more to do with writing about burnout, and thinking a lot about burnout and thinking a lot about work, but it's just so much clearer to me when I'm burning out, when I'm working too much. I can identify behaviors very clearly. 

I also think moving to Substack has facilitated this because I don't feel like I have to LARP my job, in terms of being on Slack all the time. I feel much more liberated to be like, ‘I worked really hard today to get this newsletter ready. Tomorrow, I'm going to spend the day in the garden.’ It doesn't matter what day of the week it is. I just feel much more control over being like, ‘I did the work that I needed to do, so now the work stops.’

What are those behaviors you notice when you’re burning out?

AHP; The big one is that I can't read fiction. I love reading fiction. It's one of my favorite things in the world. I'm a lifelong reader. There’ll be an amazing book that I really want to read. It's right there and I just won't reach for it. I'll just scroll my stupid phone. That, for me, is always a sign, and feeling generally uninspired, not being excited about anything. 

Here's the problem with burnout—a lot of these behaviors also intersect with characteristics of depression. It’s really hard to untangle. I think every person has to figure out, hopefully with the help of a trained professional, what's going on with their own lives. But I do think that feeling of, ‘This fun thing that I have on my list of things to do,’ you start regarding it as an onerous task that you're just trying to get through.

What are some of the ways the shift toward workplace flexibility could benefit workers in all fields, not just knowledge work?

AHP: Well, this is a hard one, right? There are some jobs that demand in-person presence. I do think that some of those jobs that we thought always demanded presence, we have been challenging that status quo understanding. Telemedicine is a fantastic example, but I think a poor example would be something like elementary education. I know elementary school teachers who have done an amazing job doing hybrid work this year, but it is absolutely demoralizing them and burning them out because part of the work that feels gratifying is being in the presence of their students. It demands presence. 

I think for a lot of jobs that we've been like, ‘Oh, this is just the hours that you need to be here.’ Even something like an administrator or receptionist, you think, ‘This person needs to be at our office from 9 to 6, no matter what.’ These very concrete ideas about when someone's presence is needed, they don't necessarily have to be that way. We can continue to reimagine how much presence someone requires. There can be shorter hours that can actually cater to when people are coming to your office or when your presence is needed. Think of how much easier it would be to provide help or assistance if you also were available virtually for some of these hours. 

At the same time, I think when we're talking about office and knowledge work, the hope is, here's the scenario with this work that doesn't demand constant presence. It just doesn't. To suggest otherwise is just resting on these old assumptions that are arbitrary. So, if we can agree that we can make this work work differently, and make people's partnerships better, make their ability to be part of their community better, make their ability to volunteer with their communities, to live fuller lives, if we can figure out all of that, then that opens up this ability to advocate for your entire community. 

“In order to recruit those people to actually have diversity in your workforce, you have to be okay with them not living where you want them to live.”

This is the hard sell of our book: if you're not on board for making life better for everyone, then stop talking about. It really can't just be ‘Okay, I figured out how to have my ideal work scenario. Who cares about everyone doing all kinds of other work?’ It has to be more like, ‘I figured out how to make work work in my life. Now I actually have the time, the wherewithal, the emotional energy to advocate for these issues that I'm really passionate about.’

Could you talk about the potential for remote work and virtual first policies to democratize flexibility and improve diversity, equity and inclusion?

AHP: This is something I have gleaned from just talking to people who are trying to help, who are doing DE&I work, who are trying to make it work in their own companies, and also who have been called in to consult with other companies. 

One woman told me that, before the pandemic, she was called to Seattle to sit down with a bunch of companies. All of them were so reticent to hire outside of Seattle, even though some of them have our outpost elsewhere. Some of them don't, but they're just, ‘For these particular positions, we really need people to move to Seattle.’ And Seattle is more diverse than people think it is. When they talk about, ‘Seattle is so white,’ what they're talking about is the area around Amazon is so white. 

But there are some places where you're like, ‘I don't want to move to that place. It does not have the culture I want. I want a place where my culture isn't alienated at every at every turn.’

In order to recruit those people to actually have diversity in your workforce, you have to be okay with them not living where you want them to live. I think that's difficult to understand, because that's changing the hierarchy of who has the power in terms of, the company says where you must live if you want to work here. Now, especially in tech, a lot of these skills are so in demand, we're seeing a slight shift [where] the worker says, ‘I have skills that you want. I want to live here. How can we make this work?’

You’ve said ‘The point isn't about where you do the work. It's about using the moment to rethink the literal and figurative placement of work in our lives. And what do we want to prioritize in its place.’ What would you like to prioritize?

AHP: I think this whole idea of community and my caring for other people. An animating thesis of the last few years for me is, ‘I don't know how to make you care about other people.’ This is the important thing with our political movements, with everything around COVID, with even thinking about work and community and partnerships, everything from our neighborhood to our larger city to our nation to the world. It keeps spiraling out. 

If you don't care about other people, if you don't actually care that we are only as healthy as our sickest person, we are only as strong as our weakest person. If you're not thinking about us as like a holistic organism, then I think it's always gonna feel bad. It's always gonna feel empty. The moments that make us feel human and joyful and part of something bigger, those are all things that are more personal. It’s expanding beyond joy for me and mine. It's not just about that incredibly intimate joy. It's thinking more about, ‘How can I make my community healthy and my relationships with others healthy?’ I think about that all the time: How can we care about other people more? How can we put that into action?