'I’m going to put a box around work': That’s a country song waiting to happen

·5 min read

Many bosses in the United States are finally discovering that their employees want lives outside of work. In addition to work, is perhaps a better way to put it. Minus their overlords, to be crystal clear.

(I’m going to pivot to “we” and “our” here, to be inclusive, sure, but mostly to make clear I am not a boss, nor have I ever aspired to be a boss. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a boss. Sometimes.)

Regardless of our commitment to jobs and careers, it turns out we want hours – heck, entire days – not just minutes disconnected from employers who keep demanding more for less. We want virtual walls between our personal lives and bosses who feel entitled to encroach on our time like vines of kudzu on Georgia pines.

As my colleague Paul Davidson wrote recently, quoting Korn Ferry’s Mark Royal: “Employees are saying, ‘I’m not going to define myself by traditional markers of career progression and success. I’m going to put a box around work.”

I’m going to put a box around work. That’s a country song waiting to happen. Somebody get on that, please.

Workers want to know: Where's the love?

Blame the pandemic, credit the pandemic – however you cast it, this is an earthquake in the life of working America. After more than two years of sacrifice and a remarkable ability to keep working-America afloat during this pandemic, it’s not unreasonable for all those employees to wonder, “Where’s the love?” Short of that, how about a return on their investment of worker loyalty?

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Davidson summed it up nicely: “Burned out after logging excessive hours or duties during COVID-19, (millions of Americans are) resolving to meet their job requirements but not go beyond. No toiling late into the night. No calls on weekends. And no pushing themselves to the brink even during regular business hours.”

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The nerve of these people, insisting on their humanity.

For white-collar workers, there’s lot of coverage now about the debate of working at home versus showing up to the office. In a curious development, bosses are arguing for more face time, and they’re not talking about the app. What I find fascinating is this sudden professed desire to see employees who are accustomed to being unseen by higher ups. Quick, someone order those name tags.

One size does not fit all workers

This NPR segment on a story about hybrid work, in which employees split their time between home and office, made me stop mid-pour with the morning coffee. First cup. I never do that.

Here’s Rich Handler, CEO of the investment banking company Jefferies: "If you want a job, stay remote all the time. If you want a career, engage with the rest of us in the office. ... No judgment on which you pick, but don't be surprised or disappointed by certain outcomes."

On any day, I am glad not to be an investment banker. Today I’m downright giddy about it.

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Let us acknowledge that is not a one-size-fits-all conundrum, and it’s a debate steeped in privilege and good luck. Most low-paying jobs require in-person work. These are essential workers, on whom we all depend.

I was reminded of this over the last 48 hours, after I drove to Lowe's to buy a major appliance. An experienced employee helped me choose. A cashier helped me check out after the self-service station rejected me. Another employee called to schedule delivery. This morning, not long after I heard Handler’s comments on NPR, two deliverymen arrived to lug the appliance up one set of stairs and down another.

Jobs like this requires in-person work. These are essential workers, on whom we all depend.
Jobs like this requires in-person work. These are essential workers, on whom we all depend.

This is the working life of millions of Americans who don’t have a choice about showing up if they want to support themselves and their families. Dismissing them as working in jobs, not careers, may make you feel better about your chosen line of work, but it makes you a lousy human being.

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Working parents, people with disabilities and those who can’t afford the means of transportation for easy trips to and from the office can be top-notch employees without having to mingle in the workplace. By the way, I find it fascinating – there’s the word again, in my effort to be polite – that bosses are suddenly heralding the value of colleague-hobnobbing during work hours.

Get ready for the next frontier

Which brings me to a recent New York Times story titled, “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score,” by Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram. “Since the dawn of modern offices, workers have orchestrated their actions by watching the clock,” the journalists write. “Now, more and more, the clock is watching them.”

It is as awful as it sounds. At some companies, this monitoring includes capturing photos of employees’ faces and computer screens and tracing the activity of their computer mice. This is not just for employees working at home. Companies are also installing this software in offices where employees are supposed to be soaking up the benefits of mingling, but not really.

My favorite part of the story, meaning the part that made me scream at my computer screen, was about the productivity points assigned to the work of hospice chaplains. Because if anything can be scheduled on a timetable, it’s the stages of death and grieving.

It’s a whole new world, my fellow Americans. Hold on to your mice – or its it mouses? Mingle while you can.

More from Connie Schultz:

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USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz 

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Working at home or in-person, bosses now surprised workers want more