For his classic 1956 book The Organization Man, sociologist William H. Whyte Jr. interviewed 221 executives and managers. “There is an interesting fiction these days that goes something like this: Executives are at last getting sensible about work,” he wrote. “The effective executive is the rested man who prizes his leisure and encourages his subordinates to do the same.” Whyte knew this received wisdom was in fact a farce because the vast majority of his interviewees spent more waking hours at the office than they did anywhere else, between 50 and 60 hours per week.
Until recently, not much had changed, other than women joining the ranks of the overworked. A 2018 Harvard study found top executives work an average of 62.5 hours per week, including nearly eight hours on the weekend. Well-heeled white-collar employees humble-bragged about their long hours on the job, and even billionaires eschewed vacations. In a Gallup Poll from 2020 that surveyed full-time employees in general, 44 percent responded that they work over 45 hours a week, with 17 percent of respondents saying they worked 60 hours or more weekly.
Whyte had a theory as to why Americans worked this way that rings as true now — if you substitute “person” for “man” — as it did more than a half century ago. He wrote: “We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life.” In other words, the cult of American overwork led people of all classes to mistake a job for a life, and their bosses and co-workers for a family.
The “work family” has played a central role in American popular culture for decades, celebrated in legal, police, and hospital dramas, and in sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and Murphy Brown. In these, and more recent shows like The Office and 30 Rock, co-workers eat together, sleep together, rejoice, and mourn together, with barely a pesky spouse or offspring in sight. The rise of the tech and investment banking sectors built on this imagined utopia of work families, turning office spaces into “home” with free-flowing coffee and snacks, exercise and meditation rooms, and dry cleaning and massage services.
All this was of course meant to keep workers on the job long beyond traditional business hours, and reward employees who beavered away for the good of their “work family,” rather than headed home for the good of their actual families. And many of us were taken in, worrying more about what our co-workers thought of us than what we thought of ourselves. Two decades ago, University of Massachusetts sociologist Ofer Sharone observed employees leaving coats on their desk chairs in the evening before leaving for home, in an attempt to fool fellow workers into thinking that they were still in the office. As Najahyia Chinchilla, a Detroit-based architect who once designed office spaces for investment banks in Manhattan, told me a few years ago, “We no longer design spaces for people who work 8 to 5, that just doesn’t happen anymore. Work today is 24/7 and we design spaces with that in mind.”
But over the past 17 months, many, if not most, of those well-designed spaces were empty, forcing employees to confront the “work family” assumption head-on. In just the first three weeks of the pandemic, the percentage of people working from home doubled. Forbidden to mingle with colleagues, employees with partners and kids who were able to work remotely were left to grapple with their actual families, with all the stress, satisfaction, frustration, and joy that implies.
With no business dinners or Happy Hour huddles, no time-draining chats at the water cooler or mid-morning coffee breaks with the “team,” they sought purpose and meaning in a much-shrunken circle of (mostly) close relations, lovers, friends, and roommates. And to their astonishment, many workers were given the chance to find precisely what they had been looking for all along: the opportunity to connect deeply with those who truly mattered in their lives.
In a sense, the pandemic has returned many Americans to our agrarian roots — where the “work family” was, well, the family, with parents, grandparents, and children laboring together toward a common goal. With schools and day-care facilities closed, adults were dealt the challenge of entertaining and/or helping educate children and grandchildren, while also juggling whatever the job threw their way. Bigwigs in IT and Wall Street hustlers alike had no choice but to brew their own coffee and make their own lunches, and sometimes their kids’ lunches, too. The babble of toddlers and the wails of infants became background music of Zoom meetings, and a sick child or spouse became all the reason needed for skipping those meetings.
Thanks to these and other challenges, many people found themselves reassessing their priorities. When “working late” at the office was no longer possible, office relationships started to take a back seat to relationships at home. And through all this, worker productivity more than kept pace: given the opportunity to put actual families ahead of work families, we became better employees.
Business scholars point out that before the pandemic, many companies unofficially (and perhaps unwittingly) defined the “ideal worker” as one without family responsibilities. But in crises, those responsibilities loomed larger than ever, inviting many of us to reconsider where our true loyalties should lie. Gaining distance from the work family for the health of our literal families, many of us came to realize that sacrificing home for the office should be the exception, not the rule.
Working alongside co-workers for so many hours each day, it’s no wonder that many employees came to regard them as family. But the pandemic has forced many to confront the reality that they work not with their families, but for their families. While some are eager to return to work as usual, most are not: a global survey by Citrix found that only 10 percent of workers born in 1981 or later would prefer to return to the office full time.
From Wall Street to Main Street, workers fortunate enough to have a choice have found they can stay close to home — and to the ones they love — without compromising their commitment to the job. Best of all, rather than depend on the work family to bring “meaning” through teamwork, they’ve come to recognize that the meaning gained from work is very much a product of their own efforts, and that the team that matters is the one cheering them on from home.
Ellen Ruppel Shell is author most recently of “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change” and “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.