Corporate Cultureês Snake Oil Salesmanship

Corporate Culture’s Snake Oil Salesmanship

As existential practitioners, most of us are probably in favor of more direct, face-to-face relating and interactions than modern technology encourages. I can’t imagine that there are many existential practitioners who would prefer a room full of people all texting other people to a room full of people actually engaging in meaningful dialogue with people in that same room.

So why does a recent report in The New York Times announcing that Yahoo want more of their workers to stop working from home and telecommuting and instead, return to desks in the office. And Yahoo is not alone—the article tells us that similar changes are happening at Best Buy, and both are moving in the direction of the rest of corporate America.

The reasoning behind Yahoo’s decision is supposedly to “was that bringing workers back to the office would lead to greater collaboration and innovation” (Glass, 2013). This would seem to be espousing the existential belief in the importance of human relationships and interaction. But the reality seems much more sinister.

In the article, Glass (2013) tells us:

Yet a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation. Two outdated ideas seem to underlie the Yahoo decision: first, that tech companies can still operate like the small groups of 20-something engineers that founded them; and second, the most old-fashioned of all, that companies get the most out of their employees by limiting their autonomy.

Telecommuting has allowed thousands of workers the freedom to create their own hours, work around school and family schedules, and as Glass (2013) says, this tends to lead to far more productivity and working hours that often far exceed the traditional 40. These workers tend to spend less time engaging in idle chit-chat with co-workers when they work and instead devote their time and energy to the projects at hand.

While according to Glass, the research on whether telecommuters are more productive than their desk-bound counterparts, the idea of limiting telecommuting brings up issues that go far beyond whether co-workers are discussing American Idol or they are plugging away at their reports and projects with unwavering commitment and focus.

Even with the scarcity of jobs in this 21st century economy, workers may be clamoring for positions to stay away from the morass of unemployment, but they are still trying to balance the competing demands of family, health, and other personal commitments. A single mother with two children may have little choice but to work two jobs to make ends meet, but when one allows telecommuting, that mother can still take her children back and forth to school, potentially saving money on babysitters and daycare that would be a further drain on resources. Which one should she be asked to sacrifice? Feeding her children or being with her children? Why should she have to choose simply because an employer deems telecommuting somehow “less productive,” even if there are no reliable metrics for that decision.

I find it so troubling that Yahoo as a company would couch their intentions in the language of interpersonal relationship and connection—such important existential values—when what they are really doing is curtailing freedom and choice—two other important existential values. And I don’t think this is peculiar to Yahoo or Best Buy, but rather part of something that seems to make corporate culture incompatible with human existence.

Some might argue that any time we agree to take on a job, we are surrendering a level of personal freedom and choice in exchange for that holy grail of a paycheck. But what is the real benefit—for companies as well as employees—in making it more difficult to balance life and work? And what is the benefit of couching in the language of snake oil salesmen telling us these changes are for our benefit—to help improve relationship, connection, and communication?

Maybe this is our great existential choice of the modern era: either we buy the snake oil and feed our families, or we descend into the spiral of unemployment, shame, and despair.

Or maybe there is a third alternative? I hope so. I already have more snake oil than I could ever possibly use in one lifetime.

— Sarah Kass

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