Links of the Week: August 12, 2021: Workplace Return or Rapture?

What if the get-back-to-the-building museum leaders are the ones risking irrelevance?

[description: a circle of paper clips on a blue background]
I don't want to think about what kind of microscopic organism this looks like … 

What if the get-back-to-the-building museum leaders are the ones risking irrelevance?

As I've read more and more pieces along the lines of "how to keep your remote employees in the loop" and "managing the hybrid workplace" and "lean into uncertainty!" while also talking to colleagues, both remote and back at the office, I've started to come to a realization—not only is there a gap between what the leader- (and wannabe-leader-) focused business press is writing about remote work and what is actually going on in the field, but, in fact, all the writing about remote work might have it completely backward.

The culture of museum work has already moved hybrid, if not entirely remote. This doesn't mean that no one is back in museum workplaces; it just means that the center of gravity is no longer the museum building; it's diffuse now, an expanding universe of remote workers, distant other institutions and vendors who don't get visited via business travel, audiences seen and unseen, staff and interns whose interactions are over screens and whose lives are rooted more strongly to the difficulties of pandemic existence.

We all want our institutions to succeed—well, assuming they want us to succeed—but not at the cost of ourselves. Workers in general are simply not focused on the physical workplace as workplace any longer (paywalled article, but the headline says it all: "Americans Are Willing to Take Pay Cuts to Never Go Into the Office Again"). This isn't so much work-from-anywhere as work-is-where-I-need-it-to-be-at-this-moment.

The massive uncertainty over the health and status of one's entire environment just makes the idea that "I have to be in this one place today" irrelevant. Maybe it's the kid's school suddenly closed, the elderly parent's doctor appointment suddenly remote—or climate collapse has made it too hot to take them to the doctor that day—or the co-worker suddenly ill so there's no in-person meeting, or the local virus number spiking so there's no goodbye lunch to that colleague, or just "it's all too much, I need a day off." And that's for people with the privilege to have some autonomy over their days. For people in marginalized groups or precarious finances or stressed situations without slack (or all three), the friction may lead to job loss or outsourcing, or to leaving the field entirely.

What I mean by all this is that the conversation, the zeitgeist, is shifting from "how are we going to get everybody back here"—and, yes, that's what leaders want even if they're going to any lengths to make remote work possible, yet messaging that the culture of museums is everyone in the same place—but they haven't done enough to the nature of museum work to make the return desirable and necessary. (Am I going to risk an hour-long commute that could expose me and thus my family to delta just for the chance of a hallway conversation or water-cooler gossip session? What if not enough people are at work that day to run into them in the hallway or the water cooler?) Department heads still have too much authority and autonomy to counter museum-wide policies with their own mini-cultures—sometimes for the better for their workers, sometimes worse, but always chipping away at the idea of "we're all in this together."

I've only been to my workplace once since the lockdown, but there were just a couple of people there, it was dark, there were boxes and spare monitors everywhere. It felt like the office had been cobbled together in the ruins of a crashed spaceship or a museum-field rapture or over an old temple; functional, but still not what it once was. I know many of you have been to work far more often, and I'm sure things may feel different as we approach some mythical "most of us are back" moment, but it's not the same as the before times. It's not that that's okay but that that's what it is (article may be paywalled, but the title is "Workplace of Future Is More Clubhouse Than Cubicle"). After all, there were a million things wrong with that normal.

The new reality of in-workplace work may be the one that has to catch up. Traditional offices may very well start to feel like workplaces in the last week of December—people in the office can get a lot done, but the action is elsewhere, or out there (the productivity certainly was, at least). The challenge for all kinds of workplaces will be to align with that remote energy and get past that "the culture is here" sense that still beats in the background of hybrid work plans like cosmic microwave radiation.

Anyway, here are a lot of links. As I told the regular subscribers to this newsletter, this is the last LOTW until Labor Day. After next Tuesday's sequel to automation in the museum workplace, the site will be on hiatus until September 7. I hope your workplace hybrid conversations are centering humanity.

Some of the people loudly calling for a return to the office are not the same people who will actually be returning to the office regularly. The old guard’s members feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired. …

It gets better:

Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.


When we are all in the same physical space, we are oftentimes evaluated not on our execution of our role but on our diplomacy—by which I mean our ability to kiss up to the right people rather than actually being a decent person. I have known so many people within my industry (and in others) who have built careers on “playing nice” rather than on producing something. I have seen examples within companies I’ve worked with of people who have clearly stuck around because they’re well liked versus productive, and many, many people have responded to my newsletters on the topic of remote work with similar stories. ...

Now, this article could be going overboard about the lack of importance of being a diplomat and a nice person in a workplace—though diplomacy is important because so much toxicity is allowed and even celebrated—but, the points are valid. What actually is productivity in museum work—and shouldn't the workers who stayed productive during the pandemic be defining it, and not the leaders?

I've also been collecting articles that are really just about Covid. They could be out of date at any time, so consider them a time capsule.

As I mentioned to subscribers, this will be the last Links of the Week until after Labor Day. Have a good—and by that, I mostly mean safe—rest of unofficial summer, as plan out fall posts (and perhaps other kinds of content) for Museum Human. As always, thanks for reading!

If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider signing up for a free subscription below—it's the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations. Thank you for reading!

cover image by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash [description: a circle of paper clips on a blue background]

Creative Commons License

Links of the Week: August 12, 2021: Workplace Return or Rapture? by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.