The Emmental Particles

Returning to the old way of doing things is neither smart nor a sure thing

Airline executives are pretty anodyne these days, but in the more swashbuckling era of the 90’s and early aughts, a character named Gordon Bethune led Continental. Bethune, a Texan and a Navy veteran, ran the airline for a decade. He had no shortage of quips and adages about the airline business. Probably his most famous is about the perverse incentives airlines have to cut costs at the expense of everything else. "If you are being rewarded for finding ways to make pizza cheaper, eventually you'll take the cheese off. You'll make it so cheap that people won't eat it."

This mentality brought us airline industry innovations such as charging for carry-on, removing window shades, and American Airlines discovering they could save $40K a year by removing an olive from the salad they served in first class. It’s well-entrenched in American life as a whole and corporate America in particular. One would hope executives today realize removing the cheese is bad is the lesson from Bethune. Instead, they thought what if we classified the cheese as an independent contractor?

That style of running a business is also how we ended up with shortages these past few months, thanks to Just In Time, in which the metaphorical cheese is the products and materials companies have on hand. Keeping inventory low and running lean is a great way to control costs. The experience is not always pleasant, though, and when things go south, delays and other problems can escalate fast. As business and industries recover from the shock of the last 18 months, people in those industries have had a moment to consider: is this really the best way to run things?   

One of those things is how we work in an office. The campaign to return to how we worked pre-pandemic is in full effect in America. Workers are going back, some immediately, some in the fall. A few organizations transitioned to distributed workforces over the course of the pandemic, but for the most part, companies are having workers come ino the office “most of the time” or “all of the time” and the workers are saying, not so fast. As Apple employees put it in a letter to Tim Cook last week about their mandate to return to the office: 

“Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating...It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

The structures in place are biased toward making that happen: existing leases, a desire among some on the right force people back into the job market by cutting their benefits, and anxiety among a lot of middle managers who need to prove they’re doing their jobs by “managing” which is, unquestionably, more difficult to do remotely. Or rather, when offices are distributed, managers have to actively manage, which is harder than just showing up to the office and thinking big management thoughts. Nevertheless, framing it as employees being anxious to return is disingenuous at best and clashes with another adage from Bethune. “The secret of employee relations is, Don’t lie.

There’s been a steady, three-decade shift, taking the cheese off the pizza at the office. Offices became cubicles became desks became hoteling. “But Alexander!” you’re probably saying. “Look at those Bay Area tech offices. There’s cereal bars and on-site dry cleaning. Yoga classes! Whiskey bars!” That’s all true, but those tech workers are still in open plan offices, which are terrible. Or they’re in open plan offices with hot desking, which is even more terrible, especially for creatives who need to work in their own space. Tech company perks are designed to capture more time from the workers. Why leave early to pick up dry cleaning when we can do it right here for you? And that Scotch: a Macallan neat should run you maybe $20. Is that how much you value even a half an hour of your time? 

Meanwhile, office workers spent the past year at home marinating about work and workplaces. What is an office for, really? Are companies paying for my time or my labor? If work expands for the time allotted, why do companies insist on me allocating more and more of my time to get the same output? Are all the words about balance and mental health and the importance of exercise going to be sacrificed on the altar of a commute that we’ve learned over the past year isn’t really necessary?

This is heady stuff, where the cheese meets the pizza of the American workplace.   

It isn’t just limited to occupations, either. As Americans return to restaurants and hotels, they’re asking questions. This is what I get for my money now? Restaurants are suffering a “labor shortage” because they fired everyone, line cooks died more than any other profession in the U.S. during the pandemic, and owners can’t or won’t raise wages and prices. The net-net is that the “return to workplace” era is about getting less than we did before, for the same price. 

Your meal costs the same, but you’ll get worse service, cooked less well than before, in an environment that’s still weird, and also it’s your responsibility that the server earn a living wage. And you should feel bad about it if they don’t, even when you’re going out to celebrate! 

That flight costs the same, but because people are absolutely insane after a pandemic year, the airline won’t serve alcohol, you have to wear a mask, there may or may not be food, and the guy who used to complain about turning off his phone is now complaining about how wearing a mask impinges on his “rights” or something. 

The workplace looks the same, except now it’s clear companies worry more about where you are physically than the work that you’re doing, though they don’t care to improve the physical conditions in which workers do those jobs.

Hotel stays cost the same, but there won’t be anyone to greet you at the front desk, housekeeping is MIA, and so on. 

I can’t say I know the answer here. I mean, I do: pay people more, look at your business model, update it for the Way We Live Now™ and figure out whether people want the cheese or not. They may not care about the cheese, in which case, congratulations to you, you solved it! Or they may care about the cheese, in which case, they’re probably gonna have to pay more for it. Either way, it’s the continued unbundling of American life at every level, from the workplace all the way to your TV. I’m just hoping a streaming service to which I am already subscribed buys Paramount+ so that I can watch the new season of Drag Race without signing up for another thing.

We’ve all changed so much in the last year. If we don’t take it as an opportunity to reflect on what we really want, what things are the most important to us, and whether we want to pay for them, we will have a lot of cheeseless pizzas in our future.