If you live in Ottawa, you’re likely used to public officials verbally touching themselves to beloved local tech giant Shopify inc. The e-commerce firm is a top contender for Canada’s most valuable company. It’s partnered with Amazon, it’s how you buy weed online in Ontario, and its head office downtown is a point of pride for the city.
Honestly, that’s as it should be. The place is dope. They’ve got MAME cabinets and a go kart track and ping pong and a sauna and so much free food -- it’s really cool. But on Thursday, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke announced via Twitter that the company will be moving to a ‘digital by default’ model, declaring the end of “office centricity.”
If you don’t know what that means, I’m here to help. It means that even after the COVID-19 pandemic wraps up, Shopify doesn’t expect its employees to return to the office. Like, at all. Lütke explained that the company hasn't quite “figured this whole thing out.” He continued, “There is a lot of change coming, but that is what we’re good at.” He also made an evil mad-scientist claim, stating “This isn’t a choice. This is the future.”
When I first read that, one word started bouncing around my head like I was listening to the world’s most boring ASMR: ‘optimization.’ If you’re a business bro, you probably need to go clean yourself up, but if you’re a regular person, I’m going to tell you why that word should fill you with dread.
You see, ‘optimization’ is just a few syllables and fewer practical differences away from ‘exploitation.’ To illustrate my point, I would like to make use of a particular avenue of social philosophy I will call ‘chopped-salad theory.’ Stay with me. Please, I’m not crazy.
Seriously, over the past five years or so, writers Matt Buchanan and Jia Tolentino have taken issue with what the chopped-salad industry represents. Tolentino, in her book “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” breathlessly describes her relationship with the chopped-salad:
“And so I go to [your local chopped-salad provider] on days when I need to eat vegetables very quickly [...] and like a chump, I try to make eye-contact over the sneeze guard, as if this alleviated anything about the skyrocketing productivity requirements that have forced these two lines of people to scarf and create kale Caesars all day, and then I ‘grab’ my salad and eat it in under ten minutes while looking at email and on the train home remind myself that next time, for points purposes, I should probably buy the salad through the salad’s designated app.”
She’s lamenting the circumstances under which what she described is normal behaviour. The circumstances under which it is normal behaviour to shovel several leaves into your mouth rather than cook and enjoy a meal. The circumstances under which someone would never opt for any meal which, as Buchanan puts it, “would require more attention than the little needed for the automatic elliptical motion of the arm from bowl to face, jaw swinging open over and over again until the fork comes up empty and the vessel can be deposited in the garbage can under the desk.”
Tolentino is lamenting capitalism, or at least the current stage of capitalism which necessitates chopped-salads. In her words, “Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach.” We no longer have time for a lunch that would take our attention away from what we really need to be doing to survive -- checking emails and shit like that.
In other words, we need to be optimized. And now it looks like Shopify’s response to the world in which every person feels a crushing need to optimize themselves in order to survive; its response to “the future,” wherein everyone is constantly working, is to eliminate the last thing that provides natural separation from the feeling of constantly working: distance. Shopify is optimizing.
That’s not to say that the change Tobias Lütke is so excited about can’t or won’t have many positive impacts. As was pointed out by everyone with internet access, not having to commute to and from an office space will be good for the environment, which is obviously amazing. Cities could hopefully use the empty real estate to solve rampant housing crises, and workplace harassment will likely go down, although removing the workplace, rather than the harassment, from that problem would not have been my go-to plan.
Plus, for the business bros that have returned from scrubbing the jizz stains out of their Calvins, it will save companies plenty of money, and allow them to diversify their workforce by hiring whoever they want, without regard for accessibility issues or geography.
It also helps that Shopify is a relatively morally sound (except for the Amazon partnership) and scandal-free company. According to a friend who works for the firm (how did you think I knew about all the cool stuff they have), employees were provided with a $1000 stipend for office supplies and other things they might need to work from home.
Lütke made it clear that he’s committed to getting this right, and frankly, I don’t disbelieve him. The virtual infrastructure is there to support this digital by default model, and when your entire business is built around online user experience like Shopify, I would think this move is right up your alley.
My concern is what happens when companies with lesser reputations jump on the bandwagon. Facebook and Twitter (which, yikes) have also recently announced plans to move large portions of their workforce to digital by default positions. Zuckerberg is probably just doing it so that he doesn’t have to climb into his skin-suit every morning, but still. And so far, we’re only talking about tech companies with fuzzy, ‘millennial-friendly’ cultures.
What happens when businesses with notably more toxic corporate cultures see an opportunity to save money, and make this kind of decision without regard for their employees? Amazon, for example, is not only terrible to its warehouse staff, but also has a reportedly brutal corporate culture. And Wall Street’s culture in general, I think has been well-documented as a massive horrible shit-show, except for the parts with Margot Robbie. That part of it looks pretty cool.
Toxic corporate cultures have a negative effect on mental health. Morneau Shepell, an HR services company, reported in a 2017 survey that, “work culture is the most important issue to address regarding mental health in the workplace.” Mental Health America reported in 2019 that “A company culture with safe and open communication is essential to employee engagement and wellbeing.”
If this change comes into the mainstream like Lütke predicted, it won’t mean never having to go into work, it’ll mean never being able to escape work -- or its culture. In the Amazon case, the New York Times reported that already “emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered.” And employers’ expectations, which can have profound impacts on the mental health of its employees, will only become more demanding. They have to. Otherwise, they won’t be optimized.
So basically, I’m worried that Shopify, with its purportedly good intentions and future-facing ideas, has set the precedent that will transform workers into struggling, stressed-out, salad-sucking, hamster-wheel-turning husks. Which sucks.