Jean-Paul Sartre once clarified the meaning of his famous line, which came from an existentialist play he wrote in 1944:
“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because … when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.
It seems to me that “twisted” and “vitiated” describe many long-term relationships in many if not most corporate environments. And human beings who are attempting to know and love themselves while physically working in such environments day in and day out (and thus, largely living in them)—well, one can understand a lot of people’s desire not to return to the middle of hell now that they’ve been allowed to live for three years on the outskirts.
I’ve been a pretty insistent (and to some people, obnoxious) advocate for in-person encounters of the collegial kind. I don’t believe a coherent corporate culture can be built remotely. But I also know corporate culture—how poisonous it can be, how stupid and how thick. Long ago, a communication chief at GM once told me he’d hired 10 new employees and it was as if he’d hired 10 Haitians. They didn’t know how to stand, which hand to put in their pocket, how to adjust their ties, in an environment where there was only one way to do everything.
Optimistically: Perhaps we’ll come away from forced remoteness, followed by this back-to-the-office spasm—with cultures that are a little less twisted and suffocating, and thus colleagues who are less hellish.
And therefore, workplaces that are truly worth visiting every once in awhile.