Unnerved by all the talk of finally going back to the office? Do you shudder at the thought of wearing actual clothes, doing an actual commute, paying for bad coffee on the run, and connecting with real, breathing colleagues face-to-face?
You are not alone.
Elon Musk just ordered Tesla employees to return to the office full-time. “If you don’t show up,” he e-mailed, “we will assume you have resigned.” It’s too early to know the response, but in Cupertino some Apple employees are already in open rebellion about having to return to work for even three days a week. In New York, junior bankers at Goldman Sachs protested their C.E.O.’s order to begin returning full-time to their downtown office.
The usual incentives aren’t working. Yes, you can have a welcome-back gelato delivered to your desk, but you still have to make the trek to get to your desk. And who wants to make that journey when you’ve been working remotely from Tahoe or the Côte d’Azur?
But now companies are facing an even stranger challenge than simply luring employees back to their original workplace. The latest trend is employees not bothering to work at all.
Economic ennui has crept into the hearts and minds of professional workers, and it has a name: “lying flat.” It means: Stay home but don’t work. Don’t even get out of bed. The movement originated in China during the pandemic, when those exhausted by the “9-9-6” trend of working nine A.M. to nine P.M. six days a week did precisely the opposite: do nothing 24-7. Think the Great Resignation, but under the covers.
We knew burnout was reaching a global scale. The World Health Organization declared it to be an “occupational phenomenon.” But this is different.
Economic ennui has crept into the hearts and minds of professional workers, and it has a name: “lying flat.”
The lying-flat (or tang ping) movement is burnout’s stoner cousin who shows up unexpectedly and never leaves. The impulse probably began in the high-achieving professional middle classes in China as a rejection of the always-on, always-in push for tech growth. A viral blog in 2019 extolling the virtues of being “like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun,” started off as economic pushback against stress but became, inevitably, a cultural statement: It’s cool not to bother to work as hard. Even better is not to work at all.
I wrote a book about remote work and the new values around work called The Nowhere Office. Given the newfound focus on work-life balance, I might have to call the next volume “The Nowhere Existence.”
But is this really a new Cultural Revolution imported from Asia, or has the homegrown version already been percolating in place? The Italians coined the phrase dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, centuries ago. The writer Pico Iyer gave a memorable TED Talk in 2013, viewed millions of times, in which he explored the beauty of stillness. The summary says, “The place that travel writer Pico Iyer would most like to go? Nowhere.”
By 2018, a young American cohort had caught up and caught on. The protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Gen Z, hit 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, takes first to curling up to sleep in a cupboard in the Manhattan art gallery where she works and, eventually, to just sleeping all the time—lying flat, if you will. She does so partly to illuminate her inner turmoil and what a culture of prescription drugs will do for you.
And in her new Netflix special, the comedian Ali Wong reacted to Sheryl Sandberg’s insistence that women “lean in” at work by saying, “I don’t want to lean in. I want to lie down.” Sandberg herself seems to agree. She just up and quit her own job as C.O.O. of Meta (Facebook’s parent company) this month.
But there’s something else to it, too: the pointlessness of work. Lying flat is as existentially angsty as you can get, as Moshfegh’s heroine describes: “I had no big plan to become a curator, no great scheme to work my way up a ladder. I was just trying to pass the time. I thought if I did normal things—held down a job, for example—I could starve off the part of me that hated everything.”
It’s always the economy (stupid), so the idea of resigning and not working is a luxury, not a reality. Now it’s all about bankable leisurewear as lifestyle: athleisure sales rose by more than 80 percent during lockdown, and the clothes are worn by the kind of person that the American-based publication Jing Daily calls “the free idler.”
Even for the gainfully employed, an element of lying flat has taken hold. It turns out that up to 38 percent of workers now routinely work from bed, according to one study, either because of space issues or because, well, they like it. I was recently interviewed on SiriusXM by Zerlina Maxwell, who freely confessed that she was prone on her sofa in her pajamas. It was one of the most productive conversations of my book tour.
There are downsides. Yes, you can do a bit of Pilates from bed, and, yes, you can download bank statements, but a Zoom or Teams call looks distinctly unsophisticated when taken lying down. And there are the health-and-safety by-products of using a smartphone or a propped-up keyboard for long periods of time. I mean, “text claw” and “smartphone pinky”? Who knew?
What about those of us who do want to venture back out and try some sort of hybrid working, to dabble in getting out of our sweatpants a few days a week, but can’t quite get out of the lying-flat mentality completely? Well, the gym equivalent of motivation may just be found in Tokyo’s anti-procrastination Manuscript Writing Cafe, where, for an extra fee, the staff delivering the lattes will also nag customers about how the work is going. A little mentor workout to keep flexing the muscles of, you know, work.
Whatever’s going on, the upwardly mobile skyscraper model of work is changing forever. Great Re-evaluations, as much as Great Resignations, are happening everywhere. The center of gravity of the office has stopped moving upward and started moving sideways: nowhere near a desk and much closer to our beds.
Julia Hobsbawm is the author of The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future and the founder and co-host of the podcast series The Nowhere Office