“Madame, the peasants have no bread!”
“Then let them eat cake.” It’s the classic story of aristocratic malice and one-percenter disconnection from the real world, attributed most famously to Marie-Antoinette. There’s just one problem — it’s probably not true. Marie-Antoinette was profligate in an era of general poverty but she appears in retrospect to have possessed genuine concern about “her” people.
No such ameliorating statement can be made about Michele Peluso, the modern aristocrat who decided on a whim to demolish the lives of several thousand families. As you will see, “let them eat cake” pales next to Ms. Peluso’s aristocratic detachment.
Less than a year into her tenure as IBM’s chief marketing officer, Michelle Peluso prepared to make an announcement that she knew would excite some of her 5,500 new employees, but also, inevitably, inspire resignation notices from others… “It’s time for Act II: WINNING!” read the subject line of Peluso’s blog post on the company intranet.
IBM had decided to “co-locate” the US marketing department, about 2,600 people, which meant that all teams would now work together, “shoulder to shoulder,” from one of six different locations—Atlanta, Raleigh, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. Employees who worked primarily from home would be required to commute, and employees who worked remotely or from an office that was not on the list (or an office that was on the list, but different than the one to which their teams had been assigned) would be required to either move or look for another job.
“Speed, agility, creativity and true learning experiences within your team,” Peluso says, are just some of the benefits of working together, in-person, from an office like this one.
IBM is paying for moving costs and trips to the cities to which each employee has been assigned. It will also pay severance to employees who decide not to move. It is giving them 90 days after they make that decision to look for another job either at IBM or elsewhere. According to an internal document reviewed by Quartz of frequently asked questions about the move, the severance payment will be equal to one month’s base salary, the standard at IBM.
I ask Peluso where she’ll begin from there.
“I will say they’ve made an investment,” she says. “By making the choice they made, they made an investment in IBM, an investment in marketing, and an investment in our clients. We know that it takes a lot from them and their families, and my job is to honor that commitment and that decision with the best spaces, the best skills, the best tools, and a clear sense of mission and great colleagues—and then get out of their way and let them do great work.”
You can read the rest of the details at the source article, but the long and the short of it is this: Thousands of IBM employees who have worked remotely for their entire careers have been given ninety days to sell their homes and move to one of six “collaborative” cities. IBM will pay their moving expenses, but it will not cover the costs of moving to some of the hottest real estate markets in North America.
Very few of these IBMers earn more than $100,000 a year, but they have just ninety days to cash out and move to places where the average home costs between $315k and $1.5m. If they have families, then chances are that they are one half of a double-income couple. After all, that’s the only way anybody can afford to have children now. So Ms. Peluso’s arrogant decree doesn’t just turn thousands of homeowners into renters or house-poor bubble-mortgage slaves; it also forces thousands of people to quit their jobs and start over somewhere else.
The irony here is that IBM has pioneered multiple studies showing that remote workers are happier, more productive, and less expensive than their “agile workspace” counterparts. But Ms. Peluso is not going to let the facts interfere with her emotions. After all, she works in New York, and it’s no trouble for her. Why shouldn’t everybody have to come work with her? Why wouldn’t people want to move to the most exciting cities? Why wouldn’t they want to spend an extra three hours a day commuting to jobs where the first person to leave the office every day will be nonchalantly added to the top of next quarter’s layoff list?
I doubt she has entertained the slightest whiff of a notion that people who don’t earn several million dollars per year might have trouble making a ninety-day relocation to places where a family-sized apartment rents for $10k a month. She almost certainly has not thought about what an extra three hours of day worth of commuting means to the families and children of her employees. Like most C-suite types, she considers the eighty hours a week that she spends on private jets, in limousines, and at multi-billion-dollar resort facilities to be “work”. Surely everybody below her should be required to put in the same hours — and what difference does it make if they start and finish those hours driving a clapped-out Corolla ninety minutes in each direction from the only places they can afford a balloon mortgage?
Let them work in the best spaces! Holy shit, that’s worse than Let them eat cake.
Ms. Peluso has managed to combine several of the most repugnant management trends into one:
- Disposable employees who must give 100%. In the modern environment, everybody is replaceable — but up until the very moment that they are discarded, they need to act like their employer is the only thing that matters.
- Feudal levels of isolation. Ms. Peluso inhabits an utterly different world, financially and physically, from her employees. She can no more understand their problems than I can understand the problems of a humpback whale. She has become a different species, one that flits from company to company to increase its net worth while leaving human carnage behind.
- Review of the proles/troops. As far as I can tell, the “back to the office” movement, along with the “agile office” movement and the “bench seating” movement, operates on nothing but the base desire on the part of management to see their underlings actively kowtow to them. Only the most subtle and effective managers can truly accept the idea of a workforce that is not physically present to do them obeisance. Everybody else wants to see their subordinates kneel to them in person. It’s a desire that comes straight from the monkey in your backbrain. I was recently present at a newly-Agile-ified office where the vice president came in, looked at the miserable people crouching behind the home-made barriers they’d constructed to avoid smelling their co-worker’s rancid post-lunch breath, then jumped up in the air, clapped her hands together, and screamed “I LOVE IT!” What was there to love, other than the fact that we were miserable and she was not?
- Your employer will make your social choices for you. And these choices will always be designed to get more work out of you. The arrival of a ping-pong table at your office doesn’t mean you can play ping-pong from noon to three then cut out at five — you’re expected to play some ping-pong at five then turn in an unpaid evening shift. The same goes for gourmet restaurants on-site. All of this bullshit comes from people who have completely subordinated their identity to the corporation and they expect the same from you.
But the worst trend of all, and one that reeks from a distance in Ms. Peluso’s case, is this: The Chicken Is Involved, The Pig Is Committed. You, the IBM employee, have ninety days to destroy your life and pull your kids out of school. It will take you years to absorb the financial damage and put your kids back on track in their new schools, their new sports teams, their new friends. You are committed to this new choice.
Ms. Peluso, on the other hand, is merely involved. She rarely spends more than a year or two in any given position. She’s worked at three different corporations since 2014. Each time she leaves, she gets a few million dollars’ worth of severance — but if you decide that you don’t want to leave Indianapolis so you can work in her San Francisco “collaborative office”, you’ll get one month’s benefit.
Hear me now and believe me later: Five years from now, Michele Peluso will be somewhere else, sitting on eight figures’ worth of net worth. But the people at IBM who gave up their lives to chase her dream will still be wedded to the consequences of her decision. Their children will still be dealing with the aftereffects. Their retirement accounts and net worth will still show the scars of what happened when they had to sell out of their slack real estate markets to move to a hot one. Ms. Peluso will be sitting on her nest egg, but her former employees will have had the bacon forcibly shaved off their backs.
There’s a larger consequence to all of this. Every time the American social contract is obscenely shattered like this at the whim of a one-percenter, it adds shock troops to the growing masses of people who feel betrayed and who no longer feel bound to that social contract. The consequences can range from anything from the election of a surprise candidate to the proverbial blood in the streets. Ms. Peluso should take note from the example of Marie-Antoinette, whose aristocratic indifference ended at the gallows. History shows us, given enough provocation, some percentage of the peasants out there will decide to eat your cake.