One chilly afternoon in a simpler time, way back in January 2019, I learned there’d been a codename for the layoff discussions taking place at my office. I saw the meetings, dubbed after a tropical storm, on a colleague’s work calendar, which they had set to Public. Out of morbid curiosity, I checked their calendar months backward into 2018, to find out when the talks began. Even after years in an office where Public was the preferred team calendar setting, I still marveled that I had access to this information from the sneaky comfort of my desk. I could also see how this person spent their weekend and when they’d gone to the gym the previous Tuesday. A few hours later, I left HR Breakout Room One without my job. On the walk home, I thought about whether they’d seen me as part of the group named after a cyclone and fated for mass termination.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, as desperate companies close entirely or lay off significant portions of their panicked workforce, there’s a case to be made that workplace transparency—especially for those whose workplace now involves housemates, pets, and children—is more essential than before. That Public calendar settings can combat inconsistency in online hours, aid in working around crying babies, spotty Wi-Fi, and restless animals, and help set up collaboration. I disagree. Boundaries in work life matter more, not less, now that we are at home without them. One simple way to meaningfully support this is to keep your calendar set to Private.
People are weird about their calendar settings. I first learned this years ago when a work friend mentioned her calendar was always open, and she required her direct reports to do the same. “Ew, why?” was my thoughtful response. It’s true that some people just love to flaunt what they’re doing at all times. “Check my cal, it’s up to date,” many smugly reply when asked to set up a meeting. Others (me) awkwardly meet the idea of fellow employees knowing what time they have a doctor’s appointment or a child’s swim class with a hyperbolic scowl. Rarely is there a middle ground.
“There’s this assumption that transparency creates more trust, particularly if applied in times of uncertainty,” says Rachel Botsman, the Trust Fellow at Oxford University and author of Who Can You Trust? Every argument I’ve heard in favor of open calendars relied on the transparency argument. If everyone can see what everyone is doing, there’s a degree of accountability. The problem is that this rationale relies on an employee having to prove what they’re working on instead of being inherently trusted to just work on what they were hired to work on.
An open calendar, Botsman adds, “is a really good example of how often people are talking about transparency, but what they’re looking for is some measure of control.”
My own experience with calendar openness made me realize it was possible to quickly schedule meetings with someone I worked with and to see how many weekday mornings they took classes at Shadowbox. I also learned who was undergoing fertility tests, having midday drinks with non-colleagues, and making travel plans for vacation time masquerading as working remotely. Having access to this information in the click of a tab created a voyeuristic intimacy with people I knew exclusively in the context of sharing a work table.
“Keeping an open calendar can be a form of status signaling, where people try to show off how busy or important they are,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of the TED podcast WorkLife. “At the organizational level, demanding open calendars is an easy way to make people feel monitored and micromanaged.”
Now that everyone is at home, cramming their laptops and sanity into any nook and cranny they can find for a moment of quiet to get some work done—if they’re privileged enough to even be able to work from home—doesn’t it seem more reasonable that if they’re meeting workplace expectations, there’s absolutely no need to track how they spend their time?
“When you can’t see what people are doing, the amount of trust and faith you have to have in their productivity, their boundaries, is completely heightened,” says Botsman. She’s right. The most harmonious working relationship I had with a boss happened to be one in which they simply trusted I was where I needed to be, when I needed to be there, doing what needed to get done. How I publicly recorded my time was irrelevant. Botsman describes trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”
The open-office physical environment has been temporarily suspended, but visibility and accessibility into our coworkers’ lives has not. Slack, Instagram #WFH stories (and selfies), Facebook, Zoom. The added component of being able to see a peer's packed 1:1 meeting schedule functions only to make me nervous about the uninterrupted blocks of time on my own. We don’t need that. Not now. Not ever.
“Shared calendars are probably the worst invention in modern software,” says Jason Fried, the founder and CEO of Basecamp. “They commoditize everybody’s time and make it available for everybody else to take.”
“We don’t have shared calendars at Basecamp,” Fried adds. “I don’t know what anyone else’s day looks like. Everyone here is in control of their own time, and if you want someone else’s time, you have to ask for it. You have to literally say, ‘Hey, do you have an hour to catch up about this? Or 20 minutes?’ It’s a negotiation. You can't just click a box and take something.”
If you need to go away for an hour, if you need to go stand in line at the grocery store, put your children to bed, argue with your partner, scream into the wilderness, you should be able to do so without having to publicly account for your off- or online time.
“As long as the work gets done,” says Fried, “You should be able to do what you need to do. It comes down to trust.” Consider that it takes longer to record the thing you’re going to do on your public calendar than it does to simply do the thing. “When the work gets done, and you’ve informed the people you’re working with about what’s going on, then everything is OK,” adds Fried. In other words, let your work speak for itself.
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