BY THE WINDOW: Layoffs Are the Modern Beheadings in the King’s Court

Remote work has proven to bring a significant win for the white-collar workers since 2020. To many it brought a sense of work life balance they had since been pursuing but always proved elusive. Finally some reprieve to hampster wheel work life of long commutes and narrow time windows in which to spend time with loved ones.

However, in 2022, several articles began to pop up from the many business websites decrying the productivity of remote work. It was interesting because HR reviews proved otherwise but most leadership opinion spoke against it. Many workers quit jobs that required more in-office days than they wanted to offer. It reached a point where several job postings and even hiring companies offered full remote work and sign-on bonuses. This, for a lot of white-collar workers was a well-deserved win. Finally something to hold over the employers who needed the white collar skills to maintain their operations. Or was it?

December 2022 into January 2023 has seen a massive swing of layoffs. I would not be surprised if some of the people laid off were offered full remote and sign-on bonuses just a few months earlier. This brought to mind an element of the work place that the white-collar worker had perhaps taken for granted. Working in a office-based organisation is akin the environment of the medieval king’s court. Where everyone lived and died by the King’s favor. The most central aspect of the king’s court was visibility. If you wanted to survive, you needed to be seen in a favorable light in the king’s court so as not to be cast unfavorably and eventually be done away with by those who had the king’s ear.

The king’s court was accessible to a select class of people. Those who held political skill, social dexterity and total subservience (or ability to appear as such). The politically skilled were the military cohorts and advisers. Social dexterity was for people who understood human dynamics between people and could weave their way through people using their association with the politically skilled. This ranged from access to courtship, business welfare and even baser aspects such as sexual favors access to the kitchen in times for food shortage. The humble was the servile class. The people who attended to the powerful, they often required less skill than they other two but they often outlasted most as the powerful used the servile class to augment their sense of power. It was also key for the servile class to not compete for the positions of the other two unless in extraordinary circumstances when their talent was undeniable.

Among the political and social competence classes, there was room for mobility or attempts at it. Upward mobility in these areas often came at a cost because it meant usurping someone else who depended on their current position in the king’s court for their livelihood. Demotion in the king’s court brought so much embarrassment that for most it would be more honorable to either kill their rival or be killed in contention. This competition for the king presented an opportunity to maintain power over a highly talented group in his constituency who would with milder pressure easily do away with him. Thus, the king often played judge to these squabbles and usually the losing party was honored either in death or expulsion as their were often considered too talented to linger around.

Unfortunately for most us, the king’s court proved to not only be a universal component of medieval europe but also Ancient Sumer, Egypt, Babylon, China and what have you. Not only was it geographically universal it was also highly archetypal. Humans when placed in hierarchies in relation to their skill and access to centralized power, tend to act in certain ways. The greatest skill is to be displayed under the king’s nose. What is seen is less of a threat that what is unseen. It all has to play out in spaces he can decide upon. His primary area of jurisdiction was his court and his power was felt by unpredictable gestures of either kindness or ruthlessness. Seldom in between. Kindness built trust. Ruthlessness created fear. Each crucial to his tenure in the minds of his subjects.

Remote work for several business leaders probably felt like an interference not so much from a actual higher up but from a circumstance far outside their control that seemed to take over the proverbial court of the workplace. Too many skillful maneuvers were taking place outside of the leaders’ view. The leaders were made to succumb to a gesture that often times did not demonstrate their kindness or ruthlessness but rather their communal subjection to forces outside of the workplace. Workers would begin to see that work is not everything. Akin, to courtiers no longer wanting to seek favor in court and negotiating their to their total advantage outside the realm of the court. A medieval king would find this highly offensive. Many times such agreements outside of the king’s presiding were perceived as an attempt at reprisal for which both parties would be either banished or beheaded.

Long story, short, my contention is that the remote work that held several employers by the “balls” proved a provocation that led to them seeking to cast a wave fear in order to reclaim some autonomy over their respective realms. Layoffs seem to be a reversal on a concession employers had been eager to overturn. As the economic pressure increases in the coming months, how many of the recently laid off workers would stick their remote work requirement with items such as rent, car payments, family expenses. The lay offs were the equivalent of beheadings in the kings court that was meant to engender fear in the political and social classes in the kings court when the king was feeling a bit invalidated. It was a great way to reduce the aim of all negotiation in the court down to the desire to live another day as opposed to the aspiration of a better overall society; especially if the design of such society was not his idea.

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