Why Managers Fear a Remote-Work Future

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COMMENTARY | Like it or not, the way we work has already evolved.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletters.

In 2019, steven spielberg called for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming filmsclaiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. Spielberg’s fury was about not only the threat that streaming posed to the in-person viewing experience but the ways in which the streaming giant Netflix reported theatrical grosses and budgets, despite these not being the ways in which one evaluates whether a movie is good or not. Netflix held firm, saying that it stood for “everyone, everywhere [enjoying] releases at the same time,” and for “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix, likely because he now sees the writing on the wall: Modern audiences enjoy watching movies at home.

In key ways, this fight resembles the current remote-work debate in industries such as technology and finance. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, this has often been cast as a battle between the old guard and its assumed necessities and a new guard that has found a better way to get things done. But the narrative is not that tidy. Netflix’s co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, one of the great “disruptors” of our age, deemed remote work “a pure negative” last fall. The 60-year-old Hastings is at the forefront of an existential crisis in the world of work, demanding that people return to the office despite not having an office himself. His criticism of remote work is that “not being able to get together in person” is bad.

Every business leader should ask themselves a few questions before demanding that their employees return to the office:

  1. Prior to March 2020, how many days a week were you personally in the office?
  2. How many teams did you directly interface with? What teams did you spend the most time with?
  3. Do you have an office? If you don’t, why not?
  4. What is office culture?
    1. What is your specific office’s culture?
  5. Has your business actually suffered because of remote work?
    1. If so, how? Be specific.

Some of the people loudly calling for a return to the office are not the same people who will actually be returning to the office regularly. The old guard’s members feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired. Earlier this year, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, rolled out an uneven return-to-office plan for its more than 130,000 employees—the majority of workers must soon come back to the office three days a week, while others are permitted to keep working exclusively from home. One senior executive at the company has even been allowed to work remotely from New Zealand.

[Derek Thompson: Winners and losers of the work-from-home revolution]

Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.

I have run my own remote company that operates at the intersection of technology, media, and public relations since 2013. I retained an office for a year or so that I got rid of because it was really just a place to meet before going off to have drinks. For seven years before the pandemic, some of my peers showed concern that my business “wouldn’t succeed without an in-person team.”

Some people really do need to show up in person. I live in Las Vegas, a city of more than 600,000 people with more than 200,000 hospitality workers, and thus I’m keenly aware of which tasks require someone to physically be there to complete them. You can’t wash dishes over Zoom. You can’t change bed sheets over Slack. Blue-collar workers are the backbone of the city, as well as the Consumer Electronics Show that the tech elite uses to champion code-based products. Local hospitality workers suffered painfully during the pandemic as tourism in the city dried up, because their jobs depend on thriving physical spaces.

But for the tens of millions of us who spend most of our days sitting at a computer, the pandemic proved that remote work is just work. Every company that didn’t require someone to physically do something in a specific place was forced to become more efficient on cloud-based production tools, and the office started to feel like just another room with internet access. While many executives and managers spent the early months of the pandemic telling their employees that “remote work wouldn’t work for us in the long term,” they are now forced to argue with the tangible proof of their still-standing business, making spurious statements like “We’ll miss the office culture and collaboration.”

[Read: There’s a perfect number of days to work from home, and it’s 2]

Now, with the coronavirus’s Delta variant threatening to delay many companies’ return-to-office plans, the value of in-person work faces an even greater test. If you have unvaccinated kids or live with an immunocompromised person, is risking your family’s safety worth experiencing “serendipitous conversation” with your colleagues?

Should you ever go back to the office?

Last fall, 94 percent of employees surveyed in a Mercer study reported that remote work was either business as usual or better than working in the office, likely because it lacks the distractions, annoyances, and soft abuses that come with co-workers and middle managers. Workers are happier because they don’t have to commute and can be evaluated mostly on their actual work rather than on the optics-driven albatross of “office culture,” which is largely based on either the HR handbook or the pieces of the HR handbook your boss chooses to ignore.

The reason working from home is so nightmarish for many managers and executives is that a great deal of modern business has been built on the substrate of in-person work. As a society, we tend to consider management a title rather than a skill, something to promote people to, as well as a way in which you can abstract yourself from the work product. When you remove the physical office space—the place where people are yelled at in private offices or singled out in meetings—it becomes a lot harder to spook people as a type of management. In fact, your position at a company becomes more difficult to justify if all you do is delegate and nag people.

When we are all in the same physical space, we are oftentimes evaluated not on our execution of our role but on our diplomacy—by which I mean our ability to kiss up to the right people rather than actually being a decent person. I have known so many people within my industry (and in others) who have built careers on “playing nice” rather than on producing something. I have seen examples within companies I’ve worked with of people who have clearly stuck around because they’re well liked versus productive, and many, many people have responded to my newsletters on the topic of remote work with similar stories. I've also known truly terrible managers who have built empires, gaining VP and C-level positions, by stealing other people’s work and presenting it as their own, something that, according to research, is the number-one way to destroy employee trust.

[Arthur C. Brooks: The hidden toll of remote work]

These petty fiefdoms are far harder to maintain when everyone is remote. Although you may be able to get away with multiple passive-aggressive comments to colleagues in private meetings or calls, it’s much harder to be a jerk over Slack, email, and text when someone can screenshot it and send it to HR (or to a journalist). Similarly, if your entire work product is boxing up other people’s production and sending it to the CEO, that becomes significantly harder to prove as your own in a fully digital environment—the producer in question can simply send it along themselves. Remote work makes who does and doesn’t actually do work way more obvious.

Even if we’re discussing some sort of theoretical, utopian office in which everybody is contributing and everyone gets along, each day during which a business doesn’t fail because of going remote proves that the return-to-office movement is unnecessary. Those in power who claim that remote work is unworkable are delaying an inevitable remote future by using logic that mostly comes down to “I like seeing the people I pay for in one place.” I have yet to read one compelling argument for a company that has gone remote to fully return to the office, mostly because the reasoning is rooted in control and ego.

We have lionized the founders, CEOs, and disruptors who nevertheless have intra-office reputations as abrasive geniuses who treat their workers as eminently replaceable. Because most private companies don’t share revenue, we frequently tie headcount and real estate to success. Removing the physical office forces modern businesses to start justifying themselves through annoying things such as “profit and loss” and “paying customers.”

When you hire someone, you’re (supposedly) hiring them to do a job in exchange for money. But the anti-remote crowd seems to believe that the responsibility of a 9-to-5 employee isn’t simply the work but the appearance, optics, and ceremony of the work. Abusive work cultures grow from this process too. Making people work late is much harder when you can’t trap them in one place with free food, a Ping-Pong table, a kegerator, or laundry services—benefits that you champion instead of monetary compensation. When you are a full-time employee, you might believe that you are owned by a company and should be grateful to its leaders for generously making you show up in their office every day.

[Read: Work from home is here to stay]

Which brings us back to Hollywood.

Forty-six summers ago, it wasn’t enough to see Spielberg’s first masterpiece, Jaws, and be scared; the whole point was to experience it with a bunch of other people in a shared space and feel something intangible. But our world has changed. Two years after trying to keep streaming movies out of the Oscars, Spielberg’s company, Amblin Partners—the studio behind such made-for-the-big-screen blockbusters as Saving Private RyanJurassic Park, and Back to the Futuresigned a deal with Netflix that, if nothing else, will mean more people will soon watch more movies at home.

Across multiple genres and decades, Spielberg has known his audience. The 74-year-old cinematic guru had to understand that whatever reservations he’d had about how and where people watched movies didn’t matter as much as making movies that people would see. Perhaps he realized that the world was evolving faster than he was, or that his judgments of streaming were antiquated and, on some level, anti-creative.

And perhaps we’ll see the business world follow suit.

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