The future of work is not threatening your employees

Nice career you got there...would be a shame if, you know, something happened to it

Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version

On Thursday night, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian Media, blundered into the post-Covid remote work discussion in the least productive way possible: via veiled threats to her employees in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.

Merrill’s op-ed is a greatest hits of straw man arguments about corporate culture and the importance of working from home. But what elevates her essay into the pantheon of Tone-deaf Executive Commentary is the decision to hint that employees who don’t come back full-time to the office will become contractors and lose their salaries, health care, and 401(k) benefits. Merrill describes this as “a tempting economic option the employees might not like.” The last line of her piece ominously suggests employees to, “remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.” The whole thing has some real ‘eyyy...nice career you got there...be a shame if, you know, somethin’ happened to it' energy.

The original headline of the piece was itself an unsubtle threat: “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office.” (Over email, Washington Post Opinion editor Fred Hiatt told me that Merrill did not write the headline. “I asked our team to change it early this morning to something I thought better captured the piece,” he said.)

Still, the op-ed blindsided Washingtonian employees. Two I spoke with saw the op-ed while casually checking Twitter and were shocked — and their surprise quickly turned to hurt and frustration.

“It felt super shitty,” one editorial staffer told me. “We’ve all been working incredibly hard for the last 14 months with reduced resources, which means lot of weekends and long hours and doing things that weren’t previous in our job descriptions to maintain our standards. I am not sure if I felt angry as much as unappreciated and that’s painful after working so hard for so long.”

Part of that hard work, employees told me, involved covering an unusual amount of unrest in the nation’s capitol where staffers were teargassed and frequently in harm’s way. “It has been a really difficult year for the city we cover, Andrew Beaujon, a senior editor at the magazine told me. “And we’re not complaining — we feel privileged to do this work but it’s it’s not an easy job. And that’s made this op-ed all the more shocking.”

“I went through the full range of emotions when I read the op-ed,” another editorial employee said. “I was angry, humiliated, frustrated, dismayed, shocked — everything. I was really hurt that she would take this tone and that she’d use a platform like the Post to take that tone instead of having a dialogue with her employees.”

Around 7:30 PM, an employee posted the link in the company’s Slack without comment. Moments later, staffers gathered over backchannel texts and emails to vent and strategize. By early Friday morning, Merrill’s editorial staff responded to the op-ed with some direct action:

The staff’s reaction is part of a broader trend of employees who are demanding a say in constructing their companies’ strategy for flexible work once the pandemic subsides. More than a year of laboring (often quite successfully) in captivity has rendered long-held arguments by executives — that remote work is less productive and unsustainable — obsolete. Across industries, employees are increasingly unwilling to stand back and watch entrenched executives who refuse to see the opportunities of a flexible work future. When clueless executives show their ass, some employees are less afraid to issue a vote of no confidence — sometimes in the form of a resignation letter.

What employees want, of course, is some basic flexibility. They want less performative work and more freedom to determine where and that work gets done. Merrill’s steadfast refusal to find new ways to work and her staff’s protest should be a warning to executives everywhere: Workers are desperate for more autonomy over their lives. They crave more balance and less precarity. They also, crucially, want to work. But they want to work for places that treat them as human beings — and that invest in them and their futures. Companies that fail to provide that respect and trust will, eventually, find a way to leave.

“The whole ‘you must be in the office’ posture is infantilizing,” one employee told me. “It suggests that we can’t manage our own workloads and days and be successful if management isn’t keeping an eye on us. It’s degrading and embarrassing.”

In her op-ed, Merrill argues that, “a good culture of trust will be harder to build” with a full or partially remote workforce. What she’s really saying is that it will be harder for her and other executives to trust employees when they’re not in immediate proximity. She laments that her employees, removed from the office, are unable to perform the functions of their job that fall “outside one’s core responsibilities.” Such responsibilities, she writes, involve “helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture.” This point, Washingtonian staffers told me, is a sign that Merrill is out of touch with the way her employees have been operating over the last 14 months.

“We’ve grown closer during all this,” one staffer told me. “We do virtual happy hours and we chat about shows we’re watching on Slack all the time. We haven’t lost that ‘water cooler talk’ because we’re at home.”

“I think the fact we were able to organize [the work stoppage] so quickly this morning shows that our culture is pretty strong,” Beaujon said. But it’s not just culture: staffers say that traffic is steady on the site, and operations are moving along smoothly as employees continue to find ways to adapt to remote work.

“One thing she did not say in the op-ed — and cannot say — is that our work has suffered as a result of working remote,” another editorial staffer said. “If what she was saying was that our work has fallen off, and that we need to get back together to make what we do as good as it used to be, that’s one argument. But it’s not the one she made — and that’s because there’s no evidence for it.”

This isn’t to say that the process of working during a pandemic has been easy. The employees I spoke to are tired and stressed, just like legions of workers who’ve had to work from home while simultaneously hiding from a deadly virus and homeschooling their children. For that reason, many Washingtonian staffers told me they are actually excited about the prospect for returning to the office in some capacity — they’d just like to have a say in what that return looks like.

With this in mind, Merrill’s op-ed is a massive unforced error. Employees told me that Merrill and the Washingtonian executives hadn’t even put forward a definitive plan for returning to the office. There’d been no real guidance from executives — and certainly no pushback or contentious conversation between employees and management. Which is why employees were so taken aback by the Washington Post piece: instead of having a discussion with employees, Merrill’s opening salvo to staff in her ‘return to work’ plan was to threaten a workforce that was already enthusiastic about coming back to the office a few days a week.

Merrill’s op-ed is infuriating and a potential labor law violation — but it’s also a valuable document. Merrill is not alone — plenty of executives are reticent to change their ways, no matter how much evidence is presented to the benefits of abandoning them. Just this week, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said that come October, his office will be back to normal. “You know people don’t like commuting, but so what,” he said. “I’m about to cancel all my Zoom meetings… I’m done with it.” The head of Goldman Sachs called remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

This posture is understandable, but it’s also a mistake — one that will make formerly vaunted executives flatfooted in the economy to come. As economic historian Dror Poleg put it, “forcing everyone to work in a certain way seems dated in a world where talented employees have more choice than ever.” In competitive industries like finance, ignoring the changing demands of workers with increasing labor power is a dangerously short-sighted decision. “Who cares what the CEO of JPMorgan Chase thinks about the future of office?” he writes. “Over the next decade, most of the change in the way offices (and cities) are used will not come from giant companies willfully changing how they work. It will come from the emergence of new giants that work entirely differently.”

The true issue at hand is not, ultimately, where we will work, but how we will work. Remote work forces you to change the how. It is not a cure for shitty management or a bad business model or a bad product. It is merely an organizing principle — it forces you to the hard work of listening to and trusting employees. It pushes executives to build a culture with intention and long-term vision.

For executives like Merrill, whose management work is sometimes hard to quantify, a return to the office feels safe. But that sort of comfort will prove fleeting. If history is any guide, the business case for remote work will be made — by the same high paid consultants and pundits who sneered at it — as soon as the societal pressure for flexible work reaches a tipping point. And that tipping point will come from employees who’ve proven they can work outside the office demanding more autonomy. More autonomy means happier workers. And unhappy workers are frequently more expensive workers.

This is another way to say that there is so much overlap between what workers want and what is actually best for a company in the long run. You could call this synergy, or you could call it what it really is: common sense. But if we are actually going to have any chance at re-imagining the way we do knowledge work, executives need to be on board. That work will be hard, and will require re-thinking first principles and modeling vulnerability. But the first step is actually pretty easy — it involves the absolute bare minimum of actually listening to your employees.

And employees are eager to talk. “We are right here. You can ask us. You can listen to us,” Beaujon said. “We want to have a conversation that’s not in the Washington Post. We want to talk to our boss and have her hear us.”

“We deserve a say in what our daily lives look like,” a separate staffer told me when I asked what they hoped would come out of this op-ed mess. “We spend a lot of our weekly hours working for this place. We give so much of ourselves to this company, shouldn’t we have a say in what our working lives look like?”

Had Merrill listened before trying to become a Future of Work thinkfluencer, she might have noticed that her employees are proud of their work and their company. She might have learned that, while they’d like some flexibility going forward, they do want to come back to the office in some form. It’s possible she might have learned that the company has been incredibly productive during the pandemic — save the last 24 hours, as work has ground to a halt as they’ve dealt with a public relations shitstorm of her own creation. She might have also learned that the company culture, at the employee level, is tight-knit. The culture is positive enough that, in all my conversations, staffers refused to disparage Merrill or focus on her management style beyond the op-ed. That’s because they want their hard-earned trust and morale among staffers to remain high.

I found that heartening and also quite telling. From my vantage, the only trust deficit seems to be coming from the corner office.

Ok! That’s it for today. If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version, and come hang out with us on Sidechannel. If you liked what you read on the work-related stuff, check out mine and Anne Helen Petersen’s upcoming book on the future of remote work (shameless pre-order link goes here). 

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at charliewarzel@gmail.com.