In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill expresses concern about employees not wanting to return to the office:
In several group calls with chief executives, I’ve found a great sense of pride in how well our teams have done during the past year. However, we all started at a place where we and our employees knew one another, which made remote work considerably easier and more productive. We also could rely on office cultures — established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person. Now, we face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build.
That’s a strange thing to say. I’ve been working from home full-time for more than a decade, and the places I’ve worked didn’t have these problems. The only reason Merrill would have to worry about “re-creating” the company culture is if management didn’t do the work to adapt their company culture to remote working in the first place.
As the economy rebounds, we need to hire and attract talent. To do so, we will need leaders on site. […]
[…] How will we persuade new employees to come aboard, and, more importantly, stay, if they don’t have leaders they can build solid in-person relationships with?
Having to ask that question is sign that Washington Media wasn’t prepared. Remote work is more than just Slack and Zoom. Remote work is about being able to do the company’s business with a workforce that doesn’t meet in person. The technology enables that, but it doesn’t do it for you. You still have to do all the work of hiring, training, and coaching employees, of monitoring performance, instilling values, and encouraging development. Remote work doesn’t prevent that, but you have to do it differently.
Furthermore, we need feedback — good and bad — to successfully manage employees, and they need it to succeed. A friend at a Fortune 500 company tells of a colleague who was hired just as the pandemic hit. He struggled. He wasn’t getting the job done. It was very hard for the leadership team to tell what the problem was. Was it because he was new? Was he not up to the work? What was the specific issue? Worse, no one wanted to give him feedback over Zoom when they hadn’t even met him.
What? No, seriously. What? They didn’t want to give him needed feedback because they hadn’t met him? Are you for real? This is yet another sign of an executive team not adapting to change.
People considering just dropping into their office should also think about FOMO, fear of missing out. Those who work from home probably won’t have FOMO, they will just have MO. The casual meetings that take place during the workday. The “Do you have three minutes to discuss X?” These encounters will happen. Information will be shared. Decisions will be made. Maybe if you are at home you’ll be Zoomed in, but probably not. As one CEO put it, “There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.”
Sure, because that’s what Slack is for. Just do it all in a few messages. And if you do find it needs more of a conversation than Slack allows, just “/zoom” in Slack to launch a Zoom conference for all participants in the conversation. I’ve had plenty of short meetings that way.
Being out of that informal loop is likely to make you a less valuable employee.
Sigh. Managing-by-running-into-people-in-the-hallway is probably not the winning strategy Merrill seems to think it is. Not only does it fail with remote workers, but it’s going to be a disaster for a company with multiple offices. Everybody who’s not at headquarters is going to feel neglected.
I wish I could offer Washingtonian some advice here, but I don’t know nearly enough about their business and, to be realistic, business consulting is outside my skillset. That said, one red flag is the use of the phrase “unspoken rules.” I don’t know how Washingtonian leadership was communicating unspoken rules in the past, but as I explained in an earlier post about remote work, remote work communications are usually abrupt, concise, and to-the-point, so you need to make an effort to add back the human relationship and communicate company culture. You have to speak the unspoken rules because that’s how people will find out about them.
Unfortunately, Merrill takes a different approach…
While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes —benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.
Aside from the questionable legality of threatening to turn employees into contractors, doing something like this is a pretty good way to make your employees find a better company to work for.
Amusingly, in the time since I started writing this, evidence has surfaced that Merrill’s choice to extravagantly threaten her employees in the Washington Post was perhaps not the great win for company culture she thought it was:
Kashino is a Senior Editor at the Washingtonian. Other employees have responded similarly. I don’t know if this is the best response to Merrill’s threat, and for all I know, Kashino is a huge pain in the ass who’s always complaining about something. But this kind of aggressive exchange makes me think Washingtonian company culture has bigger problems than people working from home.