More than a year into America’s great work-from-home experiment, many companies have hailed it largely as a success. So why do some bosses think remote workers aren’t as committed as office dwellers?
Recent remarks of numerous chief executives suggest the culture of workplace face time remains alive and well. At The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit this month, JP Morgan Chase & Co.’s
said remote work doesn’t work well “for those who want to hustle.” Goldman Sachs CEO
has called it “an aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible.”
—whose business relies on office space—sparked an uproar on social media and beyond after he said employees who are “uber-ly engaged” with their companies would want to go to the office at least two-thirds of the time. So did the CEO of Washingtonian Media, which publishes Washingtonian magazine, when she wrote in an opinion piece that business leaders had a strong incentive to change the status of staffers who are rarely in the office from full-time to contractor.
Both later apologized for the way their comments came across and said their intent wasn’t to devalue any worker. Yet those public comments reflect some managers’ private feelings and raise the question of whether those who choose to work from home as colleagues head back to the office will have to fight long-held stigmas associated with remote work.
Many more employees will work remotely, at least part-time, than did before Covid-19, providing a nationwide test of how remote workers perform, and are perceived, when a public-health crisis isn’t keeping them at home.
Companies are trying out hybrid models, in which people divide their week between the office and home. Some are giving workers the option to work remotely full-time, as with
Yet plenty of bosses view five days in the office as proof that employees are ambitious and productive, suggesting that, in some workplaces, two classes of workers could emerge.
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As homebound employees juggled caregiving, online schooling and other issues alongside their regular workloads in the past year, many companies reported that their workforces were productive and engaged. Using an array of metrics for 7,000 workers, such as use of email and other cloud-based tools, productivity software company Prodoscore Inc., for instance, found employees were overall more productive and worked longer hours in 2020 than in 2019.
Many employees agree, with caveats. In a
study this year of more than 3,000 professionals, 75% of fully remote workers and 70% in a hybrid setting said they and their teams were able to adjust to shifting priorities, compared with 64% of fully on-site workers. Remote and hybrid workers also reported in larger numbers feeling comfortable taking risks and testing ideas. Junior employees and self-described extroverts, however, were more likely than others to say a physical office space was important for learning and brainstorming.
“The idea that you’re sacrificing your career mobility for remote work—it’s a false trade-off,” said
who works from her Austin, Texas, home as a senior enterprise transformation manager at Mural, a visual-collaboration platform with staff around the world. Her setup at the San Francisco-based company lets her run calls with international clients, be in instant touch with colleagues, and—as with her last remote job, where she was promoted—she said she is focused on advancement.
But companies with largely remote workforces aren’t the norm. Research suggests remote workers lag behind office-dwellers in some kinds of career advancement. A February 2020 study of more than 400 tech workers by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Northeastern University found that while remote and nonremote workers won roughly the same number of promotions, the salaries of remote workers grew more slowly. At companies where remote work was less common, telecommuters won fewer promotions.
Many bosses said they want people in the office—and thus prize workers who feel the same—because they worry about losing the creativity and spontaneous collaboration that comes with physical proximity. Some also fear a too-remote workforce won’t be able to put in the face time with clients to win business and be competitive. Washingtonian CEO
noted in her Washington Post op-ed that a fair part of what office-based workers do is help newer and more junior employees develop and assimilate to the company culture, something bosses fear gets lost when people aren’t in the same workspace.
Another reason some bosses have doubts about remote workers’ dedication lies with just how difficult managing far-flung teams can be, research suggests. In survey findings published last summer in the Harvard Business Review, 40% of 215 managers from around the world said they struggled to lead remote teams in the pandemic. In turn, roughly as many said they believed remote workers usually perform worse than those in offices and doubted remote workers could stay motivated long term.
Likewise, in a KRC Research and BCG survey of 9,000 managers and workers—conducted last fall on behalf of
—more than one-third of bosses said it was hard to keep teams engaged under remote-work conditions. Some homebound workers have struggled, too. On Ask a Manager, an online discussion board for workers hosted by
a thread about missing the office garnered hundreds of posts, many lamenting the loneliness of at-home life, along with the lack of energy and tech support.
Out of the Office
In a recent survey, more workers in remote and hybrid settings reported feeling agile and comfortable with risk-taking than office-based employees did.
Here’s how each group responded to the following:
in my role
I can make
My team has
Still, returning to the office as it was circa 2019, and acting as if 2020 didn’t happen, might be a missed opportunity. People may feel something has been lost if things just revert to the way they were, many executives said.
After moving several years ago from Seattle to Denver, where her husband has his law practice,
Cecilia Retelle Zywicki
went remote as a senior executive at the company that acquired her software startup. She then was recruited as a remote chief operating officer at another. Now she is vying for a new leadership role that she anticipates also will be remote.
Of bosses who think it takes office face time to be a go-getter, she said: “They have only known one way, and it is just an old-school way of managing.” Such managers, she said, often believe they need eyes on workers to trust they are working. “Remote managing is more a finesse game.”
Leaders who look askance at remote work may be setting themselves up for some turnover. In an Ernst & Young survey of more than 16,000 employees this month, 90% said they wanted flexibility in when and where they work post-pandemic. More than half said they would consider quitting their jobs if they didn’t have that flexibility. Many have already made choices that would entail at least some remote work: A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 1,505 workers this spring found nearly one-quarter were considering or planning to move more than 50 miles from their office base—on top of 12% who had already done so.
Soon after Ms. Merrill’s op-ed was published, the Washington Media CEO sent her magazine staff a memo assuring them their employee status and benefits were safe and that her intent had been only to write about concerns that she and other CEOs have about preserving company culture. Washingtonian staffers staged a one-day strike in protest.
Mary Green, who works from her home in Oneida, N.Y., and helps build online communities around business products, services and events, is currently interviewing with several companies for a new job. As a mother of four, working from home is important, and the demand for her skills and experience is so high, she said, “I’m only talking to companies open to remote work.”
She’s confident she’ll land a role. “The results I’m showing every day give them confidence I’m very capable at what I’m doing,” Ms. Green said.
—Chip Cutter contributed to this article.
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