A Remote Possibility Of Failure

Ed Zitron 11 min read

I have intentionally been retracting from covering remote because, I’d argue, most of what I need to say has been said (and I’d argue this is the case in general), and thus I’ve ignored several middle-of-the-road anti-remote pieces knowing that they are simply just the whining of bosses that are terrified of not owning people.

However, it has been quite some time since I read something that boiled my blood quite as much as the seemingly innocuous Atlantic piece “The Biggest Problem With Remote Work.” Thompson, who previously whiffed on his coverage of Microsoft’s badly-researched remote work study, appears to have taken over much of the remote work beat at The Atlantic, something I will recuse myself from discussing further, and has, in this piece, dropped what I’d argue is one of the biggest turds in this subject’s toilet.

Let’s take a look at this first paragraph:

First, remote work is worse for new workers. Many inexperienced employees joining a virtual company realize that they haven’t joined much of a company at all. They’ve logged into a virtual room that calls itself a company but is basically a group chat. It’s hard to promote a wholesome company culture in normal times, and harder still to do so one misunderstood group Slack message and problematic fire emoji at a time. “Small talk, passing conversations, even just observing your manager’s pathways through the office may seem trivial, but in the aggregate they’re far more valuable than any form of company handbook,” write Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, the authors of the book Out of Office. Many of the perks of flexible work—like owning your own schedule and getting away from office gossip—can “work against younger employees” in companies that don't have intentional structured mentorship programs, they argued.

Now, I’ve written about why I find Warzel particularly grating and disingenuous before, but this paragraph is so many classic anti-remote sins put into one block text that I want to scratch out my damn eyes.

First and foremost, it makes the stupid assumption that company culture, a pro-hegemony and anti-worker concept, is something we should protect or indeed that it actually exists in the first place. Derek Thompson takes great pains to write extremely large amounts of prose, but for some reason cannot seem to break down the numerous sentences in this first paragraph that require a citation or any kind of fundamental backing to establish them. There are firm, barely-interrogated beliefs here - that company culture is good, and that it is found in the office, and also that Slack and video chat are insufficient for communication, and so on. Worse-still, Thompson, who loves to cite big studies, simply accepts a single sentence from Charlie Warzel and Ann Helen Petersen to describe something extremely presumptuous - the magical idea that the office makes you powerful through “small talk, passing conversations and observing your manager,” as if that means anything or is founded in anything.

I also want to be clear that the office is often really bad for new workers, and I’ve heard many stories of people just getting to their desk and maybe hearing from teammates one or two times in their first day, max. Without a concerted effort to onboard someone, anywhere can suck. Derek, did you possibly consider that these problems would happen in person too? No? Derek?

What’s very frustrating is that this is a decorated writer in a major publication trying to attack remote work based on the fact that…well, he likes the office. Emphasis mine:

Second, remote is worse at building new teams to take on new tasks. In 2020, Microsoft tapped researchers from UC Berkeley to study how the pandemic changed its work culture. Researchers combed through 60,000 employees’ anonymized messages and chats. They found that the number of messages sent within teams grew significantly, as workers tried to keep up with their colleagues. But information sharing between groups plummeted. Remote work made people more likely to hunker down with their preexisting teams and less likely to have serendipitous conversations that could lead to knowledge sharing. Though employees could accomplish the “hard work” of emailing and making PowerPoints from anywhere, the Microsoft-Berkeley study suggested that the most important job of the office is “soft work”—the sort of banter that allows for long-term trust and innovation.

So, as I’ve been through before, Microsoft did a remarkably shitty job of explaining what exactly it was that they collected, and Thompson - again - has left out the valuable information that this study was from December 2019 to June 2020, meaning that it includes at least three non-pandemic months, and the rest are the most raw and chaotic snapshot you could possibly choose. As I said:

Everything about this study feels manufactured to produce a result that suggests that remote work is insufficient, by using a non-specific evaluation of vaguely-described data, cut from a date range in which, to quote my friend Kasey, “no one could find their ass with a flashlight.” Microsoft has 182,000 employees worldwide, and it’s clear based on their interviews about going remote that they had to basically work out how to take the company remote as they went along. Every company - even those who were totally remote - basically spent March through June freaking out, and to use that data and that data alone to evaluate remote work’s efficacy (even in the mealy-mouthed non-specific way this study does) is corrupt at its core.

Note: this study will continue to be used by Derek Thompson and his ilk to make extremely vague points about remote work being bad, despite how rotten it is to its very core. But don’t worry, he’s got even more great research to share!

Other major studies have come to similar conclusions. In 2022, researchers from MIT and UCLA published a map of face-to-face interactions in the Bay Area made using smartphone geolocation data and matched it to patent citations by individual firms. They were looking for empirical evidence to support the old Jane Jacobs theory that cities promote innovation as people from disparate walks of life bump into each other and cross-pollinate ideas. They concluded that the Jacobs theory was right. The groups and firms with the most face-to-face interactions also had the most unique patent citations.

Excuse me, what? What does this prove about remote work exactly? Because the idea of remote work is not that you never meet another human being in the flesh ever, and it has never been that way. It’s also worth adding that more patent citations does not necessarily mean more innovation and indeed might be severely weighted towards larger companies or academics. This entire study is weird in that it doesn’t seem to prove anything, but that’s kind of Derek Thompson’s entire bit - writing somehow declaratively and vaguely.

Now, let’s check out Problem The Third:

Third, and relatedly, remote work is worse at generating disruptive new ideas. A paper published in Nature by Melanie Brucks, at Columbia Business School, and Jonathan Levav, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, analyzed whether virtual teams could brainstorm as creatively as in-person teams. In one study, they recruited about 1,500 engineers to work in pairs and randomly assigned them to brainstorm either face-to-face or over videoconference. After the pairs generated product ideas for an hour, they selected and submitted one to a panel of judges. Engineers who worked virtually generated fewer total ideas and external raters graded their ideas significantly less creative than those of the in-person teams.

Okay, so because I’m me, I went and looked at the paper itself, and I think it’s important to add that this was a laboratory experiment by two marketing professors. This is not an analysis of actual work, or offices, or anything to do with remote work itself, it was entirely simulated. Other than this obvious and rather fatal flaw - if your argument is that virtually simulating a work environment versus having a real one is bad, then you probably shouldn’t simulate one yourself - it’s also very strange that they didn’t also have the pairs meet in person to see if they actually collaborated better in person too. It’s also completely dismissive of how quite often poor brainstorming comes from poor organization and poor chemistry!

Alright, let’s continue.

“Whenever we read a sentence on Gchat or Slack that seems ambiguous or sarcastic to us, we default to thinking, You fucker!” Bill Duane, a remote-work consultant and former Google engineer, told me. “But if someone had said the same thing to your face, you might be laughing with them.” In many contexts, remote work without physical-world reunions can flatten colleagues into simplistic caricatures and abstractions. It sounds hokey but it’s true: To see our colleagues as whole people, we have to literally see them as whole people—not just two-dimensional avatars.

Ah, piss off.

I’m sorry, I’ve worked plenty of places and with plenty of people in person and I think we all know this is complete bullshit. I’ve had clients I’ve never met, and several of them I’d see the face of only a few times in the course of a year’s work. Why? Because voice and text can actually be quite illuminating, and if you are not 540 million years old, you can get used to understanding the nuance of communicating in the written word. Think that someone is being sarcastic? It’s super easy to say “hey, sorry about this, but I wasn’t sure about your tone there and as we’re all in text, I just wanted to make sure,” perhaps with that little sweat-on-forehead emoji. This is called “communicating.”

I am also furious at this because there are plenty of in-person situations where a person comes off as sarcastic, or rude, or standoffish. There are actually a million ways in which that can happen without even opening your mouth. There are also many, many ways in which people are judged based on their physical appearance in the office, including but not limited to racial and gender-based bias. The office is a hub of inequality, and so much of that inequality stems from the “little serendipitous moments” where someone decides to make a comment, or a sigh, or a tut, or interject physically and verbally over someone. Why are these points never brought up in these articles? Why are they so stubbornly affixed to the idea that remote work is a poor replacement for the office, all while failing to explain why the office is good?

And, as usual, the assumption here is that remote work means never meeting physically. Yes, there will be people who don’t, and it’s so easy to find ways to include them. Sometimes it’ll mean meeting at a place and flying everyone there. Sometimes it’ll mean really, really making an effort to intentionally include someone.

And sometimes it just means “learning to use the computer as it has existed for the last ten years.” We have societally been pressured into “making ourselves fit the office” - where we live, how we act, how we dress, what we do with our lives so we can be there, and so on - and yet it seems that there is never that kind of pressure to adapt to a new technological age. If I walked into an office in boardshorts and a pair of giant comedy clown shoes, I would be in trouble - even if it was because I had misinterpreted “office” to mean “the place where clown goes.” This would not be tolerated. Similarly, if I opened my mouth and out came Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea rather than the report I had meant to tell everybody, I too would be in trouble.

Similarly, if someone is godawful at digital communication, why is the solution to reduce it? Why is the reaction to the world-changing to defend the world as it was? Is it because The Atlantic needs Webinar participants?

Thompson closes his piece with the single dumbest point I think he could have - that the solution here is more managers:

In the 1800s, new technology allowed U.S. companies to extend their distribution and production tentacles across the continent, necessitating a new class of worker. Today’s hybrid companies, similarly extended across the country and even around the world, need to invent a new role to remain competitive and sane. This role would determine what work was “hard work” that could be done asynchronously and from anywhere, and what necessary “soft work” would require people to be in an office at the same time. Based on a comprehensive understanding of total workflow and team dynamics, this person would develop and constantly update a plan of who needs to be in the office, and on what days, and where they sit, and why they are there in the first place.

Operations teams at many companies are already doing some of this work. Often these teams are spread across multiple challenges that preexisted the pandemic—like recruiting, IT, office maintenance, and normal pre-pandemic communications. For these stressed and overstretched workers, coordinating the perfect hybrid cadence is the third priority for five different people. But managing a remote or hybrid workflow is too important to sprinkle onto old positions. It’s a discrete task, with discrete challenges, which deserves a discrete job.

If I were not already The Joker, I would be becoming him at this time.

These are all descriptions of either what a manager or a CEO should already be doing. The fact that they have to be arbitrarily turned into other roles suggests not that there is a problem with remote work, but that there is a fundamental problem with company structure, because all of these things would have been particularly useful in an office too if you thought about it for two god damn seconds. I am so furious at this because, after going cold turkey on remote work articles for months, I am being subjected to a newer, stupider form of garbage - an endless drumbeat of muttering “remote work is bad because of the stuff that already happened in the office, but being in the office is good because you just sort of were around people and that makes you smarter.”

Why are we trying to create more jobs that do nothing? We already have middle managers - and to suggest we need a “new class” of managers suggests our current managers are doing something else. Clearly Derek is going for the middle manager audience here, and I respect the hustle, but I can tell you from personal experience writing for The Atlantic that people really do not like managers, Derek, and there is a lot of research to suggest that managers already aren’t doing anything. Just look it up.

Every single god damn thing that Derek Thompson and his ilk are spewing about this subject is the same rotation of the same lie - that the office was good, and we miss it, and here’s why we miss it so much. Every one of them treats remote work as something that must be interrogated, never once spending a moment to think about previous systems and for whom they were built and maintained. Thompson, someone I largely respect the writing of outside of this subject, is either an unconscious corporate stooge or so stubbornly adhered to this idea that he’s incapable of looking at the office through anything other than rose-colored glasses.

And, I’m sure, Thompson’s responses will be “I am not anti-remote work,” because he and others fail to actually realize what that means in any way. Being anti-remote work does not mean you’re suggesting that it’s entirely bad - it just means that you are part of a concerted effort to defend office culture, a thing built entirely to trap and control people.

Nowhere in the mountains of research - from the 1800s to 2022 - does Thompson seek anything out about whether offices are actually productive or good, because he’s part of the Warzel-Petersen triangle of “remote expertise” that never quite seems to do anything other than confirm biases.

By the way, these aren’t “the three biggest problems” with remote work. Those are could be, say, collaboration - a thing that is different outside of the office and must be solved intentionally and continually maintained - class (you quite literally work faster if you’re richer with a better laptop or internet connection, you can have a bigger place with a dedicated room for work if you’re richer, and so on) and ongoing learning (mentorship, training, and so on - problems that have carried on from the office!). There is no attempt to define what ‘good’ collaboration is, or what a ‘good’ business is, just another three-point plan for pro-office goons to share with each other and say “look, it was in The Atlantic.”

What really needs to happen with remote work is that, for the first time, because they didn’t do it already, companies actually have to think about how they work versus just assuming putting people in a room will do it for them. That is the problem. So many companies - big and small - operate in this ramshackle way in person because they assume managers will manage through osmosis. Suddenly managers are being asked to do stuff, and people like Derek are going to help them find even more nebulous titles to get paid for. We don’t need a Chief of Vibes. That’s a crypto thing.

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