Executives Are Terrified of A Young Remote Workforce

Ed Zitron 12 min read

As if to terrorize me as I have my morning coffee, CNBC put out a piece about how “young employees are losing out ‘on a lot’ by not going to the office.” It is almost as if they read my work and thought, “how many of the tropes Ed is discussing can we cram into an article?”

Let’s count!

Old Guys That Do No Real Work Say Collaboration Is Important:

In a recent interview with The Information, former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong argued that workers under 30 could be missing out on “the largest career-learning cycle” of their lives and building their network by not going into the office.

“If I had one piece of advice for younger people in their 30s: Go back to work,” he said. “Even if your company doesn’t let you come back, create your own working environment and invite some people over.”

Similarly, during the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in May, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said that working remotely “does not work” for young people or “those who want to hustle.”

A Professor Who Has Been A Professor And Only A Professor Since The 80s Says “Zoom Fatigue.”

Young employees can use a few strategies to maximize the networking and learning opportunities in a remote environment.

Cappelli recommends finding time outside of work to connect with colleagues — a virtual book club, a socially distanced gathering near the office — instead of adding another video call to people’s calendars. “We all have Zoom fatigue after the past year,” he says.

A Deliberately-Worded And Extremely Specific Read Of A Study Is Used To Prove Remote Work Is Bad, Somehow

Working from home could also be damaging young employees’ productivity, according to recent research. At the start of 2021, PwC surveyed 1,200 U.S. workers and found that 34% of respondents with less than five years of work experience were “more likely to feel less productive while working remotely” compared to 23% of all survey respondents.

A Business Expert Is Quoted From One Of The Most Evil Companies In The World

It’s difficult to master communication skills and build the relationships with co-workers that help you feel connected to your organization and better understand your job in a remote environment, Bryan Hancock, the global head of talent work at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., tells CNBC Make It.

As with almost all of these pieces, this article fails what I am now calling The Zitron Test: how many people that are the subject of discussion in your article do you actually quote? In this case, the answer is “zero.” Despite this being about young people and what they are losing, it fails to actually…speak to the young people and ask if they feel like they’re losing something.

Anyway, the rest of the piece is so peculiar, because it almost feels like a reprint - this article has been written before in varying ways, by the Times, also the Times, Forbes,:, the BBC, TIME, Business Insider, and, of course, CNBC. It’s also strangely timed - COVID cases are rising, and we’ve had a little bit of a lull in boss-authored op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal about how bad remote work is.

I kind of admire it - it is a steadfast adherence to an ideology and beliefs held by people who don’t “work” in the way that most people do, using citations from as far back as May 2021 to make an argument in the tritest, empty and repetitive way. The central idea is that young people are “missing out” on something in the office, vaguely suggesting that they are not “being mentored” or “socializing,” as if they are dogs that must be around other dogs, lest they bark and piss whenever they see another young professional in the hallway.

And, for real, what exactly are they missing? What grand mysteries are being unveiled in office environments?

Sidenote: Again, I want to make it clear that “remote” doesn’t mean “never seeing people.” Lots of people think that these two things are the same, or act as if they are to prove a point.

As with many pieces, the core position this article takes is that young people are not to be trusted and do not know what is good for them. This position explains why there are no young people quoted in the article - why would they? They’re stupid children that do not understand The Business Office is where the business is done, and without the Business Office, you cannot hope to be a fully-formed professional.

The problem with this line of thought is that it’s both totally unproven and highly damaging to young people, on top of being potentially life-threatening if they’re forced back to the office. And where they can’t prove that productivity is down or that socializing is important, those working against remote work choose to use spurious studies to prove their points:

Approximately 48 percent of the 5,000 workers Beamery’s Talent Index surveyed between this August and September said they felt having significantly reduced face time with their higher-ups has hindered their career trajectory. The feeling was most prominent among young people: 66 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that they felt working remotely had put their careers back.

So, if you are working a specific angle - remote work is bad, young people are hurt as a result - you may read this as a condition created by remote work. You may, indeed, be Charlie Warzel, in that you have made the default assumption that the office has no problems - that mentorship and training always happen, that physical space creates massive business success - and that any problems remote work has are solved by in-person attendance.

The problem with that line of thinking is that not only do the majority of workers in that study not agree with that statement, that statement also assumes that they’d have more face time in the office. Remote work is not what’s causing this problem - bad managers and executives have tried nothing and they’re all out of ideas, and for some reason want to replace a moderate amount of effort (formalizing digital face time and mentorship) with a large amount of effort (forcing people back to the office) because they want things to “go back to the way they were.”

If I put food in the oven and do not turn it on, I am not reasonably able to complain that I am “not getting sufficient heat from my oven.” Similarly, these studies and their agenda-driven readings fail to consider whether there may just be an alarming amount of companies that either do not try to make sure superiors talk to young people, or never did so in the first place.

The Evils of Face Time

A CNN article from 2013 (written by a UC Berkeley professor of law and sociology) said that the benefits of office face time are a myth:

The recent decision by Yahoo’s chief executive to drop the company’s work from home policy makes sense, doesn’t it? Plenty or people believe that if you aren’t in the office, you aren’t working; if you aren’t clocking face time with bosses and co-workers, you aren’t fully committed, and long hours are the measure of productivity. Right?

Not exactly.

Organizational sociologists call these beliefs “rational myths,” convictions about how things should be done that are widely shared but not necessarily accurate. Back when work revolved around the power loom and the assembly line, centralized schedules and locations made sense. The 40-hour work week, time-oriented management practices, and our beliefs about them, became institutionalized during this period.

This piece is amazing, in the sense that someone intelligently eviscerated the anti-remote crowd 7 or 8 years before I was even living in beautiful Las Vegas:

A Harvard study of software engineers found that emphasizing face time encouraged managers to arbitrarily label problems as crises and then evaluate workers on whether they put in long hours in response. Inefficiency got worse when workers knew management was evaluating only time, not results – they put in lots of hours, but got little done. Managers who replaced the clock-watching culture with more rational planning increased productivity, reduced stress and shifted efforts toward collectively getting work done.

Shit, it’s almost as if work is what you’re paid for, not how visibly you’re struggling or how many hours you’re working. And while I really enjoy this article because it confirms my biases, as most people do, it makes several excellent points:

But what about the collaborations and creativity from water-cooler conversations?

These conversations actually may encourage groupthink rather than innovation. Studies show that people tend to network, cooperate and collaborate with others like themselves, so hallway conversations may merely result in interactions among those who think alike. It’s the collaboration among diverse groups of people that fosters the most creative and cutting-edge thinking. Because virtual interactions through online chats and teleconferencing make personal similarities less obvious, these may be better than hallway conversations for cultivating innovation.

This entire article destroys almost every single “remote work ruins lives” article I’ve ever read, but it has a very specific point I want to show you:

Why do we cling to the face time fallacy?

The real problem is that our cultural beliefs about workplace practices lag behind technological and other changes in the workplace. They get in the way of finding new management techniques for the virtual workplace. Perhaps Marissa Mayer of Yahoo bought into the idea that face time means productivity because it seemed like a legitimate way to show she meant business.

But if recent reports that she monitors her employees’ remote data connections are accurate, she could have fired the slackers who failed to log in rather than demanding that all workers get back to the office. Other companies promote innovation without requiring face time: 3M rewards employees who come up with innovative ideas, Google encourages interactions across departmental divides without eliminating telecommuting altogether, and companies like Suntell and Gap Inc. evaluate their employees on performance, not presence.

To be clear, Marissa Mayer was quite literally one of the worst CEOs of all time, so this is a great comparison point for the 43 different white CEOs who are excitedly demanding people return to the office.

The concept of “face time” is truly insidious, and the only people that are discussing it as a good thing are doing so to sustain hegemony. A 2010 study between UC Davis and UNC-Chapel Hill defined two types of face time - expected face time and extracurricular face time:

These two forms of passive face time appear to lead observers to make trait inferences (i.e. they lead observers to perceive employees as either ‘dependable’ or ‘committed’, depending on the form of passive face time).

The study - which is very good, albeit old - hammers home that we tend to make inferences based on people’s actions (obviously), and that employee perception is often made based on one’s appearance in the office. It’s also something that was done in part because humans are lazy and using someone’s appearance in the office to judge them is easy:

Participant comments indicated that expected face time cued positive employee perceptions because sitting at one’s desk during normal business hours was physically salient and easy to observe during a quick walk through the office space.

Further, in most descriptions of expected face time, participants noted that employees were doing work that wasn’t easily quantified, and that their physical presence supplied evidence that they were working diligently (even if the output couldn’t be measured).

[A participant recalled]:

It’s about trust . . . and seeing employees as trustworthy . . . And if you can walk to their desk and there’s more of a ‘yes! this person is doing what I’m expecting of them’ atmosphere, you just naturally think of them as more trustworthy.

To be clear, this sucks, but I want to call one particular point to attention [emphasis mine]:

Our findings about how passive face time influences perceptions of employees also
have several practical implications for managers, especially regarding the design and use of performance evaluations. In particular, our findings are relevant to the design of trait-based performance evaluations, judgments of remote workers, and the use of multi-source evaluations. Put in the broader context of performance management, passive face time can affect employees’ status, performance evaluations, raises, promotions, and job security – even though being observed at the work site may not be linked to actual productivity.

Both our qualitative and experimental investigations suggested that managers recognize two forms of passive face time at work, and use the observation of these forms to make inferences about employees’ personality traits, without even knowing that they are doing so.

Let me break this down for you: companies are relying on face time as a metric of success because they are lazy and do not want to actually measure the contributions of their employees. The office allows them to continue corporate hegemony, and it’s easier to make bad decisions in the same way that you’ve been making them for years rather than run your company in a way that works. It is easier for the many, many stupid, old CEOs to say that remote work is bad for young people and that they’re going to miss out on “face time” because doing something else would require them to hire and/or train real managers that actually managed people and had awareness of their work, rather than management by appearance, a thing that is guaranteed to punish people of color and women.

This argument is being made in the worst faith possible, published by a media industry that would rather see the world “go back to normal” than improve in any way. Young people are not going to have their career trajectory ruined by remote work - it’s going to be ruined by people demanding they go back to the office, where they’ll be managed by people that were hired and promoted based on how much they were seen frowning at their computer.

“Face time” is something that I only hear mentioned in articles like this or in extremely dysfunctional companies. When you got “face time” with some of my old bosses, it meant that you were about to get in a significant amount of trouble. “Face time” is not magical, unless you are in an organization that uses it as a metric to prove your worth, which is to say that you are working at a company that does not measure your ability to do your job, but your ability to sit at your desk.

Every single person I know who’s mentioned “visibility” and “face time” in the office has been a low-performing ass-kisser that stole other people’s work and berated those below them. It is the universal language of lazy and privileged assholes that provide little value to the company other than their ability to appear in a room and read stuff out loud.

If you’ll allow me to be paranoid, I believe that the shibboleth of office face time is something that is being pushed as a means of control. Nobody actually cares about this - they care about a young workforce that will be harder to control, harder to manipulate, and harder to stop looking for another job, and very importantly harder to stop organizing. When you can’t police where and how people are meeting and talking, you also can’t make it difficult to discuss and eventually form a union.

By spreading the flagrant lie that they’ll “lose out” if they don’t go into an office, they’re both trying to control young people and avoid having to take on any responsibility for them.

When young people are remote, they require active, thoughtful mentorship and training. When they’re in the office, you can claim that they’re getting it simply by being in the office and “watching others work" - nothing has to change and nothing has to improve. Young people are better with technology than older people, and remote work is likely extremely intimidating because it reveals how little is done for workers in an actual office. While we all assumed that there was a point to be there - that it was how we got good at our jobs, or how we “learned” - being forced into remote work made us realize that the utility of the office never included any of the benefits that we’d been told it had.

This is why every single article about this is written as vaguely as possible - because there really isn’t anything bad happening to young people because of remote work. The bad things - being passed up for promotions, not being mentored, not being trained - are all a result of companies that didn’t give a shit before and certainly don’t now, except remote work by definition removes all aesthetic and “soft” proof you’re working and replaces it with digitized tasks.

Pulling apart these problems is also difficult because it means that you have to start evaluating people based on their contributions (which as I’ve said is difficult if you’ve never done that before) and also get a much clearer picture of what they do all day. If someone’s job is to manage someone, and the person they’re managing is constantly making mistakes, it was much easier to justify them as “managing” in the office because they were right next to the aforementioned mistake-maker.

When they’re remote, you can easily prove whether conversations did or did not happen. You can start asking how often people talk, and proving said thing happened with calendar invites and Zoom calls, which can also be recorded. You can see if they even talk on Slack, and start asking difficult questions like “so how do you manage this person?”

Now, you may think this is a good thing, because it reveals organizational inefficiencies. The problem is that many companies are built on layers of cronyism, where people have kissed the right asses and “prove themselves” through being on calls and doing things that make their boss happy. Executives may think they’re running a meritocracy, but when there’s a deeper analysis of active contribution, it may prove otherwise. This causes the executive to start questioning whether they got where they are today through hard work - which is difficult, and hurts their brain, and thus they choose the situation that makes them most comfortable - making everybody go to the office that they themselves do not really go to.

This is a late-stage capitalist tantrum - a shared thought-process of old, stupid men that have told themselves lies about what made their businesses work. They would rather lose money and reduce profitability than make meaningful changes to their organizations, even if said changes would make for a happier and more productive workforce. By believing their fantasy that they were good because they were “in the office” and “had good face time,” they’re able to perpetuate the myths of success that cover up that they got rich by being white, or lucky, or going to the right school, or being born in the right country at the right time.

More from Ed Zitron's Where's Your Ed At

Empty Laughter

Amongst the sludge of AI-powered everything at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, a robbery took place. “Dudesy —” allegedly a
Ed Zitron 15 min read

Welcome to Where's Your Ed At!

Subscribe today. It's free. Please.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Ed Zitron's Where's Your Ed At.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.