Remote and Hybrid Work Could Unravel Corporate America

Ed Zitron 10 min read

Several more waves of COVID and extended office closures later, companies have realized that they can’t tell the “remote work will destroy us!” story anymore. Naturally, as I predicted back in October, they’ve moved onto a more grassroots approach, undermining the confidence of young workers by telling them that remote work is going to ruin their careers. LinkedIn went straight for the jugular with their spuriously sourced and written “hybrid work could hurt your career” piece.

Some 58% of knowledge workers are now in hybrid working arrangements, according to a new survey of more than 10,000 workers around the world by Slack’s Future Forum. Despite the wide adoption of flexible work, executives say a top concern is possible inequity between remote and in-office employees.

Proximity bias — the idea that employees with close proximity to their leaders are seen as better workers — may affect how managers evaluate performance. And this will penalize women, people of color and working parents the most, as these groups are spending less time in the office than their peers.

84% of men work in the office all or some of the time, compared to 79% of women, according to the survey.

Let me tell you something - if executives say they’re worried about something, the most important question you can ask is, “what are you going to about it?” You see, an executive has the power to make sure bad things don’t happen at a company because they either run or are senior at a company, rather than the worker whose career is going to be hurt who can do very little other than, as this article wishes, return to the office.

The reason that we’re suddenly seeing the term “proximity bias” is because of Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack that partners with Boston Consulting Group and other companies to “create a better way to work.” It’s a fairly in-depth study of 10,000 knowledge workers that raises some interesting points - but fails to follow through on the blatant hypocrisy of executives that say they’re concerned about proximity bias but seem to be staying in the office more than anyone.

As a result, the natural interpretation is that proximity bias is a problem and thus a problem to be solved by the workers themselves by going into the office.

Matthew Boyle of Bloomberg seems to have kept his head from rocketing up his ass while reading the study:

Among the biggest worries that executives have about remote work is a phenomenon known as “proximity bias,” meaning that the people who choose to return to offices will get ahead, while those who stay home will fall behind.

And yet, despite that very legitimate fear — and how it might hurt underrepresented workers — most bosses still prefer working in offices, and want their underlings do the same, a survey released Tuesday finds.

…Just being seen in the office can affect performance evaluations, promotions and job security, research from professors at the University of California, Davis and North Carolina University has found. Jack Welch, the former chief of General Electric Co. whose management approach was widely copied, once said in a Bloomberg Businessweek advice column that “the road to the top is paved with being there.”

The research (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) mostly says that these biases are both obvious and specifically a problem with executives and managers rather than workers. It’s also one that’s thematic to the larger remote work conversation, in that the actual problem they’re avoiding talking about is that when you have to start evaluating people based on their work, you also have to start firing people.

The reason - the real reason - that lazy managers and executives are scared of people not coming into the office is that they can no longer do their jobs through sheer intuition. They can’t grade people based on what they see them doing - they have to do actual labor to look at actual work and actually understand what’s going on. This is significantly harder to do than looking around and saying “oh, Dave’s always here” or “Dave talks a lot in meetings,” and it also cuts racial and gender bias by not defaulting to evaluating people based on their looks.

It’s also difficult to evaluate people based on their work if you’ve never put any thought into it. It is difficult to evaluate output in jobs - there are hundreds of books that exist literally on the subject of how to do so - and yet many companies base performance reviews off of a mixture of employee and manager reporting - intuition-based laziness that puts the onus on employees to come up with the reasons that they’re contributing to the company. Using their intuition, the manager chooses whether to disagree or agree with them on these points and is taken at their word.

This is done out of a combination of fear, laziness, and labor abuse. The worker is not simply there to do their job, but must also tell you why their work was good, versus the company or manager actually knowing what they’re doing and being able to evaluate that in a standardized manner. Standardization is difficult but not impossible in fields where there is not a defined output - take the Army, for example, which has a vast matrix through which you are evaluated that goes to both your supervisor and their superior. While I am sure it isn’t perfect, it is at least an attempt to measure things in a considered and thoughtful way - a standardization not simply of tasks, but of the things that you expect from someone in the army. It also includes next steps and ways to improve things, as well as means of counseling around particularly good or particularly bad situations.

In short, a systematic way of evaluating both the person in question and their output, and seeking ways to both make sure they’re happy and that thriving.

The problem is that creating such a system is hard and people would rather just evaluate someone based on what they can see in front of their face and pure intuition. It’s easier, quicker, and crucially doesn’t require managers or executives to have to do any extra work or participate in any extra training to do it. It’s far easier to set up a meeting once a year that’s based on a culmination of whatever notes have been taken by you and your manager, and see if those things line up.

In a rare moment for me, I have some sympathy for the manager in this equation - it is their job to evaluate, not create the means of evaluation, but to evaluate using what they’re given. Now, of course, said manager could do the extra work and have the domain expertise to be able to see if someone is good at their job - but that’s rarely, if ever, mandated. As arrogant as this sounds, since about my first year in PR I’ve never had a manager better at my job than I am, and if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve had more than one performance appraisal at a job, regardless of how long I’d been there. And I evaluated that based on what I actually did for the company on a daily basis.

This isn’t to say that performance evaluations are easy to do - Satya Nadella of Microsoft had to totally revamp their performance reviews as they were destroying morale by reducing people to ranked metrics - but that companies have simply decided they are too much work. While you may get a “performance review,” said review may oscillate between vibes-based judgments and overly-numerical evaluations that lack a foundation in reality.

As a side-note, I recognize that there is a difficulty in evaluating people in numbers when their jobs are based on, say, scheduling calls and making appointments. Creating these systems is difficult - you can’t just turn someone into numbers, but you also can’t go entirely based on vibes. It’s also extremely silly that so many performance evaluations take place once a year, or once a quarter. Without a continual body of work, you are relying on memory, which is extremely unreliable.

The problem is that an actual evaluation of one’s performance is the only way to know how you’re doing at the job, and the more vague said evaluation is, the more likely it is you’re going to be judged on things that aren’t part of your job.

This is exactly why it’s so terrifying for the middle management and executive class.

Reject Productivity, Embrace Mediocrity

So much of what I’ve written in the last year or so has been around the counterintuitive mindset of executives. Despite it being blatantly obvious that workers that can work remotely generally want to and are happier doing so, bosses want to push them back into the office. Despite paying people money for services, executives seem allergic to evaluating people on their contribution, and mostly seem to do it to tick a box with HR.

The reason is that the older the company is, the more dangerous a remote environment is for the status quo. When you have to start evaluating people on their actual contributions, you have to start measuring what a contribution is. When you finalize that measurement, you then have to start applying it to people in an even-handed way, and, as I’ve hinted at before, may realize that there are tons of people you’ve hired who aren’t particularly good at their jobs, or contributing very much at all.

So much of this can be covered up by having physical presence. When you see someone in an office, it’s an easy way to say “yep, they’re working,” even if such a thing doesn’t prove much of anything. Executives aren’t really worried about proximity bias - they’re covering their asses so that when there is an inevitable “remote work is actually letting down women and people of color” report, they can clutch their pearls and say they are “very aware of this issue.”

If they actually cared about it, one of these goons would come forward and talk about the ways in which they’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Remote work is a unifying problem for executives because it illuminates not simply how badly their businesses are run but how many useless people they’ve hired. Think of all the people you’ve worked with who someone has described as “nice.” Were they good at their jobs? Would you recommend them for a promotion? Or were interactions with them just pleasant?

Think about the useless managers you’ve had and how many times you’ve wondered what it is they do all day. And when you’re done, think about what the word “manage” means and how many times you’ve actually seen them do it - to be clear, this does not just mean “order people around.” What would happen to that person if someone sat with a list of their actual job descriptions and measured whether they actually do them?

Entire companies - from small businesses to the Fortune 500 - are crammed with wastes of capital. The cognitive dissonance around boss’ rejection of remote work isn’t just about not seeing people - it’s about potentially having to evaluate whether you’ve made several (or perhaps several hundred) extremely bad hires.  The pandemic forcing us to go remote has likely made it very clear that there are many, many people that should be fired - but firing them would require an executive to admit they have no god damn clue what they’re actually hiring people to do.

It’s more than just the existence of performance reviews - it’s that if you do them correctly, performance reviews are also an evaluation of whether the tasks you are doing are contributing to the company in a meaningful way. Management culture exists in part to protect a vast set of people that believe that management is ordering people around and then profiting from their work - which only really feels impressive if you’re doing it in person. When it happens over Slack, email, Asana, and Zoom, you may reasonably be considered a living to-do list making close to six figures.

Proximity bias is a threat masked as anxiety - a direct suggestion by managers and executives that they fully intend to treat remote workers poorly. Workers are asking for flexibility because they want to live their lives, but because it is blatantly obvious that their work (if it’s not time-sensitive) doesn’t necessarily have to be delivered in the exact timeframe of 9-5 - but that also doesn’t mean that they can be badgered outside of those hours. And anyone with half a brain cell can tell you that there is no reason to make a worker unhappy if their work is done and they’re not pissing off people.

What we’re seeing is an executive sect that has no idea why their companies are successful and has chosen to believe that any success they have is a direct result of their actions. The modern state of management has moved away from getting the best out of people and giving them direction to something more akin to a jailer and thief - someone who is given credit for that work, because that’s how management works. The office was meant to be a place you went because that’s where the things you needed to do work for - and now it’s a place that you go because work happens there, because the people in power have no idea what that work is, let alone how it happens.

And performance reviews exist to check a box with HR, rather than actually making sure that the company's parts are working correctly, because a full evaluation of someone’s performance might involve either firing them or paying them more.

A Concluding Rant

You know what, let me take a break from quoting things and say this bluntly: this isn’t fucking hard. I’m sorry. I am tired, I am angry, I am not in the mood to dance around this. We are able to have video conferences from almost anywhere in the world. We have software that can both schedule and manage massive groups of people’s calendars. We have productivity software that can manage and assign tasks, and we are fully capable of using that in a way that means that people across different timezones know what’s happening across the world.

I would accept any of the criticisms of remote work if they were coming from people that were not writing about them from major metropolitan areas with high-speed Internet connections. Whatever criticisms you may have are minor to the larger picture of something that benefits workers and the companies themselves, and the struggle against it is entirely about cretins trying to justify why they like to trap people in a building or worthless scumbags that have used “visibility” and “diplomacy” to build their careers without a shred of actual productivity.

I am not going to stop writing about this stuff, but I am sick to fucking death of people acting as if remote work doesn’t work. It is disgraceful that companies like Apple and Goldman Sachs are pretending this isn’t tenable based on the whims of people that barely interact with the office anyway.

Every argument against remote work that isn’t about the fact that many remote workers are made to work out of their bedrooms or kitchens is boss propaganda. “Ouuuhh, I miss the energy of the office,” get a fucking hobby! I’m sick of you! Stop trying to suppress people’s right to work more productively because you like having boring, repetitive conversations by a coffee machine. If all your socializing is done in the office, that is a problem, and should not be used to stop people from working remotely.

And if you are claiming that remote work will “cause inequities” when you are the primary person that will be deciding how said equity is distributed, you are scum.

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