The Myth of Mentorship, And How We've Failed Entry-Level Workers

Ed Zitron 12 min read

I woke up this morning and had a thought - what if I had nothing to write about? What if, by taking a few days off to recover and enjoy Thanksgiving, I’d find a world devoid of things to comment on. And I was wrong.

Last week, the New York Times published an adapted essay from Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s book about the future of remote work. It’s called “Remote Work Is Failing Young Employees,” and it is as infuriating as the title suggests, and I have to say I’m utterly shocked at the fact that two people I otherwise respect would put their names on something like this.

It is the same crap we’ve all been making fun of for months, except it’s published by two pro-remote work people:

With time, she grew accustomed to the daily cadences of her job. But she still felt like a stranger at her own company, whose remote policies were haphazard at best. To chat, employees used an outdated version of Skype; in Zoom meetings, almost all co-workers left their cameras off. Months into her job, she could identify people only by their chat avatars and voices. At one point, she says, she began “obsessively stalking” her company’s Glassdoor reviews, just to try to get a sense of the company culture. She was, by her own admission, unmoored, totally unmentored and insecure, with no way to learn from her colleagues. It’s one thing to start a new job remotely. It’s another to start your entire career that way.

While their companies adapted their workflows to function outside the office, few spent the time to craft policies to mentor young professionals, many of whom found themselves stuck on their couches, attempting to decipher cryptic emails and emojis sent over Slack.

Charlie, Anne! Come on! You’re better than this!

“I think I’m missing out on a lot of the soft skills that one picks up in the first few years of working,” Haziq, a 22-year-old living in Ireland, told us. He’s found it nearly impossible to socialize with colleagues and lacks the confidence to casually ask a question of his manager or teammates. “If I was sitting next to my manager, I could just have a quick chat and move on,” he said. “But I’m much less likely to Slack my manager and ask something because I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment. The amount of on-the-job learning has reduced dramatically.”

I’m despairing here because there is so much being assumed- wait, hold up-

For Kiersten, who had never set foot in her company’s office, professional life has come to feel like an abstraction — to the point that she’s sometimes not even sure if she’s employed. (She is.)

I am so god damn angry reading this because that is quite literally an anti-remote trope published by the New York Times. Every sentence in this article is infuriating, because so much of it is just hearsay, written for the benefit of managers and executives to specifically create an image that companies are doing good things, and that mentorship and training actually exist.

While we believe that the spontaneous water-cooler interactions of the office are often romanticized, we also recognize the ways in which gossip, after-work drinks and even body language come together to teach new employees the standards of behavior in the office. 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. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be translated into a remote or flexible work environment.

This paragraph makes several questionable assumptions:

  1. That managing and training happened in these companies.
  2. That body language, small talk, passing conversations, or “observing your manager’s pathways” have any real effect on doing your job, even in aggregate.
  3. That “the standards of behavior in the office” matter, and also that you, the reader, know what that means.

I say this as someone who admires these writers - this is a worrying piece, especially considering it’s directly coming from a book that will likely be used as a cornerstone of companies’ remote work (or lack thereof) plans. It is going to be used to fight against remote work.

The reason I’m particularly annoyed is that this entire piece is hinged on - which sucks, I cannot explain how angry I am at it - the idea that the office was good and that everything there was right, but now remote work is here to offer a “different perspective” on an otherwise good thing. Specifically, it is entirely built on the concept of workplace training and supervision that simply does not exist, and mostly takes the idea that they’ve been able to identify several companies with dysfunctional leadership and threads the needle to the idea that remote work is causing these problems.

I also deeply resent the idea that training or mentorship is commonplace in the office. So I went to Twitter to see if I was wrong:

I am certain that by the time I am done writing this I’ll have many more replies that are similar - that companies just do not seem to actually tell anyone what to do, let alone train or mentor people to be better. As I’ve said before, I’ve had one manager in my career, and the “mentorship” he gave me mainly was pointing me in the right direction once. My PR career is entirely built on working things out fast enough that I didn’t get fired, and 98% of the knowledge I have is self-taught or learned through breaking my nose walking into walls at high speed.

I am infuriated that this piece exists because it is - deliberately or otherwise - anti-worker. The worker is an idiot, lost in the winds. The manager is overloaded and poorly supported by [vague gestures]. The corporation is well-meaning but misguided.

Truly flexible work may seem breezy and carefree, but it’s actually the product of careful planning and clear communication. It requires peering around corners and attempting to identify needs and problems before they fester. It may seem onerous at first, especially when “Let’s just go back to the way things were before” seems like such a clear option.

Okay, Charlie, Anne, you are indirectly telling people to go back to the way things were, because you are not really offering any solutions other than “this is a problem”:

But it’s not. We’ve moved past that point. If we’re serious about building a sustainable future of work, we can’t leave a whole swath of employees behind. They’ll just develop bad habits and waste endless hours trying to piece together the rules of the game when someone could’ve just told them. Businesses have to decide: Are you going to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, allowing it to tax your organization in all sorts of tangible and intangible ways, or are you going to invest in the sort of intentional mentorship and structure that will yield dividends down the road?

Companies do not invest in intentional mentorship and structure. Maybe big corporations do, but most companies do not. Hell, I had to work out some degree of doing so myself because my first instinct was to just hire people who didn’t need training, and assume they knew everything (which was wrong, by the way) - the truth is that most jobs are done by learning roughly what to do and experiencing the nuance at high speed. It isn’t the best way to do it, but it’s worked because actual training and mentorship are hard.

The vague anecdotal interviews in this piece betray one staggering problem - it fails to interrogate the foundation of the problems it identifies. It isn’t just that remote work is the cause of this loneliness, or that none of these companies have any idea what the hell they’re doing as far as actual communication goes, but that the writers have assumed that work is where you socialize, and that work is not simply a transaction of labor for work, but a thing you do to make yourself not feel lonely.

It also assumes that the office has fixed any of the bullshit that they’re saying remote work needs to.

Had Joe’s office implemented a remote plan, it’s possible his supervisor could have changed her schedule to fit her needs or delegated portions of her work across other employees and departments.

I did a big belly laugh when I read this part, because I cannot think of a time when a manager has moved around their schedule for my benefit. In my Here Is My Problem column, I regularly run into people talking about inflexible managers, or specifically a total refusal to bring on staff to delegate work to. Instead of taking this piece - and I really hope it isn’t isn’t the case with the final book - from a perspective of remote work and the pandemic being a way to address the many, many problems of the office, it seems that Warzel and Petersen have simply assumed that the physical office worked - that offices commonly did things right and that communication was easy with your manager because you were in person - and that remote work must learn from the good lessons of the office versus being treated as something else entirely.

Dysfunctional management is going to exist in any form you let management exist in, and remote work’s problems are problems that were often exacerbated by physical communication. The exhausted trope of “feeling lonely” because you “aren’t close to any of your workmates” is so utterly weak - I’ve worked in offices of hundreds of people where I knew two of them, because…guess what, you don’t hang out with them, you work there. In my first job, I once got screamed at by my boss for talking about popcorn. In other jobs, I’ve received texts from management in another state asking the group to stop “chit-chatting” and get back to work. While one can say that this is the same kind of specious use of anecdotes that I am angry at (and you’d be correct!), it’s not hard to find people who have very similar stories about the office.

I also want to be clear that a lack of mentorship and training hurt me on a psychological level. I moved to this country in 2008, and basically had to work out this career on my own. You want to talk about isolating? Imagine sitting in an office of 10 people that basically only talk about how much they hate their jobs, being told you have to do a job you’ve barely been trained to do, and when you ask for help you’re ignored or, at best, given really crappy advice or critiques. I am still extremely twitchy when people walk up behind me specifically because of my managers at my first job in America. And a lot of what hurts is because I was given a great deal of orders and absolutely no guidance as to how to execute beyond “call journalists” (who did not want to be called) and “pitch stories” (which I was not told how to do in anything other than the vaguest terms.)

As a society we have rejected the idea that people need to be trained or mentored because it’s expensive and time-consuming to do so. We do not invest in young workers - as I wrote in the Atlantic, America disrespects entry-level workers, leaving them bereft of training or mentorship, expecting them to work it out from HR documents or orders from the manager. The reason that companies are not making formal plans to adapt schedules or workflows for remote work is because they barely make formal plans to adapt schedules for in the office - almost everything is done based on the arbitrary views of a manager or VP that does not do the actual job.

The first week of remote work, Joe’s supervisor canceled their check-in without rescheduling a new one. “We went months without emailing over the rest of the fellowship, and we only spoke on the phone once over that time, and weren’t in any meetings together,” he said. On his last day, there was no exit interview or procedure at all. “I sent out a goodbye email to about two dozen people right before leaving my laptop in the office on my last day and cc’d my personal email, but only one person wrote back,” he recalled.

It is utterly offensive that this got published. I’m so - I’m - Anne, Charlie, I think you’re marvelous, but this sucks. You know what actually caused this? A badly run company. Had he been in the office, he’d also probably barely spoken to the manager. Every one of these things that happened would have happened in an office. Why is this called “a classic example of how flexible work — absent intentionally designed support systems — can hurt the most inexperienced employees in an organization”? It seems like a classic example of poor management shitting on entry-level employees. No consideration is made, even once, that the system itself is corrupt - no, the assumption is that well-meaning companies are fumbling the ball when it comes to remote work, and thus remote work is a “problem.”

Had this manager been in an office with “Joe,”  I guarantee you they’d have been just as helpful. Not a single thing in this story is a specific remote work-related problem. And, in fact, I’d argue that the majority of the anecdotes involved have a similar problem - you can very easily work at a company and not socialize with anyone, you can feel alone in an office of one thousand people because, well, your workplace is not where you socialize. Take a look at this:

Others wanted more scheduled sessions for employees to come together and bond. “Zoom meetings are not enough,” Joe told us, though he struggled to articulate exactly what kind of bonding might work. “Maybe take something that people already do and bring it into the workplace — pub quizzes, pen pals, video games, a book or movie club. I feel stupid writing those! But you have to try something.”

Joe, what the fuck are you talking about, man? Pen pals? What? Pub quizzes? Excuse me? What are you talking about man, when do any of these things occur? Movie club? What? I’m lost, because so much of this is the vaguest anecdotes used to make extremely big and meaningful points. And the one time they get specific they seem to totally miss something:

But that early professional hunger for structure extended far beyond Zoom meetups. People wanted opportunities to sit in on calls with senior members of different teams — the equivalent of silently sitting in on an in-person meeting — if only to get a better sense of what others’ jobs entailed. They wanted access to email templates for specific kinds of intra-office and out-of-office outreach. They wanted to know what time was normal to reply to emails. In short, they wanted to be told what they were supposed to be doing at work and how to do it successfully. Even those who admitted that such guidance could quickly become stifling agreed that it was better than flailing around with vague expectations and zero guidance.

None. Of. These. Are. Things. That. The. Office. Had. Get a fucking grip. These are all things you could (and likely have!) missed in places you’ve worked physically, because they are all, in their entirety, “office culture” bullshit that you learn by messing up and someone yelling at you. “They wanted access to email templates for specific kinds of intra-office and out-of-office outreach” - first of all, great sentence, extremely hard to parse in any meaningful way - but also, these are very much things that, again, you would not get in an office.

The problem is that companies are usually very good at telling you what they want but extremely bad at telling you how to do it. You are “meant to have gone to college and “learned how to do this stuff,” and the reason that it comes up with remote work is because people are actively looking for ways to tear down remote work. Where were these articles (other than Harvard Business Review which appears to have covered every subject under the sun, despite nobody I’ve met from HBS actually seeming to know anything about management) two or three years ago? Where was all this deep, meaningful analysis of the physical office?

It wasn’t there, because nobody gave a shit. The reason that it matters now is because lots of people went remote at once and realized it was better, and those in power got mad at it. People like Warzel and Petersen, while generally good at this, seem to have fallen into the trap of “hearing out both sides” and in the process have joined the corporate agenda of identifying the problems with remote work.” While one may argue there is an innocence here - it’s just an excerpt, you should read the whole book, and so on - there is also a true lack of responsibility in writing this both as a problem that young workers are facing and, on some level, that it’s a problem caused by remote work.

And god, how the hell do you act as if mentorship and training were commonplace? It’s offensive, because it’s actively fighting against young people. This entire article reminds me of Trevor Strunk’s Stephen A Smith Tweet - remote work has all of these opportunities…BUT!

It’s frustrating, because the perspective of this (and many!) books are so anti-worker. They do not really evaluate worker problems or care about worker stories - these anecdotes are dressing for a larger message that remote work is not something that can “easily happen” - it is something that “takes “real work” - all framed as positives with an underlying sense that perhaps this is all just a little too much work. That’s why the underlying sense that the office actually fixed any of these problems is such an issue to me - remote work doesn’t create real work” that you shouldn’t already be doing - the only point of this article was to undermine remote work. That’s why the Times took it in the form they did. I don’t think Warzel and Petersen are against remote work, but I do believe they needed to do a lot more thinking about and investigating of what working in an office has been like or is like.

We will keep having stories like these, because there is an agenda to defend the established order of the office, even if it requires you to lie. And there are lies - perhaps unconscious ones made through unchallenged assumptions - that will keep being told about how “things were before was good, but needed flexibility, versus that things before were bad, and need to be interrogated and thoroughly analyzed rather than waved at from a distance.

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