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Remote Work, Part III
The articles about remote work in the press come in every day now. It is the hottest of hot topics. And while it is apparent that no one knows the answer, there is no shortage of speculation and wind. On the one hand, some employers are embracing it, seeing the advantage of reducing real estate costs and having happier employees, and others are strongly rejecting it, incapable of envisioning a future different from the past that works as well as they thought it did.
When a large company is made up of mostly knowledge workers of different types, you tend to see some movement. PriceWaterhouseCoopers employs more than a quarter of a million people, most of them knowledge workers - but their job tasks are diverse - serving as accountants, consultants, and auditors. PwC has announced a very flexible system, where employees will be allowed to work from home indefinitely. Here is the CEO of that company, Tim Ryan, on the subject in a recent article from the NYTimes:
Preferences are changing in this pandemic. We knew that there’s a segment of our people who would like not just to work flexibly, which we already had in place, but to work completely virtually…. CEOs are now just beginning to realize that if you’re employing thousands and thousands of people, you need to have multiple options.
That just makes sense. A hybrid approach. Don’t stress about it too much. Be flexible and listen to what your employees want and need to get the work done.
But where you see knowledge workers in a heavily tradition-bound industry, such as finance, you tend to see the most extreme response to what is perceived as the threat of remote work. In the same article quoted above, Chris Merrill, CEO of Harrison Street (a financial services firm based in Chicago) says this:
It’s very very important for the younger people to be together. That is where they learn. That is where they grow. That is where you’re going to create upward mobility. My learning was sitting in my boss’s office and listening to a call, or sitting in on a meeting, or bumping into someone in the lunchroom. It’s very important to get the younger employees in the office, collaborating and working hard.
OK. That kind of sounds reasonable. But he raises the vague specter of training and promotions as reasons to bring employees back to the office, which has been broadly criticized. Later in the same article, he says:
Personal interactions are what this is all about. Being empathetic, being able to look someone in the eye and shake someone’s hand, just listening and sitting in people’s offices and bumping into somebody in the lunchroom and sharing an idea - that just doesn’t happen over Zoom.
In contrast to Tim Ryan of PwC, Mr. Merrill sounds like a traditional boss, in an industry that puts great weight on fitting in, and learning on the job. It does not sound, at least to me, as though Mr. Merrill believes it is possible to provide training in a remote, online environment. It does not sound like he believes you can listen into a call or “sit in a meeting” over conferencing software. You can’t look someone in the eye over Zoom? Really? (If so, what did President Biden and Vladimir Putin just do?)
And let’s not forget the important data mentioned in my second letter to you on this subject that BIPOC employees prefer to work remotely. That’s a very important piece of what we have discovered in this era of remote work. Hmmm. Is it a coincidence that - looking at Harrison Street’s website - the top 10 listed partners and managing directors are all white men, and there are only three women at the managing director level? Of the 220 employees with photos on their website, there are just a handful that are not white.
The same article quotes Liz Fraser, who took the job as CEO of Kate Spade (the fashion brand) on March 2, 2020. It was a hard adjustment, as you might imagine. But later in the article, she says this about remote work for her employees:
I don’t even necessarily care where you live, as long as you have the flexibility to come to New York as needed. You can live wherever.
And then she says something that should break your heart. It does mine:
It would have been a game changer for me to have had a little bit more flexibility so that I could take my meetings from home in the afternoon. I definitely traveled a lot and I worked really hard, and I wanted to. I don’t regret it. But there’s no such thing as quality time. There’s just time.
The problem CEOs have, it seems to me, as some of them contemplate trying to get “back to normal” - a normal that is primarily in the office as before - are twofold: First, they have no argument that remote work has not worked to their benefit. Business has grown and prospered while people were working from home for the last 19 months. That is not a short period, and for most businesses, it is not close. They did very well, and for some, extraordinarily well. So it works. At least in knowledge industries, it works - full stop.
Second, it is simply humane. Mr. Merrill refers to “being empathetic” and it seems like this is a value of his company. But is he? Has he asked his employees what they want to do? Has he asked his (few) BIPOC employees how they feel about being in the office? Has he asked the men and women with young families?
Remote work is, I believe, here to stay. It will change the workplace for our students and their families. We need to accept it, learn about it, and understand what it will mean for us in our roles as teachers, and as citizens of a changed world.
Putting our heads in the sand is not an option.
Letters of Recommendation
The comedian Robert Klein once said: “There’s no excuse for the accordion.” Ah, perhaps a funny line, but oh so wrong. The accordion can be a most beautiful instrument, particularly in the hands of a talented musician for whom it is their chosen instrument. In Mexico City, there is a man who has been repairing accordions for almost 50 years, Francisco Luis Ramírez. This is his story. A light but beautiful read.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll (maker of office furniture) from the NYT article about remote work cited above:
So many executives are holding on to remnants of the past and assuming that was normal. The world is evolving. We changed as a society, and we changed what we know we can do.