What Gurus Miss About the Issues of Remote Work

Scott Berkun, author of the most excellent book “How Design Makes the World,” spun a particularly bad take in his defense of remote work. It was in reaction to another bad take, this by a CEO, Cathy Merrill, chief executive of Washingtonian Media, who asserts that remote work will lead to the “erosion” of office culture.

Berkun quotes “remote work expert” David Tate:

when fearful CEOs talk about workplace culture, they’re really talking about workplace control

According to Berkun, CEO

insecurities demand that the way work is done by employees is always visible, highly regulated and uses the methods executives prefer, rather than what’s best for everyone’s productivity.

He tells a story of Merrill’s, who referenced another, anonymous CEO’s issue with a new employee who was struggling with remote work. Berkun says:

This is simply a management failure. Does this company not have telephones? Or email? Have they never worked with a vendor or client that wasn’t in the same building?

This strikes at the heart of the issue. Comparing an employee to a vendor is just plain wrong — even though in these times employees seem to be as disposable and interchangeable as vendors, at least from management point-of-view. Merrill’s thinking is that office culture is about

helping a colleague or mentoring more junior people, extra work that she feels is impossible to do remotely.

Berkun’s “solution” is to point to remote companies such as Automattic and Citrix who have “solved” these problems for remote employees. But the “solution” is wrong because the problem is wrong. Whether or not “office culture” is defined as the work and interaction that’s not considered an employee’s direct responsibility, it’s not really about office culture or CEO control at all.

And let’s be clear here: At many companies, employees don’t do work as defined by CEOS anyway. Good CEOs let their employees use the best tools to get their jobs done — within reason and budget, of course. And as companies have adopted “agile” methodology such as scrum, the visibility and responsibility is to peers on a day-to-day basis more than to management.

Both of these “experts” miss the biggest issue with 100% remote work: Trust.

The best teams of people are the teams of people who know and trust each other. You get to know and trust other people by spending time with them. In the workplace, you’re spending time with your teammates and other co-workers not only in accomplishing the work that you’re doing, but in ad hoc time that is not related to work. The friendly conversations that start a day. The chats at the water cooler or coffee machine. The conversations over a meal or a workout.

You cannot get to know someone if you cannot spend time with them. And this is not something that can be forced, such as with annual company meet-and-greets where regimented activities force people together. You get to know people organically, over time, and eventually, the trust builds.

When you’re remote, you have to put something on someone's calendar just to get some face time over Zoom. That’s the antithesis of ad hoc.

This is not an argument against remote work. It has its purposes, and in many ways it can be beneficial. For many companies, forced 100% office time is sub-optimal, but so is 100% forced remote. But no matter how good a manager or C-level you are, there is just no way you are going to be able to “solve” the trust issue with tools, technologies, or technique.

A good option is flexibility, but with a preference for in-office presence. This allows opportunity for teams and co-workers to spend physical time with each other, to learn about each other, and to build trust with on another. It has zero to do with CEO control and everything to do with understanding that work relationships are human relationships. And even the most introverted of us, like me, still crave quality relationships in all part of our lives, even our work lives. We do that by being together.

Rational. Emotional. Thoughtful. Opinionated. Politics. Sports. Politics in sports. Tech. Writing. Tech writing. Calling out the B.S. everywhere.