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The Charlatans Profiting Off Of Anti-Remote Rhetoric
I am so tired.
I don’t mean this in a weepy, complaining way. I am just so exhausted by the disconnect between those who do actual work - that do things that actually make companies money - and those who make the decisions that these workers face. FastCompany, an outlet that really needs to stop publishing management experts’ opinions, decided to push another wonderful story called “Remote Work Has A Downside.”
These articles, I feel, are being written to fight a tide of totally imaginary “remote work is good” stories. It’s the only explanation that really makes sense (other than the boss-led propaganda to get people back to the office) - a well-funded, well-promoted, awfully-written campaign against the theoretical feeling that “everybody thinks remote work is good.” It sucks, because what’s actually happened is that very few outlets are really writing positive remote work pieces - the Times and Journal have worked hand-in-hand to fuel terrible bosses’ pro-office fever dreams, for example - and thus the entire narrative has become people that run companies arguing with those that actually run the companies.
Why is it that, even in the midst of a pandemic, millions of people quit their jobs each & every month? Research shows a bump in pay isn’t all the great. And how is it that employee engagement & job satisfaction remain stalled at near record lows across the globe?
Excuse me mate, what was that? What’s that about “a bump in pay isn’t all that great”? You haven’t worked a real job since 2010, when you were the SVP of Sales Leadership for an advisory firm that you worked at since 1995, where you appear to have been the “First Vice President” as well as “Senior Regional Manager.”
Of course I’m going to get to throwing this article in the toilet and flushing so hard I break the thing in two, but I really want to focus on something - this person, like many of these people, have absolutely no connection to real work, let alone real workers. Someone who’s job for the last twelve years has been consulting for other consultants has no place talking about “leadership” - my friend, you have led nothing in quite some time - and they have no place to talk about why people are or are not quitting their jobs.
It’s the same problem I have with asking managers about working from home - these people are likely not going to feel any of the consequences of the actions they’re promoting. In the case of Crowley’s article, it starts off with one of my favourite “more sources needed” quotes:
Despite how popular the idea of working from home permanently has become for many people today, I’ve come to believe that working remotely full-time is detrimental to human well-being, not to mention organizational success. Without working some days each week in the office—when everyone else is there too—the harm to all of us is far greater than we might ever imagine.
You’re a professional speaker! What place do you have talking about any of this? What organizational success have you experienced in memory? The answer is none, but because he’s an “expert” he’s allowed to vomit his poorly-cited and argued drivel. His opening anecdote - about a 75-minute commute to work that eventually allowed him to work from home two days a week - raises one major question: what decade did this take place in, Mark?
…after two years of being a resentful road warrior, my boss shocked me by saying I needn’t make the trip every day anymore. She said it was perfectly fine if I worked from home one or even two days a week…
But after missing only a few days in the office, I had the sudden epiphany that the time I spent with my colleagues in person is what made my working remotely possible. The convenience of not having to drive 150 miles every day was great, but my success in leading a team virtually was also dependent upon the true connection I attained from meeting my boss for a quick lunch, running into people in the halls who supported my business or pulling my team into a conference room for an ad hoc pow wow.
When did you last have a boss? Based on your LinkedIn, it looks like you last had one in 2010? Hey, FastCompany, did anyone ask the guy who said he leads from the heart wasn’t talking from the ass? Because this entire anecdote seems totally made up! Why does a guy who is a “leader” have a boss? What’s going on, Mark!?
When you say that “[your] success in leading a team virtually was also dependent upon the true connection I attained from meeting my boss for a quick lunch, running into people in the halls who supported my business or pulling my team into a conference room for an ad hoc pow wow,” what was the team? Who was your boss? What company? There might be an innocent explanation here - perhaps he was working remotely in the mid-2000s, which would be interesting if not somewhat useless, or perhaps he currently has another job that, for some reason, he doesn’t publicly disclose. A job where he has a boss.
I’ve emailed Mark to ask for some clarity here. I’ll update the weblink of this article once I have it.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, customer service representatives at one major credit card company worked in call centers where they interacted with one another in meetings and on breaks. But ever since these employees were deployed to their homes to work (now permanently) turnover according to management has “skyrocketed.” Workers who quit said the isolation they felt was dispiriting—and not having friends around to lift them up after dealing with an angry customer made the job lonely, joyless and gave them little reason to stay.
I almost want to contact someone at FastCompany about this piece, because every paragraph seems to lack even the most basic information. What call center? What credit card company? Which workers? This is obviously your standard anti-remote work anecdote, sure, but this doesn’t say anything other than someone - a non-specific number of people I might add - quit because of the dispiriting isolation of working from home, as opposed to the dispiriting isolation of working in a call center, one of the most miserable jobs in the world.
God, this article sucks.
People who argue in favor of working remotely full-time will tell you they have all the social contact they need outside of work. But according to the behavioral scientist, Jon Levy, “It’s only one-in-a-million people for whom this is really true.” Author of the New York Times bestseller, “You’re Invited: The Art And Science Of Cultivating Influence,” Levy wrote, “The greatest punishment we give people in society is either solitary confinement or banishment from the group. It’s because we’re not meant to be isolated and—without connection to others—we suffer psychologically and emotionally.”
Calling Jon Levy a behavioral scientist is like calling me an engineer because I work with tech companies. He got his Bachelor of Science in [data missing] from NYU in 2002. This isn’t simply disingenuous, it’s also totally wrong. And Levy is the entire foundation for this article. I also want to answer his question:
“Now that we have all the technology that could support it, do you think it would be a good idea to move all elementary school, middle school, high school, and college education exclusively to remote learning?”
As you might imagine, Levy quickly confirmed that most of us would answer his question with an emphatic “no.” And that begs another question, “If we wouldn’t isolate our children like this, what makes us believe being isolated ourselves is such a good idea?
Because work is not the same as school. You do not go to school because you’re paid to, you go because it turns you into a person who lives in the world (in theory). And even then, there are plenty of high school-level things that could be done remotely. It is a perfect straw man for an article written by a guy who’s principle citations come from a “behavioral scientist” with no published academic.
Also, crucially…working from home isn’t isolation. I talk to people all the time online. I Zoom with them. We chat on the phone. We DM on Twitter. It’s really easy when you’re not 400 years old arguing in an op-ed that people need to be working in an office to be “happy” when there’s little evidence that you’ve worked in an office since the 2010 midterms.
There are still some nuggets to dig into, though:
In a 2018 study referenced in Jon Levy’s book, “You’re Invited,” Wharton organizational behavior professor, Sigal Barsade, found that lonelier employees feel less committed to their employers and also to their co-workers. In moments of stress or conflict, lonely employees are more likely to decide that certain relationships aren’t worth the effort. And when the connection between colleagues begins to wear, distrust infects communication and collaborations. “Entire teams and even departments can suffer.”
If I had to guess, he’s not quoting a study from any book, but from this Harvard Business Review piece by Professor Barsade from 2018. The article in question has absolutely nothing to do with remote work - and crucially includes a quote that says “there is very little research on how the experience of being lonely plays out in the workplace.” The study of 672 employees across 143 work groups (and their 114 supervisors) covered industries including a service and manufacturing outsourcer, with over 41 different positions, as well as clerks, truck drivers, managers, engineers, and police officers.
I wonder why this quote was left out of Mark’s piece?
In other words, even though the person may desperately want to connect with others, they see their environment as threatening and become hyper-vigilant and overly sensitive to the responses of others.
Hey, this sounds like something an office would actively hurt! Oh well, no need to actually read the stuff you’re quoting, right mark?
And one more thing:
Research by Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad shows the most important predictor of living a long life is social integration–meaning how many people we connect with every day. And a new study from the University of Chicago confirms this by showing it’s the routine interactions we have with myriad people, including workers from different areas, cafeteria workers, and people we see at the gym that sustain us. According to Holt-Lunstad, the impact of lacking social connection is equal to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day – greater than the risks of obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise. In the words of Vivek Murthy, “Quite simply, human relationship is as essential to physical, psychological and emotional well-being as food and water.”
So I went and dug up Holt-Lunstad’s study, and there’s one crucial detail to add: it is almost twelve years old (published in July 2010). While the connection between mortality and social interaction is valid, what this has to do with work - other than the vague line between “we need to see people” and “we see people at work” - is questionable. To conflate “needing human contact” with “we need to go to the office” is an abominable leap of logic that only a guy who has not been to one in a long time would make.
The Anti-Remote Work Influence Boom
The reason that you’re seeing so many of these guys pop up to attack remote work is because it’s good business if you’re in the business of selling hot air, promising to teach people how to “do influence” or “be a great leader" for a five-or-six figure fee while you crush the workers you’re claiming to help them lead under your foot. Levy himself has an extremely questionable op-ed about why “hybrid work won’t last” that includes a totally insane paragraph:
Working from home can be too convenient. Things that are convenient aren’t necessarily good for us. Lifting weights is hard, but it makes us stronger. Similarly, it is more convenient not to have a commute or change out of our pajamas, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Having some commuting time, whether it’s walking, on public transit, or in a car, gives us an opportunity to let our minds wander and explore ideas. In these moments, you replay conversations from the day. Maybe you plan your discussion with your boss about a raise. You have time to process. Office life forces transitions and breaks throughout the day, as people shift between meeting rooms, desks, and meals and coffee. Of course, remote workers can plan breaks into their days, but most people aren’t very good at putting boundaries on their time.
As usual, it’s always a good job to check their LinkedIn, and Mr. Levy’s job appears to have been some form of “founder” or “consultant” since 2010. Which would be totally fine if he wasn’t trying to claim that remote work is “too convenient” or that we need “belonging” in an office. As I’ve said many times, it’s extremely easy - significantly easier than finding a place where you belong! - to find an office where you don’t belong. These are all things you learn from talking to regular people!
But that’s the point. While these articles may seem to be trying to prove a point, what they’re actually doing is selling the person in question’s services to the higher-ups that will use their oafish half-wit “arguments” to confirm their biases and send people back to the office. When Crowley is next hired to do a “leadership summit” or somesuch business, he’ll be able to do a long, meandering speech about how “great leaders know that the best work is done together.”
None of these people want to actually know the truth, otherwise they’d speak to the people working at companies over those running them. The Internet can basically prove any point you want with enough googling, and these articles are catnip to executives that want to justify the warm and fuzzy feeling of forcing people into the office that they’re in a few days in a month.
I feel like I’m pulling my punches, so let me be blunt: there are very few “leadership experts” that are not completely evil. It is an evil career - it is taking George Bernard Shaw’s quote that “those who can’t, teach” and stretching it over a human skeleton. They are the professional version of inspirational quotes, intelligent-sounding and framed statements that fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, shipped to executives that just want to feel good and that they “got a lot out of a session.” Indeed, anyone who claims to have “expertise” in something that they are not actively engaged in on a daily basis is morally corrupt - it is intentionally misleading.
The reason that these people keep getting published places is because it’s very hard to quantify whether someone is actually an expert in something, and sometimes the easiest way to tell (if you are doing absolutely no research into them) is to see if they call themselves an expert. And I’m going to guess that these op-eds are extremely good traffic-drivers - the responses to these articles on Twitter are furious, and, of course, people regularly hate-share things (agh! How did I get hooked on my own petard?).
You may think that these people would be naturally pro-remote work - it’s future-facing, young people love it, and it’s vaguely technological. But the truth is that there is a much larger, wealthier subset of people that will pay to be told at length why they’re very smart for doing incredibly stupid things. Executives that have little connection to or understanding of the working world don’t want to have to think about work - they want to be told that their workers are demanding and ignorant of the bigger picture of “what’s good for them.”