In the post “Should knowledge workers go back to the office or should we not?”, we examined some resistance to changing the way we work. Today, I want to dive deeper into why the idea of working remotely can be so nightmarish to managers and executives.
Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with. Why? Because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce. It disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats or by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It also disempowers poor workers. It removes the ability to look productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or busy typing on the computer). It also reveals how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.
A great deal of modern business has been built upon in-person work. As a society, we tend to consider management a title rather than a skill, something to promote people into. When you remove the physical office space—the place where people are yelled at in private offices or singled out in meetings—it becomes a lot harder to spook people as a type of management. In fact, your position at a company becomes more difficult to justify if all you do is delegate and nag people.
When we are all in the same physical space, the responsibility of a 9-to-5 employee isn’t simply the work or the execution of their role. What is also important is the appearance, optics, ceremony of the work and their diplomacy—by which I mean the ability to kiss up to the right people. I have known many people in different industries who have built careers on playing politics rather than producing something. I’ve also known truly terrible managers who have built empires, gaining VP and C-level positions, by stealing other people’s work and presenting it as their own. These petty fiefdoms are far harder to maintain when everyone is remote. You may get away with multiple passive-aggressive comments to colleagues in private meetings or calls. It’s much harder to do over Slack, email, and text when someone can take a screenshot and send it to HR or post it on social media. Similarly, if your entire work product is boxing up other people’s production and sending it to the CEO, that becomes significantly harder to prove as your own in a fully digital environment—the producer in question can simply send it along themselves. Remote work makes who does and doesn’t actually do work way more obvious.
Also, most private companies don’t share revenue, so we frequently tie headcount and real estate to success. Removing the physical office forces modern businesses to start justifying themselves through annoying things like “profit and loss” and “paying customers”.
So, what can we do? We need to understand that management manages systems while leadership leads people. Our environments have changed, yet we are still working within systems that are not built for the environment that we are in. So, stop forcing a square peg (office-based practices) into a round hole (changed work environment). Instead, go figure out how you would design how you work. Get some inspiration from my post “Why do we work the way we do? Reimagining how work can be like”. It’s going to be a time of experimentation. Using a human centric approach to design work around human behavior is a good start.