Charlie Warzel: “The Future of Work Is Not Threatening Your Employees”

From a post by Charlie Warzel on headlined Thee future of work is not threatening your employees”:

On Thursday night, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian Media, blundered into the post-Covid remote work discussion in the least productive way possible: via veiled threats to her employees in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.

Merrill’s op-ed is a greatest hits of straw man arguments about corporate culture and the importance of working from home. But what elevates her essay into the pantheon of Tone-deaf Executive Commentary is the decision to hint that employees who don’t come back full-time to the office will become contractors and lose their salaries, health care, and 401(k) benefits. Merrill describes this as “a tempting economic option the employees might not like.” The last line of her piece ominously suggests employees to, “remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”…

The original headline of the piece was itself an unsubtle threat: “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office.” (Over email, Washington Post Opinion editor Fred Hiatt told me that Merrill did not write the headline. “I asked our team to change it early this morning to something I thought better captured the piece,” he said.)

Still, the op-ed blindsided Washingtonian employees. Two I spoke with saw the op-ed while casually checking Twitter and were shocked — and their surprise quickly turned to hurt and frustration….

Part of that hard work, employees told me, involved covering an unusual amount of unrest in the nation’s capitol where staffers were teargassed and frequently in harm’s way. “It has been a really difficult year for the city we cover, Andrew Beaujon, a senior editor at the magazine told me. “And we’re not complaining — we feel privileged to do this work but it’s it’s not an easy job. And that’s made this op-ed all the more shocking.”…

The staff’s reaction is part of a broader trend of employees who are demanding a say in constructing their companies’ strategy for flexible work once the pandemic subsides. More than a year of laboring (often quite successfully) in captivity has rendered long-held arguments by executives — that remote work is less productive and unsustainable — obsolete. Across industries, employees are increasingly unwilling to stand back and watch entrenched executives who refuse to see the opportunities of a flexible work future. When clueless executives show their ass, some employees are less afraid to issue a vote of no confidence — sometimes in the form of a resignation letter.

What employees want, of course, is some basic flexibility. They want less performative work and more freedom to determine where and that work gets done. Merrill’s steadfast refusal to find new ways to work and her staff’s protest should be a warning to executives everywhere: Workers are desperate for more autonomy over their lives. They crave more balance and less precarity. They also, crucially, want to work. But they want to work for places that treat them as human beings — and that invest in them and their futures. Companies that fail to provide that respect and trust will, eventually, find a way to leave….

This isn’t to say that the process of working during a pandemic has been easy. The employees I spoke to are tired and stressed, just like legions of workers who’ve had to work from home while simultaneously hiding from a deadly virus and homeschooling their children. For that reason, many Washingtonian staffers told me they are actually excited about the prospect for returning to the office in some capacity — they’d just like to have a say in what that return looks like….

Had Merrill listened before trying to become a Future of Work thinkfluencer, she might have noticed that her employees are proud of their work and their company. She might have learned that, while they’d like some flexibility going forward, they do want to come back to the office in some form. It’s possible she might have learned that the company has been incredibly productive during the pandemic — save the last 24 hours, as work has ground to a halt as they’ve dealt with a public relations shitstorm of her own creation. She might have also learned that the company culture, at the employee level, is tight-knit. The culture is positive enough that, in all my conversations, staffers refused to disparage Merrill or focus on her management style beyond the op-ed. That’s because they want their hard-earned trust and morale among staffers to remain high.

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