Managers Need to Adapt to Remote Work | Opinion

I love working remotely. Not only am I doing the work that I enjoy and being well-compensated for it, but I also have the time and flexibility to spend more of my life with the people I love, and engage in my favorite hobbies, like reading and playing the guitar.

A recent op-ed published in the Washington Post by Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill railed against remote work. She lamented its potential to kill "office culture" and even went so far as to suggest reducing wages and benefits for those who opt for remote work.

Merrill's employees were not happy about this censure of remote work. They responded to it by going on strike, eliciting apologies and addendums from their boss. "I value each member of our team not only on a professional level but on a personal one as well," Merrill said. "I could not be more proud of their work and achievements under the challenging circumstances of the past year. I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else."

The Washingtonian debacle is merely an illustration of the long-standing trend of employers over-exerting power over their employees—a trend that, hopefully, is coming to an end. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified a pre-existing economic shift towards remote work. This has been a positive phenomenon, improving the productivity and well-being of workers and managers alike.

Before the pandemic, only 31 percent of workers sometimes worked from home. That went up to 51 percent during the height of the pandemic. Now, 89 percent aspire to work from home. Yet some industries might still embrace the attitude in Merrill's op-ed. The legal, financial and health sectors are slated to fully return to in-person work. But how justified is this return?

Roughly 26 percent of workers are considering leaving their jobs after the pandemic. Eighty percent of them cited worries about career advancement. What is meant by "career advancement" is wide-ranging—the most obvious facet is a desire for increased pay—but another part of it is job flexibility. Remote work not only pays more on average, but allows many workers to finish what they would have stretched out through a typical 9-to-5 in half the time or less.

Reducing in-person work also lowers carbon emissions and the cost to businesses of renting out office space. What's more, a partial return to in-person work risks exacerbating a disparity between low-skilled in-person work and high-skilled, more upwardly mobile remote work.

Remote work
Parisoma, a coworking space, is seen mostly empty in San Francisco, California on March 12, 2020. - Tech-savvy Silicon Valley is joining the trend of remote work and classes as people seek to contain the fast-growing disease, relying on many of the technologies invented or refined in the area. Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images

Given these benefits, is it worth risking the productivity, well-being and freedom of a great deal of the workforce?

Merrill cited the loss of "office culture" as a reason to worry about the growing shift towards remote work. But is something so vaguely defined as "office culture" worth preserving if it means sacrificing all of the good that remote work has brought to workers? Not likely. Resistance to remote work is also not a matter of productivity, as productivity improves with remote work. But if it's not office culture or productivity, why resist the change?

Many employers have another reason to be worried about a post-pandemic remote work-world. Writer Jessica Wildfire has argued that most employers do not, in fact, care about losing office culture. Rather, employers are pushing back against a more remote post-COVID work world because they are beginning to see themselves losing power over their employees.

Wildfire brilliantly points out—and even Merrill admitted—that much of what people are paid for working in an office compensates for added emotional labor. That is why one in four workers plan to quit their jobs after the pandemic: they do not want to fulfill often-invisible obligations that they never asked for, nor are they taking kindly to being coerced into new responsibilities through threats of demotion.

When polled, 40 percent of managers stated that they were not confident in their ability to manage teams remotely, and 41 percent expressed skepticism about their workers' ability to stay motivated when work is remote. Likewise, 15 percent of female and 36 percent of male managers simply do not trust their workers with the freedoms which come with remote work. Fifty-three percent of managers surveyed said that they believe remote work decreased worker productivity. Managers' distrust and lack of self-confidence are easily ameliorated through proper training—the recourses for which are widely available—and many managers' beliefs about motivation and productivity are simply uncorroborated by the facts.

What the facts do corroborate, however, is that managers are becoming obsolete in the world of remote work, and because of that, they are losing power. Only 5 percent of complex issues in the workplace require meetings, yet managers tend to call frequent meetings for what could've been an email, taking time away from productivity. Instead of adapting to the future of work, managers fall back on misconceptions at the expense of their workers' freedom, productivity and well-being.

Research shows that when leaders sense that they are losing their grip on power, they tend to take it out on subordinates and their productivity. Such loss of control is also heavily associated with self-serving behavior. And, in the context of employment, what is more self-serving than releasing oneself from the burden of adapting to new forms of work?

Perhaps shifting to remote work is a challenge, but it's a worthy one to take on for the sake of workers and productivity for the success of any company. The example of Merrill showed that workers have finally gained some upper ground, and they will not go down without a fight. Managers should recognize that remote work is here to stay, which is ultimately a good thing.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.