William D. Cohan, a 61-year-old former investment banker and professional “guy you wonder why they’re writing instead of doing the job they write about,” authored yet another New York Times op-ed about why remote work is bad. Cohan, a guy who (and I quote) “was far from God’s gift to the profession” and a “special correspondet” for Vanity Fair (spelling his), justifies the return to the office for Wall Street bankers and traders based on a great deal of stuff from the 90s.
50% of his half-assed office propaganda is spent listing the things he’s done in the past, and the rest is the kind of soft, baseless anecdotes you’d expect - including stuff like “[Goldman Sachs] executives decided, correctly, that the benefits of in-person collaboration outweighed the potential health risks,” with no further investigation of what those benefits are. His strongest attempt at defining why it is we should be at the office comes in probably one of the more confusing paragraphs I’ve read that I didn’t write:
By watching my mentors press an advantage or bluff an opponent, I absorbed their deal-making wisdom. There is simply no way that an endless series of video chats could have replaced the lessons I learned darting in and out of the offices of these men and women in Rockefeller Center or at 270 Park Avenue as I was making my way up the investment-banking ladder. (Let’s face it: You can’t suck up on a Zoom call.)
First of all, I’m in public relations, and you can absolutely suck up during a Zoom call! Secondly, this guy quite literally mentioned he wasn’t god’s gift to the profession, and one must ask - if all of those years of “absorbing deal-making wisdom” were so effective, why are you not still making deals? According to Mr. Cohan’s LinkedIn, he started as a “special correspondet” at Vanity Fair in 2008. Hey, just a quick question to the audience - did anything big happen in banking that year? What about in 2009? No? Anyone? If I were an editor at the Times, I’d definitely ask why this guy, who has not been working in Wall Street since two years before LTE internet was available in the US, should have an opinion on how people should work in Wall Street. This man stopped working in Wall Street before Zoom existed, and his tenure on Wall Street appears to have ended before the iPhone 3GS came out.
The point I’m making is that someone that stopped working on Wall Street when only 23% of the world had access to the internet (versus 51% in 2019) should not be instructing “next generation of bankers and traders" on how they should “learn how capital is raised and distributed,” or discussing “industry-transforming deals.” I suppose it’s also worth adding that he’s a co-founder of Puck, a website with such a bad name and SEO that it does not appear when you search for “Puck” on Google.
I am returning to a few previous points I’ve made about these remote work op-eds, in particular, that the older generation really seems to hate it, and that we need to stop asking managers what they think of remote work, and adding one specific thing: can we stop asking people who do not appear to do a job of any kind about remote work? This guy has, at best, not worked in an actual office for twelve years. His entire opinion is based on whatever memory he has of being mentored by a guy non-specifically at some point, and appears to justify the return to the office based on the “deal-making wisdom” that didn’t seem to carry him past the last great financial crisis. The Times - and they’ve done it before - seems habitually dedicated to fighting against remote work using some of the most poorly chosen goofballs in the world.
The Anti-Remote Op-ed Brigade
They’re not the only ones doing it either. TIME published a peculiar article about how “research shows working from home doesn’t work” last week, and it’s easily one of the most bizarre and poorly-written things I’ve ever seen on the subject. The article continually backs up why remote work is useful, then justifies that it isn’t useful using either no research or research that literally refers to the scarcity of research into the subject, specifically one around “team flow,” then proceeds to use the “Great Resignation” narrative to say that a lack of collaboration made people quit their jobs:
Utah-based virtual whiteboard app Lucidspark found that 75% of 1,000 respondents surveyed in September last year said collaboration was the thing that suffered most when working remotely. HR departments are now paying the price for this isolation and lack of collaboration, with 2021 already being called the year of the ‘Great Resignation.’ The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the annual quit rate was 25.5% in 2020 and millions of workers have resigned in 2021.
The Plastic Man-level stretch required for this logic is truly marvelous - that people quit their jobs not because they were treated poorly, or that their bosses sucked, or that they were burned out from the pandemic, or any other reason, but because they lost collaboration with their team. TIME publishes this - as with all these op-eds - with no critique, no commentary, no consideration of these extremely vague facts…and then lets the writer make the demand for compulsory in-office time, concluding with the insanely broad statement that “for the majority of workers in most industries, working from home doesn’t work.” It also includes one of the more offensive things I’ve read on the subject (emphasis mine)!
Since before the pandemic began I have been assessing multi-disciplinary collaboration in a work-from-home environment for my PhD research at Imperial College, London. Individuals employed on creative projects in virtual teams reported feeling more like a ‘worker’, and less like a member of a family. One respondent said of employers: “They don’t see how early you show up in front of your computer…They don’t see how hard I’m working.”
I don’t know, I’m not going for my Ph.D., but if these are the findings that you use to justify that remote work is bad, you’re evaluating the wrong things and being evaluated by the wrong people. Your workplace is not your family. You can enjoy the personal interactions you have with your workmates, but to publish an anti-remote work piece with the veracity of its claims based on how much of a family you feel is disgraceful. It also uses the classic optics-driven work environment to justify a return to the office, which is equal parts noxious and wrongheaded. If I was an editor, I’d be putting a big google docs comment on there that says “okay, but doesn’t that mean people are being evaluated based on their actual output?” I’d also ask what exactly “seeing how hard someone is working” actually means, and whether someone’s appearance of working matters when it comes to work.
The article also doesn’t disclose that the writer’s clients include companies backed by Goldman Sachs Growth and Blackstone Tactical Opportunities, nor question the veracity of her research, or anything, really, because it’s an op-ed, which apparently makes it objective. The fact that TIME has published this under the byline of a Ph.D. candidate isn’t simply misleading; it’s duplicitous - it frames the article as research-based when even the most concussed editor would question the framing and accuracy of these statements.
I am guessing that the reason that big outlets love to put out these op-eds is that someone on the editorial side really, really doesn’t like remote work, and there’s a specific remit to get these kinds of articles out there. I also imagine there’s a degree of hot-takery at play - that constantly promoting people with these opinions will get their pieces read and shared by people who are furious at them. I also question whether this actually works, and whether this is truly the intention - I’m a cynic, so I always have to ask what agenda is being pursued by an opinions section that continually only shows one side of an argument. One has to imagine that there must be a reason that the Times and other outlets love to give oxygen to these weakly-argued and researched articles, and whom on the editorial side has such a vested interest in having people back in the office.
Maybe it’s that the editorial side of these outlets are older, or didn’t grow up being digital natives. Maybe it’s that they want to keep stoking the fires of controversy. Regardless of the answer, these articles are shameful, embarrassing, and genuinely harmful - they are going to be used by executives to justify a return to the office, based on spurious bylines in national media outlets. When an old guy that barely does any work needs to come up with a reason to send people back to an office that he never visits, his easiest play is going to be to say that “The New York Times says remote work is bad,” and nobody will be able to argue with him, because he’s the boss.
Or, hopefully, they’ll quit on him.