The New Anti-Remote Propaganda Wants To Gaslight You Back To The Office

They can't prove that remote work is bad for productivity - so it's time to start scaring workers.

Because I sincerely hate myself, I read the Washington Post’s “You may get more work done at home. But you’d have better ideas at the office,” written by two Harvard professors that have not worked in an office, to my knowledge, since the 90s, one of which has written a book that thinks solving the healthcare crisis is all about getting everybody insured and paid for “based on the quality of services provided.” I am surprised that nobody sent me this colossally stupid piece, written by two Professional Thinking Guys, founded off of a few different anecdotes that prove very little indeed.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

In [the case of a major American retailer and Chinese travel agency that split their call centers into work-from-home and in-office], workers at home handled at least as many calls as those who were in the office. In the case study of the Chinese company, published in 2015, productivity went up 13 percent among those who worked at home. In the U.S. case study, employees who went remote — this, too, happened before the pandemic — saw their calls per hour increase by 7.5 percent, a healthy boost to short-run productivity.

Pretty good, right?

Oh, wait!

But in both studies, the probability of being promoted for the remote workers roughly halved relative to people who worked in person — suggesting serious long-term consequences of remote work. In the U.S. study, for example, 23 percent of on-site workers were promoted within their first 12 months of work, while the remote promotion rate was 10 percent. Promotion meant being assigned to deal with more difficult calls, often with more irate customers. How would you learn to handle those calls if you couldn’t take cues from the workers around you? How would your boss learn that you had the right touch for that particularly angry buyer from Toledo?

Okay, so let’s take a few seconds to think about this. Both studies showed there was a drop in the chance you’d get promoted, which is big and scary, and the data shows that this bias exists. Now, the natural reaction here from a person with a working brain would be to say, “okay, we’ve got to fix that!” Except that isn’t what they’re suggesting at all - no, in fact, they’re implying that remote work is bad and inferior, and that it’s not possible to get complex work done - like taking “more difficult calls” - and that your boss will never “learn that you had the right touch” and thus promote you. You also would not “learn how to handle those calls if you couldn’t take cues from the workers around you.”

I wonder if that’s true? Let’s ask some people who’ve worked in call centers whether they took cues from their workmates?

This, like many anti-remote pieces, seems to be entirely focused on creating a culture of fear around remote work - and just like everything seems to put the onus not on companies to create fair working conditions, but on the worker to be aware of “bad situations” like going remote, which could kill their career chances (it won’t).

Of course, this article quotes the utterly flawed and broken Microsoft study about “static and siloed collaboration networks,” which is very bad and scary, so bad and dangerous that they fail to say why it’s bad - just that it’s “harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.” Is this bad because you can’t get the thing you need? Or is it bad because you can’t learn? They suggest it’s a learning problem and an issue of access, all of which are crammed into one paragraph before hitting you with this bullshit:

The information-rich nature of face-to-face contact led the great English economist Alfred Marshall to write more than 130 years ago that when workers gather in dense clusters, “the mysteries of the trade become no mystery but are, as it were, in the air.” This remains true. Economic studies find that migrants to metropolitan areas see their wages increase month by month, year by year, which is most compatible with the view that people become more productive by becoming enmeshed in a dense, vibrant, face-to-face setting.

A few things about Alfred marshall - economists have had to write papers about dealing with Marshall’s work despite how racist he was. He was good friends with the Keynes family. He eagerly wrote that “everyone interested in Eugenics should read [John Maynard Keynes’] letter” and then sent Keynes payment for a lifetime membership of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. Keynes, of course, was a big-time Eugenics fan, calling it “most important, significant, and I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.”

Perhaps this is a “whoopsiedoodle, didn’t know” moment for the average human, but both of the writers of this piece are Harvard professors of economics. They know what they’re talking about, and the fact that they have to bolster their argument with a fan of eugenics suggests more than simple ignorance. “It’s one quote!” you may say, to which I say “yes, and that quote doesn’t even make any sense or add to their argument.” Even if you agree with it (which you should not, because it is a vague and meaningless platitude), what Alfred Marshall - a man who died in 1924 - would define as “trade” or “work” or “economics” or “mystery” are now completely void of meaning. This man was in his 30s when they invented the car! He only lived through one World War because he died before the second started!

I am being so endlessly petulant about this paragraph because it shows the lengths to which the anti-remote brigade will go to justify making people go back to the office. Instead of quoting old, white CEOs, they’re choosing to quote dead, white, and racist economists. Economists who have had this single phrase ripped apart in research found that less than 10% of relationships are formed by “purely casual circumstances.” Also, the end of this quote (page 156) is “children learn many of them
unconsciously.” Hey, when was child labor banned? Fourteen years after Marshall died? Also, at one point, he says that “the relations of many ancient Greeks and Romans with the slaves of their households were genial and humane.” Good shit.

Anyway, the more significant point here is that these two big brains of economics have chosen to start interpreting what this guy meant like they’re reading the Bible, all to justify a messy point around the idea that migrants move to a metropolitan area their wages increase month by month, or year by year, “which is most compatible with the view that people become more productive by becoming enmeshed in a dense, vibrant, face-to-face setting.” Now, I ain’t no fancy economist, but could that not also be attributed to the fact that that’s where the jobs are? No need to ask!

The rest of this piece is the most specious anti-remote argument I’ve read yet - a fear-based fan fiction about how there are fewer remote work jobs now, that students in the Netherlands found that students “made little or no progress while learning from home,” and then, laughably, adding that it was “most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes.” Other than this not being about work or based on anything other than one study, I can't couch these guys talking about “disadvantaged homes” while quoting Marshall. It’s laughable.

Be Afraid, For Some Reason

Glaeser and Cutler close off their piece with a beautiful quote:

The allure of the work-from-home economy is not new. Forty years ago, the futurist Alvin Toffler argued that the new communications technologies of the time (fax machines, early computers) would lead people to abandon offices and leave cities empty. Toffler was wrong then — metropolitan economies rose from their postindustrial ashes — and remains so.

Can you please, god, quote some theories from a year beginning with 2?

While I could spend another 1000 words ranting about this piece, I want to turn my attention back to the general problem of major newspapers spewing endless anti-remote propaganda. What’s impressive is that this is both an offensive and weakly-argued piece by two guys who are, from what I can tell, literally paid to make points about stuff that one cannot pull apart in seconds.

This is the next front of this fight - the executive sect has realized that simply telling people that remote work is terrible using the flimsiest arguments possible won’t work. Thus they’ve moved on to scaring the workers themselves. Remote workers are “short-changed,” and too much remote work is “bad for your career.” It’s bad for younger employees, and will have you “leaning out of your career.” The Wall Street Journal worries that jobs won’t be able to keep things fair, and researchers say that it’s bad for most employees.” And remote workers - the Times worries - may get left behind in the hybrid office.

All of this is likely because “CEOs are at their wit’s end” (to quote CNBC) trying to work out how to get people back into the office. The first real attack was trying to frame the office as superior to working from home - you get “culture” and “spontaneous collaboration” at work, which can’t happen over Zoom. Thus everyone should be excited to go back because it’s good.

That didn’t work because it was almost entirely fictional - a creation in the minds of bosses that haven’t done any dedicated office work in decades, who do not understand technology and fear it, and who do not see workers as workers but as pieces of property that they want back in their possession. Office workers have realized that they have a surprising amount of power here - that the argument is stupid, that their work is being done just as well at home, and thus have told bosses demanding them back that such a thing is ridiculous. Even Apple, a trillion-dollar company with hundreds of millions of fans, has had trouble sustaining the argument with “but our culture!” platitudes.

I think that Kellen Browning’s recent anti-remote screed in the Times may be pretty telling of how we’re going to see this argument being made in the future. We will now see article after article of spurious research and empty anecdotes from people who talk about “being isolated” by working from home or feeling like their “careers are on pause” because of never seeing their bosses.

I will say this is thematically accurate - the argument this entire time has always been anti-worker, and I think with this, they’ve found a theme that finds a way to blame one hundred percent of remote work’s problems on the workers. The worm has turned from “remote is bad!” to “be careful what you wish for,” with nary a mention of why companies are responsible for any bias in hiring or firing, not the workers. The reality is that if it is the case that there is bias against remote workers, then companies should be held accountable, and it should be considered a labor violation.

I’ll choose this time to skip over arguing against the “good ideas don’t happen unless you’re in the same room” thing because it is entirely founded by people who don’t have any good ideas and/or aren’t in the same room as their workers.

What I do want to attack is the idea that remote work can “destroy your career progression.”

Remote Work Does Not Destroy Your Career Progression

To take the assumption at face value - that remote work distances you from those in power and thus makes them less likely to observe your success - suggests that this doesn’t happen in person when it absolutely does. Black women are less likely to be promoted or supported by their managers, and 41% of black women said that they’ve never had a substantive interaction with a senior leader about their work - wait, isn’t that what the office is meant to do? Women are predominantly in less senior positions due to managers underestimating them, and people of color - especially women - are not promoted in tech at the same rate as men. And it’s very well documented that people of color don’t get fair treatment in the office.

My point is not that remote work is perfect - a study from March showed that remote work led to more gendered and racial harassment (which the surveyor Ellen Pao partially attributes to longer hours, more anxiety, and how poorly-prepared digital communications platforms are to handle harassment) - but that the argument that “the office is better for your career” is utterly empty. Office culture is built for white people, and thus those that may be saying that it’s “better for your career to be in the office” may not realize that perhaps the reason their career was better in the office wasn’t about their productivity or winning personality.

The other part of this is the idea of “visibility.” If you aren’t seen, you won’t possibly be able to prove value. Again, visibility is a term that is used to blame workers for institutional failures, similar to the term “managing up” - it suggests that you are at fault for not getting promoted, and that promotion is entirely based on your ability to shove your achievements into the ears of superiors. While there is a degree of truth - if someone doesn’t know what you did you may not get promoted - the reality is that a lot of people get promoted who don’t deserve it because they’re diplomatic, or kiss the right ass, or “self-advocate” (some combination of the two) - all things that don’t actually matter. Anti-remote bosses love these terms because it allows them to drag more work out of people for less (or no!) extra money, making them “take on roles outside of their direct responsibilities” as a means of “being a team player.”

Note that none of these things are actually about the office - they’re just easier to execute when you’ve got people trapped in a building. You can claim other people’s work and kiss up to a superior in person in a way that doesn’t seem inherently greasy - over Slack or Zoom, it feels awkward and weird. Similarly, it’s much easier to show that a boss is regularly asking you to do stuff outside of your job when you get a request at 7PM on a Thursday to do something that you’re not paid to.

I definitely am not saying that remote work makes it easier to get promoted, just that it doesn’t seem like it makes it harder to do than it was in an office, unless you are a massive piece of shit. If your career path came from handing off work that other people did, or ordering people around in a “visible way,” remote work is likely quite terrifying - it is a net loss for people with empty careers carved through diplomacy.

Also, surely remote work helps with visibility? When you do something, you can Slack someone it. There is less aesthetically driven decisionmaking based on whether you’re in or out of the office, nor the false illusions of people who “don’t seem like they’re busy.”

The final argument they’re wheeling out is that it will make it harder to “break into” industries and established cliques. While it’s true you won’t be able to go to events and get introduced to people - unless of course you’re able to go as it’s local, because remote work doesn’t mean that you’re unable to leave the house - again we must ask whether this is something that has to take place in person. Networking, depending on the research you read, is the way that the majority of people find work, but one can also network online, using social media, something which has not been broken out in that study. I’d love to read some research about digital networking vs. in-person networking, honestly, and how much actual networking helped people’s careers.

Once again - remote work is not the end of going outside, nor the end of talking to people outside of work, nor the end of going to conferences. It is about whether you have to be in the office for your work, which you should not have to be if you can do your job remotely. You may still live in the city, or near enough to travel in, you may still go to events, you may do all of these things - but you do not have to do them in an office, surrounded by people.

The crux of all of this is that the arguments against remote work can easily be made against the office, but they’re being made by people who have no idea what being in an office is like. They assume that the work - which they are fully divorced from - takes place in a bubble of meritocracy, where people who work hard are applauded and promoted as such, where big ideas bubble to the surface through the circus of human interaction.

What actually happens is people sit in the same room and occasionally poke their heads up to ask something, and occasionally go into another room. People are ignored who are good at their jobs but bad at office politics, and people who aren’t good at their jobs are promoted because they’re able to keep everybody around them sufficiently happy with them. This isn’t something that always happens, but it happens regularly enough that people are embittered and annoyed at the office, and it will happen less if we remove a chunk of the performance of work.

What continues to be obvious in every one of these pieces is that bosses (and for some reason economists) are terrified. Their disconnection from labor made them unaware of how significant it was that people were able to work from home for so long (which is why, I think, the law firm I mentioned in this piece was so intent on getting people back to the office), and how challenging as a result it would be to justify getting people back into the office. Had they known exactly how their business functioned (and thus how much it could function remotely), they’d have likely been significantly more resistant to remote work, and found bizarre ways to have people come into the office in “shifts” or something, for fear that people would get too used to working from home, which they have.

PwC has gone fully remote in the US, which is a start, but the splashy headlines as usual have buried that they’ll be decreasing pay based on where people live. This is only partial progress - and I think they’ll find that people still accept the pay cut rather than work in an office for no good reason - and is going to be the template that big companies work from, because there is always a way that big companies screw their workers.

In any case, this is going to be an ongoing war - the Fortune 500 is a monolith of mostly white men in their late 50s that are so disconnected from their workforce that they likely haven’t interacted with anyone below the C-suite in years, and have no understanding of how their company really works. The result is going to be years of weird half-measures, wrapped up as “flexibility” to keep people happy - but these companies will find it increasingly more difficult to negotiate with every passing year that remote jobs are commonplace.

And between now and then, they are going to do everything they can to fight this tide, because for them, part of the joy of being a CEO is the sense of control - to “make people successful,” to extract labor from them, and on some level to own them.