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Opinion As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Cathy Merrill is chief executive of Washingtonian Media.

Like many of my fellow small-business owners, I am excited about the prospect of returning to in-person work but am struggling with when and how to safely reopen our office — how many days a week, vaccination requirements, mask mandates and so on. But also like my peers, I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion.

In several group calls with chief executives, I’ve found a great sense of pride in how well our teams have done during the past year. However, we all started at a place where we and our employees knew one another, which made remote work considerably easier and more productive. We also could rely on office cultures — established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person. Now, we face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build.

One of the biggest issues we talk about is an apparent age gap. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from many CEOs that their older, more senior employees — working from comfortable homes and happy to be relieved of commuting — are more reluctant to go back to the office than their younger colleagues, many of whom have been working from small apartments or their parents’ homes. Some research supports that: Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield reported last year that 70 percent of millennial and Generation X workers “struggle more” with the challenges of working from home, and consulting firm PwC found that fewer than 1 in 5 executives wanted to return to the shared workplace as it was before the pandemic.

For business owners, this disparity poses a real problem. As the economy rebounds, we need to hire and attract talent. To do so, we will need leaders on site. Consider the son of a friend of mine, a young investment banker who was courted by two firms last fall. One said that its employees wouldn’t be back in their offices for at least a year; the other said that theirs would be back as soon as it felt safe. He picked the latter. He didn’t want to spend another year working remotely. Most importantly, he wanted to be around a brain trust of more senior people whom he could learn from and connect with. How will we persuade new employees to come aboard, and, more importantly, stay, if they don’t have leaders they can build solid in-person relationships with?

While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.

Furthermore, we need feedback — good and bad — to successfully manage employees, and they need it to succeed. A friend at a Fortune 500 company tells of a colleague who was hired just as the pandemic hit. He struggled. He wasn’t getting the job done. It was very hard for the leadership team to tell what the problem was. Was it because he was new? Was he not up to the work? What was the specific issue? Worse, no one wanted to give him feedback over Zoom when they hadn’t even met him. Professional development is hard to do remotely.

People considering just dropping into their office should also think about FOMO, fear of missing out. Those who work from home probably won’t have FOMO, they will just have MO. The casual meetings that take place during the workday. The “Do you have three minutes to discuss X?” These encounters will happen. Information will be shared. Decisions will be made. Maybe if you are at home you’ll be Zoomed in, but probably not. As one CEO put it, “There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.” Being out of that informal loop is likely to make you a less valuable employee.

While remote working is certainly industry- and job-dependent, and the future employment scene will probably be some type of hybrid, the CEOs I have spoken with fear erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture. So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.

Read more:

Shantanu Nundy and Marty Makary: Businesses could sorely use guidance on bringing workers back to the office. Where’s the CDC?

Sian Beilock: Why I worry remote schedules could mean fewer women in the office

Fred Hiatt: We’re doing our best with Zoom. But we’ll still need offices — and each other.

Ian Marcus Corbin: Technology made the pandemic bearable. It’s also behind our national crackup.

Helaine Olen: Telecommuting is not the future