Why Bad CEOs Fear Remote Work

Remote work expert David Tate wrote that when fearful CEOs talk about workplace culture, they’re really talking about workplace control. Their insecurities demand that the way work is done by employees is always visible, highly regulated and uses the methods executives prefer, rather than what’s best for everyone’s productivity. Remote work is seen as a threat to many CEOs simply because of their fear of change and resistance to progress. That fear leads to an irrational rejection of remote work, instead of a thoughtful examination of where it has succeeded and what can be learned.

In her May 6th Washington Post opinion article, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work, CEO Cathy Merill makes two fundamental mistakes common among fearful executives. First, it shows an ignorance of alternatives, as many organizations have worked remotely for years before the pandemic and have solved problems she considers unsolvable. She may not prefer these approaches, but her lack of awareness of them is incompetence. Second, she is infantilizing her employees by presuming they are not capable of and motivated to be productive and collaborate even when the CEO can’t see them down the hallway. 

We are over a year into a pandemic and an era of great social unrest and uncertainty, yet Merill has chosen remote work, and not other likely psychological or cultural factors, as the singular reason why workplace performance has declined. And if this wasn’t enough of an oversight, her evidence against remote work consists mostly of examples from executive friends of their self-described management incompetence. 

She offered the story of an anonymous CEO with a new but struggling employee. Yet none of the leadership team did anything about it:

 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.

This is simply a management failure. Does this company not have telephones? Or email? Have they never worked with a vendor or client that wasn’t in the same building? They are responsible for helping this employee regardless of what technologies are available or not. This is inept management hiding behind technological fear.  

Merill estimates that 20% of work is helping a colleague or mentoring more junior people, extra work that she feels is impossible to do remotely. This is despite dozens of popular collaboration tools and mentoring programs that work entirely online. It also denies the dozens of remote corporations like Automattic and Citrix that have vibrant work cultures where these “extra” activities are successfully done remotely.

Merill and her peers might not like these alternatives, but she never explains why. She even goes so far as to suggest that remote workers should be paid less and lose their benefits, since in her estimation they will never be able to contribute in these extra ways. She effectively threatened her own staff through the article (she apologized later after her staff revolted).

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

One quality of a great CEO is the ability to look into the future and show their organization the way forward. Instead of blaming employees, they take responsibility for solving problems. For every serious issue that arises they ask themselves what can I do or change in my own behavior that can lead my staff to a better place? They diversify their network to ask “who has solved the problem my organization is facing somewhere else and what can we learn?” Or perhaps most critical of all, they invite their own employees to participate in both defining the problem and exploring ways to solve it, instead of drawing lines in the sand and assuming the only way forward is the one that makes them the most comfortable.  

Technology is often seen as a silver bullet, oversold as the magic solution that can solve hard problems. This overestimates what a technology can do, as often it’s the management culture that is the real cause. But in the case of Merill, her CEO peers and remote work, technology is being used as a scapegoat. It’s the safe target to blame as it requires no introspection or accountability. Leaders that do this become fear-driven, allowing their competitors an advantage simply by exercising curiosity and seeking new knowledge. Smart CEOs chose to invest in their work culture and grow it for the future instead of hoping for the past to return. 

17 Responses to “Why Bad CEOs Fear Remote Work”

  1. Steve Ball

    Great article, and relevant to what is going on in my world(s).

    This is v hard for most humans – except in ‘safe’ environments: “For every serious issue that arises they ask themselves what can I do or change in my own behavior that can lead my staff to a better place?”

  2. Sierra

    I read the article that was referenced and I was deeply disgusted. Happy someone wrote in response. All these CEOs are fear driven and fear mongering. And they dont control my safety or decisions to WFH.

    1. Alan Eugene Williams

      I don’t see where CEOs are putting employees in danger or their safety is compromised. It’s talking about work performance, while the pandemic or while reworking remotely isn’t at its best, it’s never going to be the same.

      1. Sam K

        Good article, on point. Now we see true colors of some of the overrated CEOs on TV everyday talking about how their culture can be retained by everyone in the office. This is nonsense to say the least. Jamie Dimon is a control freak and stayed in his position way past his time.

  3. Chad

    I really love this renewed emphasis on work culture from executive management.

    Over the last decade, these enlightened leaders have torn down those horrendously high walls separating employee cubicles to foster greater togetherness amongst the managed. The travesty that is this virus has now created this social distancing chasm, compelling us to work from home. This aberration to work life balance has to be corrected with extreme prejudice.
    I’m eagerly awaiting our return to the life giving watering holes called office spaces, to replenish the fountain of productivity, now that the virus plague has been vanquished.

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if our fearless corporate leaders would permanently give up their corner offices and sit with us, in our enhanced workspaces, to help foster a greater work culture? In the meantime, while we deal with the remnants of this contagion and in the spirit of corporate culture, I think it’s only prudent that all management from CEO down should be always available on camera in individual “zoom” rooms while they’re busy working for the betterment of the company.

  4. Ana

    Clearly those of us who are extremely productive at home have to keep repeating ourselves, but what is a lovely social space for some is a noisy, toxic, distracting, hyper-politicised office to others. It’s a disgrace that it took a pandemic to force the conversation. It needs to be addressed that not everyone thrives or produces their best work in these artificial cultures. And it’s interesting that so many are wary that the playing field has changed. What are they scared of? Thankfully there are articles like these pointing out that remote workers have been doing fine for years. Deal with it. Employees had to adapt to things that felt deeply uncomfortable and wrong, now it’s the corporates’ turn.

  5. Mike

    Thank you to CEOs like this for putting in print what many of us already know…this idea of you “earning” your bloated salaries from your “leadership” is a complete joke, and maybe people should think about this next time we vote to give them another massive tax cut.

  6. Carol

    30 years ago there were middle level managers and loads of secretaries to support them. Now that middle level managers and secretaries have been replaced by laptops, managers farther up the food chain can see that their days are numbered as well. No wonder they fear having employees out of their immediate influence.

  7. Jon Innes

    To those who rose up the ranks doing everything in person, working from home is foreign. As someone who has helped companies work in those environments for decades I totally agree with you. The lack of in-office collaboration isn’t the root cause of most issues. It’s a lack of skills at managing people you can’t see working.

  8. Matt McLelland

    While a good piece by Scott – a little “Glad-wellian” (how Malcom Gladwell cherry picks data to support his already chosen conclusion) in that it doesn’t explore the other side. Remote work isn’t binary – it’s not for everyone and not everyone can handle the freedom. Some employees thrive in a remote environment – others require it. Not to acknowledge this shows bias – although I do agree with most of his conclusions in this piece.

    1. Devorah Shoal

      Yes, I agree that some workers cannot manage work without being onsite or under supervision. There are too many horror stories of those who are doing side gigs during their presumed working hours. These are the ones who make it hard for people who can legitimately perform their work and meet productivity benchmarks WFH.

      Where leadership comes in is setting expectations, providing feedback, and creating schedules based on objective performance metrics. When established in this way, it’s very easy to tell the worker who is not performing exactly why they cannot work from home. But, then, it also means that some supervisor must also be onsite to oversee that work performance to continue the seamless feedback for improvement. The supervisor doesn’t get to lead remotely. And tracking mechanisms, such as screen activity time-outs, keystroke measurements, and cameras, do not count as leadership nor do they count in professional development.

      1. Scott Berkun

        Where are these horror stories? Can you point to any specific examples? Given how most work before the pandemic and now is done digitally, it shouldn’t be any harder to track who is productive now than it was before.

        1. Kimme

          Thank you for this follow up article to Cathy Merrill’s insulting, ignorant rant. I have worked remotely for the last (18) months and have never been more professionally successful or as happy with my own creativity and motivation. I have been able to find a work-home balance for the first time in 45 years of steady employment. And at home, no one is gonna show up and gun me down like in the cube farm at the office.

  9. Sree

    Good post. I believe that remote work can be productive and fulfilling for employees, as long as they are motivated and capable. Technology enables us to communicate across the world in ways we never could before. It also allows us to do our jobs from anywhere without worrying about where we live or commute every day.

  10. Lawrence A Schuman

    It’s not remotely mysterious as to what the managerial panic is. Workplace managers are quite often petty tyrants. Assholes. And they get to indulge their revolting pleasures much less with a remote workforce. A remote workforce is accountable (finally) for what they do and not how much ass they kiss. You don’t get to surveil us all day, police what we wear, when we come and go. And sexual harassment, which is a big perk for many asshole managers, is much more difficult over zoom. And I can collaborate or mentor other employees remotely just as well as in person. I do it all the time. As it happens, I like my current job and my co workers. Haven’t been able to say that in a long time. But I really love the two days a week that I can be remote. I hate commuting. My drive is only around 30 minutes. But I have endured 45-60 minute commutes for years. Hated it. Waste of energy. Needless CO2 production. The management types who are against remote work love being in the office because nobody likes them. It’s the only place where people have to be nice to them. This is part of the appeal of capitalism: petty pricks who chisel out a little authority get unearned respect.

  11. Rasmus Valbro Højte

    I read the referenced article. I don’t necessarily think the author is completely senseless in their concerns, but it’s obvious that they’re quite convinced already that the way to solve the problems are by going back to working as they did before instead of working with employees to find a setup that works.

    The mention of converting salaried employees seems extremely short sighted though. I don’t think they considered the fact that they need to provide a competitive salary to retain employees?

    Either way, it’s clear that the world needa to figure out new ways to develop work culture in a remote setting.



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