Opinion: I worry about the ability to inspire with demands for in-person work

Cathy Merrill: do better.

On May 6, the Washington Post published a piece titled "Opinion: As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work" (though originally titled "Opinion: As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office." Perhaps she decided threatening her employees for protecting their health was bad optics and bad management.)

Chief executive of Washingtonian Media Cathy Merrill expresses concern over those who wish to continue working from home — "the unfortunately common office worker" — that would make employee advocate and career coach Liz Ryan's head shake.

Here are Merrill's main concerns with keeping workers remote:

  1. "We face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build." Merrill lists employees knowing one another through "established practices, unspoken rules, and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person" as the reason remote work was productive during the pandemic. But with her senior employees enjoying their commute-free lifestyles, and younger employees wanting to learn from and connect with older employees, Merrill's concerned her leaders won't be on-site to hire and attract talent. Merrill also argues that remote workers miss out on casual meetings, information, and decisions: the informal loop.

    My take: We build trust through honesty, humility, reliability, inclusion, respect, and responsibility — not proximity. In fact, too many managers promote a culture of mistrust in person by lacking honesty, humility, reliability, inclusion, responsibility, respect for their employees' needs. With her mindset, Merrill misses an opportunity to allow employees to control their work environment, and research shows job control is a key to employee happiness. The happiness gained from being able to tend to household chores and other personal matters may be more than staying in the informal loop, which can also be full of negative interactions.

  2. "We need feedback — good and bad — to successfully manage employees, and they need it to succeed.... Professional development is hard to do remotely." 

    My take: What's hard to do in person is getting time back wasted in a commute, having work/life balance, and getting more time to enjoy life. There's no reason feedback can't be given remotely or as needed in-person, while the employee works remotely the majority of the time.

  3. "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." Merrill's concerned that her employees can't go the extra mile of helping, mentoring, and celebrating when they're at home and create a better office culture in doing so. In fact, she argues, not participating in these extras translates to "contractor" status, losing a salary, health benefits, 401(k) matches, and bonuses. Merrill says she fears "erosion of collaboration, creativity, and culture" and that employees benefit from job security by going back into the office.

    My take: A "tempting economic option" to demote a worker is an outright threat. In fact, THAT threat is what creates a toxic culture — along with her need for control by insisting employees concerned about their health come into the office when they can more easily work from home. If job security is threatened by employees staying remote, Merrill manages from fear.

Unnecessary in-person work is all about control.
In other words, it's Merrill not caring about her employees' needs — giving them job control and support — that's the real problem here. Not to mention the sexist impact for working mothers who can often better balance work and home life by working from home.

Her fear-based mindset, justified with illogical arguments, will not inspire.

But don't take my word for it. Here's how her employees felt once this opinion piece came out:

"As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor. We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill's public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today."
— 14 of Merrill's employees

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