Last month, Washingtonian CEO Cathy Merrill wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post originally titled “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office,” where she discussed the disadvantages if employees chose to continue to work from home.
“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,” she wrote.
Merrill cited she and other CEOs “fear erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture.” At the same time, she noted “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…If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’”
She went on to end the op-ed with “Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”
Feeling as though their CEO was targeting them, Washingtonian staffers announced on Twitter they would go on strike, tweeting in solidarity: “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.”
Soon after, Merrill apologized to her employees and assured them she had no intentions to change their healthcare coverage, retirement plans, or full-time status. The Post also changed the article headline: “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.”
While Merrill does bring up some workplace questions worth exploring, it’s hard not to see why her column was met with criticism. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to move their employees to work remotely, some workers are still hesitant about returning to the office, even as more and more businesses plan to reopen their offices in the near future. Whether it’s due to health and safety concerns or their preference to work with a more flexible schedule, employees have their own reasons as to why they want to continue to work outside of an office. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found 23 percent of all workers would like to stay remote if given the option.
Writing for Nieman Reports, Alabama Media Group columnist John Archibald describes how returning to newsrooms has filled reporters with hope and also fear. “We need human contact to feel human, and we need to feel human to report the stories of humanity.” But he also reminds us that the world is in a very different place than it was a year ago: “The old normal is not the normal we need.”
Archibald is right. As much as some of us want to return to an office or newsroom again, we can’t go back to the ways things were before COVID-19.
That brings us to our cover story. For a week, I corresponded with Minnesota journalists through phone and email about how they spent the past year covering the life and death of George Floyd, and the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. The hard work produced by these journalists during such an unprecedented time should be enough evidence to any CEO that you don’t always have to be in an office to make a difference.
Nu Yang is editor-in-chief of Editor and Publisher. She has been with the publication since 2011.