Editorial

The Future of Work

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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.

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Philip S Moore

In 1937, economist Ronald Coase, who would later receive a Nobel Prize for his work, wrote a ground-breaking study on why and how companies grow. The crux of his argument was that organizations existed in the space between transaction cost and the cost of scale. A half century later, another economist, William G. Ouchi, elaborated on the point made by Coase, noting that where institutions are more efficient in overcoming the cost overhead of performance ambiguity through institutional goal congruence, the more likely they are to grow in size and complexity.

In today's job market, where traditional measures of job performance and mission adherence, and even the boundaries of the organization, are in flux, it is inevitable that, as Cathy Merrill noted, "office cultures,...(those) established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person," will be not only more difficult to build, but difficult to sustain. In this circumstance, the new virtuality of the workplace is not the source of this change but the product of it. Work-related "face time" has been declining for years. An employee's peers may be in another city or another nation. Job duties are coordinated across time zones, and offices have been progressively replaced by cubicles and, now, anonymous work stations.

Ford Motor Company once set the standard for the world in manufacturing by transforming iron ore, sand, logs and other raw materials, into finished automobiles, all at the automaker's River Rouge facility. Yet, now the company sources several thousand automobile components from several hundred suppliers, spanning the globe. The company's workers are as likely to be in Hermosilla, Sonora, or Natchez, Mississippi, as Dearborn, Michigan. For "knowledge workers", this transition is even more dramatic, making it difficult to even define the company, let alone adhere to a company-driven culture.

While Merrill's caution about the changing relationship between employees, and between employees and their employer, is valid, the work world is changing. While, as with online retail, the COVID pandemic may have accelerated the change, that change is both inevitable and permanent. The smart employer needs to find a new way forward, because there is simply no going back.

Thursday, June 3