A little over a week ago, Basecamp’s CEO announced major policy changes on his public company blog, and a third of the employees resigned. Last Thursday, the CEO of Washingtonian magazine published an editorial in the Washington Post headlined, “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.” And her whole workforce went on strike on Friday.
Here’s the summary from yesterday’s Executive Communication Report (the free three-times-a-week newsletter to which you should subscribe immediately because it is useful and free).
Staffers at the D.C.-based Washingtonian magazine struck on Friday in response CEO Cathy Merrill’s Thursday Washington Post editorial warning of the consequences of indefinite remote work, according to the Post. Writing that employees who work from home will miss out on important spontaneous conversations in the workplace—and the culture will suffer from their physical absence—Merrill concluded, “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.” The Washingtonian’s employees felt blindsided, tweeting identical messages of protest Friday, “We want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor,” and “we are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods.” Washingtonian assistant photo editor Lauren Bulbin told the Post she found Merrill’s article “truly terrifying,” adding: “I feel really humiliated. Every single person I know in my life read that op-ed and contacted me about it. People I respect in the media industry and beyond came to me and were really shocked that this is where I’m working.” In a memo, Merrill assured employees their employment status is not threatened. “My intent was to write about how worried I and other CEOs are about preserving the cultures we built up in our offices. But I understand that some of you have read it as threatening.”
One, CEOs need to go back to the kinder, gentler era of not blindsiding employees with public announcements or pronouncements on matters of great internal consequence. As my colleague Sharon McIntosh says, “This is Employee Communication 101!” Here’s the possible source of the recent confusion: During COVID and after George Floyd and January 6, it became standard practice to release internal memos, to also serve as public pronouncements. Which was OK, as long as employees understood the memo came to them first, and then got out in public. Also, those memos were pretty milquetoast, in hindsight—”we’re all in this together,” “we stand for social justice and agree that Black Lives Matter,” “we’re against mob-based insurrections.”
I think some of these CEOs somehow came to think that it works the other way—that you can communicate internal matters by having employees read your public commentary. No, it does not work this way, especially with messages that are likely to rankle a lot of people very personally. By the time you to tell the world about your thinking about matters of corporate culture, your employees should not only know how you feel, they should have had time to absorb it. (Obviously!)
Two, the assistant photo editor quoted above strikes me as a bit of a cupcake. Really, it’s “terrifying” work at a place where the CEO wants to maintain the culture and shares her strong opinion that people need to be together to bond with one another? The timing of the editorial was dumb. But there’s not a wrong word in it. And there are so many right ones, especially in the graph below:
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.
That remote work has worked for this year is a testament not to the power of Zoom, but the strength of those original relationships forged in person! I am afraid that those bonds won’t endure another year of time, turnover and turmoil. And if the assistant photo editor finds it oppressive to be cajoled to go back to the office when it’s safe, then she’s clearly not interested in being an essential part of her organization. Which might be fine, for an assistant photo editor. But if it’s just the CEO and a random handful of others erratically shambling in and out of a lonely office, the cultural center will not hold.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon sounded a similar tone last week, but his workforce did not strike because he’s been talking this way internally and externally for months and months.
“We want people back to work,” he said at the WSJ’s CEO Council, “and my view is that sometime in September, October it will look just like it did before. And everyone is going to be happy with it, and yes, the commute, you know people don’t like commuting, but so what.” Dimon said remote work “does not work for younger people. It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle, it doesn’t work in terms of spontaneous idea generation.” Saying he returned from an in-person business trip late last year “brimming with ideas” that he wouldn’t have gotten from a Zoom call, Dimon added, “I’m about to cancel all my Zoom meetings. I’m done with it.”
And of course Kurt Vonnegut said it best a couple decades ago: ““Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals.”
I know how hard it is to run a company remotely over the long haul because I’ve been doing it for five years, and I’m going to explain how we do it tomorrow, in an excerpt from my book, An Effort to Understand. I believe that when you see how we do it, with this teeny tiny company, it’ll help you see the dizzying difficulty, if you don’t see it already, of making a larger enterprise sustainably work remotely with the kind of cultural cohesion required to make companies great long-term.