A cartoon image of a man and a woman on separate laptop screens chatting, symbolising remote working.
Image: © Nuthawut/Stock.adobe.com

We need to end the toxic rhetoric around remote working

9 May 2022

If certain leaders don’t change their mindset around remote working, they could undo all the positive steps they have made, writes Jenny Darmody.

Last week, businessman Alan Sugar tweeted his views about remote working. It will probably come as no surprise to many that the long-term property investor does not look too kindly on those who want to spend less time in the office.

“There is no way people work as hard or productive as when they had to turn up at a work location,” he said in his tweet, which included a screenshot of a LinkedIn post with a news story about PwC giving its UK staff Friday afternoons off in the summer.

The LinkedIn post made no mention of remote working, and was about how companies are looking to retain staff in a competitive market. To be fair, Sugar’s post made no mention of how remote working negatively impacts owners of office blocks, so his views may be a coincidence.

However, what is clear from his tweet – and several of the replies beneath it – is that there is still an incredibly toxic rhetoric around remote working, flexible working and work-life balance in general.

Despite Sugar saying that there is “no way” people work as hard at home compared to when they’re in the office, many rushed to dispute this, arguing that there are fewer distractions at home.

There have also been several studies over the past two years suggesting that productivity has actually risen with remote working.

‘The current resistance to remote working appears to be nothing more than resistance to change’

One example is a PwC survey from November 2021, in which 57pc of respondents said their organisation performed better against workforce performance and productivity targets over the previous 12 months.

So, why then must leaders such as Sugar continue to push this belief that people who want to work from home are just lazy? Do we really still believe that grown adults who get paid to do a job would just watch Netflix all day if given the freedom to work from home?

And let’s even say that’s true. Is their work really so untraceable without physical micromanagement that it’s possible to get away with skiving off for any length of time?

I ask that last question because in a situation where I am not constantly monitored, I may, in theory, be able to get away with watching TV instead of doing my work.

However, if the work isn’t done, that will very quickly be clear to my managers. So even if I needed something to keep me in check, a manager breathing down my neck in an office is not necessary, because my to-do list does that for them.

The trickle-down effect

We’ve come to expect throwaway comments like these every so often. In 2018, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, which has been known for workplace issues, said the term ‘work-life balance’ is a “debilitating phrase”.

Later that same year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. Never mind the fact that some of us might want to enrich our lives outside of work and actually spend some time with friends and family.

But it’s not just throwaway tweets and comments from billionaires entering the chat when it comes to remote working and work-life balance. The desire to cling to the traditional workplace has been made clear through how major companies have responded to the pandemic.

Over the last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been set on bringing staff back to the office. While the rise of Covid-19 cases delayed his plans, the inflexible policy was vehemently fought against by many Apple employees.

Despite protests, Apple employees will be expected to be in the office at least three days a week by late May. According to The Verge, the company’s crackdown on remote working led a number of employees to quit, with many others worried they’d have to leave the company due to its lack of flexibility.

Now, the iPhone maker has reportedly lost its head of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, due to its return-to-office policy.

This is a major blow and in line with fears around the so-called ‘great resignation’.

In many industries, it has well and truly become a jobseekers’ market, which means employers are finding it more difficult to attract the talent they want, especially with remote working opening up more opportunities since the onset of the pandemic.

Adapt or die

And this is where we get to the core of the toxic rhetoric around remote working: a resistance to change.

Employers who are not willing to adapt to the new ways of working will be left frustrated that the old ways of working no longer cut it for today’s workforce. What appeared to work before was a fixed location, fixed time, easy-to-supervise employees and in-person meetings.

As SiliconRepublic.com editor Elaine Burke previously stated, a move towards a more flexible working life is bad news for bad managers who thrive on micromanagement and presenteeism. Their way of working is threatened by the new status quo and so they may lash out, telling employees that they’re fools to think this can work and even trying to vilify them, labelling them as lazy or entitled.

But never has the phrase ‘adapt or die’ been truer. In the past, a reckoning took place among workplaces, especially in tech, where it was no longer acceptable to not encourage diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Harassment, discrimination and paltry gender balance were constantly called out and, while there is still so much work to be done, the world of work changed irrevocably. Most major companies have a D&I lead and several policies in place to back this up.

Burnout and work-life balance has also been slowly brought onto the agenda and again, while there are still pockets of the tech world and wider society where crunch times and overworking are still the done thing, it is becoming less acceptable.

The current resistance to remote working appears to be nothing more than another resistance to change, a resistance to the future.

This is not to say there aren’t plenty of challenges and concerns around remote working, from proximity bias and the possible ‘Zoom ceiling’ for women, to the aforementioned burnout and inability to switch off when working from home.

But those like Sugar, who claim that remote working is an over-the-top request from a lazy group of workers, is damaging to the overall need to think about how to adopt these policies in the right way.

There is a danger that those who seek to promote remote working as a policy will be too busy fighting this kind of old-fashioned thinking to give enough attention to the real challenges that are coming down the line.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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