The BS Around WFH and RTO

CEOs, especially those running media companies, are under enormous pressure from Wall Street these days.  Finding profits in the streaming age is proving to be a very thorny task.  Not to mention the impact rising inflation and a potential looming recession are having on the ad marketplace.

To appease investors and analysts, CEOs have been touting their strategies for weathering the storm and resurrecting their once healthy margins.  Sadly, layoffs seem to be a common tactic.  Just this week Disney began executing their plan to eliminate 7,000 jobs.  But they are not alone – Meta, Google and Amazon are among the many other companies in the industry that are dumping people like panicked pilots jettisoning fuel from a damaged plane.

The layoffs suck.  I’ve shared my feelings about this previously.  But there’s another theme in CEO’s “return to glory” narrative that I’ve seen lately.  Almost to a man (and they are notably all men), CEOs are touting “return to the office” (RTO) as a core component of their strategies.

The working theory is employees will be more productive and collaborative in an office environment.  Without saying as much, they are implying that somehow the company wouldn’t be in the position it is today if the pandemic hadn’t accelerated the “work from home” (WFH) revolution.

This argument has all the symptoms of the classic diagnostic fallacy of correlation without causation.  The economy is bad, profits are suffering and people are working remotely.  Therefore, while CEOs can’t tell us exactly how, we are supposed to take their word that bringing people back to the office is essential to their turnaround strategies. 

Now, it is undoubtedly true that there are benefits to in person work. I am not advocating for a purely virtual environment, at least for large corporations.  Also, there are roles that can’t be done remotely.  In media, production work, especially for live programming, and the supporting operational functions are inextricably bound to a physical location.  Yes, tangential elements of a production can be done remotely as we saw during the pandemic, but in the end, someone must be in the building where the equipment is to make it all go.  If you’re running a live news or sports operation, there is no substitute for physical presence.

But let’s be clear, those are not the roles CEOs are talking about in the RTO discussion.  It’s other functions that traditionally were office roles that moved off-site during the pandemic – sales, marketing, legal, programming, finance, etc.  And while there certainly were some drawbacks, after the success of the global WFH experiment these past three years it’s very difficult to suggest that employees in these roles can’t be productive and innovative working from home. 

Most of the CEOs and other people pushing for hard core RTO policies (3+ mandatory office days) are from the over 50 demographic. (For the record I’m in this demo myself.) Those of us who entered the workforce prior to the Internet revolution came of age during a time when it was impossible to work effectively outside the office. I remember going to work on Saturdays. Not only did it impress the boss, but it was the only way to work if you were ambitious and wanted to get a jump on the week ahead. There were no cell phones or email. The computer, copier, telephone, and fax machine were the primary tools of the trade way back then and they were fixed in the office.

This is the environment in which people of my generation began their careers.  Working meant going to the office.  If you weren’t in the office, you were slacking off.  So, when you hear CEOs talk about RTO and the downside of WFH, it’s driven by more than nostalgia for the “good old days.”  RTO cuts to the core of how they define work.

There’s also the issue of massive sunk costs in real estate.  It’s excruciating for CEOs to look at vacant desks and empty floors with huge budget line items for office space that can’t be negotiated for years.  Seen in this light, RTO is a form of rationalization for CEOs to feel better about paying the rent.

But whether it’s nostalgia, an archaic view of the nature of work or costly office space, none of it justifies denying the verdict of history.  The age of exclusive office work is over.  To deny it is to place oneself in the company of the milkman and iceman of the last century who raged against the coming of refrigerated trucks and home freezers.  Or, more currently, the music execs who tried and failed to prevent the digital revolution.

The reality is people of my generation need to get comfortable with the idea that for many roles, including the ones most C-suite execs cut their teeth in, the days of the office being the only place where productive work takes place are over.  What I don’t understand is why they aren’t embracing it more.  There is ample evidence that employees working in flexible situations are more productive, loyal, and content.  And there is no question that for employees under 30, who are the future of the industry, workplace flexibility is a must, as important as compensation when considering a job opportunity.

CEOs who claim RTO is a part of the solution to their current troubles do themselves and the investors they work for a disservice by laying blame on their current troubles on WFH.  There’s a sad irony here as well.  These same CEOs claim, correctly, that their companies must embrace technology and innovation to succeed.  Yet they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the workplace revolution taking place inside their own buildings that if harnessed properly could unlock tremendous productivity growth.

In the end if boards want to hold their CEOs accountable, they will call BS on the whole RTO/WFH debate and force leaders to focus to the things that truly matter.

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