The Biggest Problem With Remote Work

Companies need a new kind of middle manager: the synchronizer.

A statue of Socrates sits at a desk and ponders a laptop.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

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Remote work seems fully entrenched in American life. Offices are more than half empty nationwide, while restaurants and movie theaters are packed. Housing prices in suburbs and small towns have surged as white-collar workers take advantage of the demise of the daily commute.

But if the work-from-anywhere movement has been successful for veteran employees in defined roles with trusted colleagues, for certain people and for certain objectives,  remote or hybrid work remains a problem to be solved.

First, remote work is worse for new workers. Many inexperienced employees joining a virtual company realize that they haven’t joined much of a company at all. They’ve logged into a virtual room that calls itself a company but is basically a group chat. It’s hard to promote a wholesome company culture in normal times, and harder still to do so one misunderstood group Slack message and problematic fire emoji at a time. “Small talk, passing conversations, even just observing your manager’s pathways through the office may seem trivial, but in the aggregate they’re far more valuable than any form of company handbook,” write Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, the authors of the book Out of Office. Many of the perks of flexible work—like owning your own schedule and getting away from office gossip—can “work against younger employees” in companies that don't have intentional structured mentorship programs, they argued.

Second, remote is worse at building new teams to take on new tasks. In 2020, Microsoft tapped researchers from UC Berkeley to study how the pandemic changed its work culture. Researchers combed through 60,000 employees’ anonymized messages and chats. They found that the number of messages sent within teams grew significantly, as workers tried to keep up with their colleagues. But information sharing between groups plummeted. Remote work made people more likely to hunker down with their preexisting teams and less likely to have serendipitous conversations that could lead to knowledge sharing. Though employees could accomplish the “hard work” of emailing and making PowerPoints from anywhere, the Microsoft-Berkeley study suggested that the most important job of the office is “soft work”—the sort of banter that allows for long-term trust and innovation.

Other major studies have come to similar conclusions. In 2022, researchers from MIT and UCLA published a map of face-to-face interactions in the Bay Area made using smartphone geolocation data and matched it to patent citations by individual firms. They were looking for empirical evidence to support the old Jane Jacobs theory that cities promote innovation as people from disparate walks of life bump into each other and cross-pollinate ideas. They concluded that the Jacobs theory was right. The groups and firms with the most face-to-face interactions also had the most unique patent citations.

Third, and relatedly, remote work is worse at generating disruptive new ideas. A paper published in Nature by Melanie Brucks, at Columbia Business School, and Jonathan Levav, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, analyzed whether virtual teams could brainstorm as creatively as in-person teams. In one study, they recruited about 1,500 engineers to work in pairs and randomly assigned them to brainstorm either face-to-face or over videoconference. After the pairs generated product ideas for an hour, they selected and submitted one to a panel of judges. Engineers who worked virtually generated fewer total ideas and external raters graded their ideas significantly less creative than those of the in-person teams.

The Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom—a famous defender of remote work’s potential—told me that this study presented the “best research” on how in-person interactions foster complex, free-flowing discussion. “There are definitely situations, including mentoring new employees and innovative activities, that require some time in the office,” he said. “For me, that does not mean that [work from home] is bad, but that it cannot be 100 percent of work.”

Why might the quality of ideas degrade when people collaborate remotely? My favorite explanation is that collaboration requires trust, and trust implies a kind of intimacy, and it’s hard to build true intimacy via Zoom and chat. One of the most profound things that I’ve heard in my two years reporting on remote work is the idea that digital communications can be a minefield for trust.

“Whenever we read a sentence on Gchat or Slack that seems ambiguous or sarcastic to us, we default to thinking, You fucker!” Bill Duane, a remote-work consultant and former Google engineer, told me. “But if someone had said the same thing to your face, you might be laughing with them.” In many contexts, remote work without physical-world reunions can flatten colleagues into simplistic caricatures and abstractions. It sounds hokey but it’s true: To see our colleagues as whole people, we have to literally see them as whole people—not just two-dimensional avatars.

The work-from-anywhere revolution has something of a kick-starter problem: It’s harder for new workers, new groups, and new ideas to get revved up.

So how do we fix this? One school of thought says face-to-face interactions are too precious to be replaced. I disagree. I’m an optimist who believes the corporate world can solve these problems, because I know that other industries already have.

Modern scientific research is a team sport, with groups spanning many universities and countries. Groups working without face-to-face interaction have historically been less innovative, according to a new paper on remote work in science. For decades, teams split among several countries were five times less likely to produce “breakthrough” science that replaced the corpus of research that came before it. But in the past decade, the innovation gap between on-site and remote teams suddenly reversed. Today, the teams divided by the greatest distance are producing the most significant and innovative work.

I asked one of the co-authors of the paper, the Oxford University economist Carl Benedikt Frey, to explain this flip. He said the explosion of remote-work tools such as Zoom and Slack was essential. But the most important factor is that remote scientists have figured out how to be better hybrid workers. After decades of trial and error, they’ve learned to combine their local networks, which are developed through years of in-person encounters, and their virtual networks, to build a kind of global collective brain.

If scientists can make remote work work, companies can do it too. But they might just have to create an entirely new position—a middle manager for the post-pandemic era.

In the middle of the 19th century, the railroads and the telegraph allowed goods and information to move faster than ever. In 1800, traveling from Manhattan to Chicago took, on average, four weeks. In 1857, it took two days. Firms headquartered in major cities could suddenly track prices from Los Angeles to Miami and ship goods across the country at then-record-high speeds.

To conduct this full orchestra of operations, mid-1800s companies had to invent an entirely new system of organizing work. They needed a new layer of decision makers who could steer local production and distribution businesses. A new species of employee was born: the “middle manager.”

“As late as 1840, there were no middle managers in the United States,” Alfred Chandler observed in The Visible Hand, his classic history of the rise of America’s managerial revolution. In the early 1800s, all managers were owners, and all owners were managers; it was unheard of for somebody to direct employees without being a partner in the company. But once ownership and management were unbundled, new kinds of American companies were made possible, such as the department store, the mail-order house, and the national oil and steel behemoths.

In the 1800s, new technology allowed U.S. companies to extend their distribution and production tentacles across the continent, necessitating a new class of worker. Today’s hybrid companies, similarly extended across the country and even around the world, need to invent a new role to remain competitive and sane. This role would determine what work was “hard work” that could be done asynchronously and from anywhere, and what necessary “soft work” would require people to be in an office at the same time. Based on a comprehensive understanding of total workflow and team dynamics, this person would develop and constantly update a plan of who needs to be in the office, and on what days, and where they sit, and why they are there in the first place.

Operations teams at many companies are already doing some of this work. Often these teams are spread across multiple challenges that preexisted the pandemic—like recruiting, IT, office maintenance, and normal pre-pandemic communications. For these stressed and overstretched workers, coordinating the perfect hybrid cadence is the third priority for five different people. But managing a remote or hybrid workflow is too important to sprinkle onto old positions. It’s a discrete task, with discrete challenges, which deserves a discrete job.

The synchronizer—or, for large companies, a team of synchronizers—would be responsible for solving the new-worker, new-group, and new-idea problems. Synchronizers would help new workers by ensuring that their managers, mentors, and colleagues are with them at the office during an early onboarding period. They would plan in-person time for new teammates to get to know one another as actual people and not just abstracted online personalities. They would coordinate the formation of new groups to tackle new project ideas, the same way that modern teams in science pull together the right researchers from around the world to co-author new papers. They would plan frequent retreats and reunions across the company, even for workers who never have to be together, with the understanding that the best new ideas—whether in science, consulting, or media—often come from the surprising hybridization of disparate expertise.

The remote-work debate has become deeply polarized between people who consider it a moral necessity that is beyond criticism and those who consider it a culture-killer that is beyond fixing. Like the office, remote work will never go away, and like the office, it has important problems that deserve our attention. Solving remote work’s problems is a job worth doing.

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