What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers

A woman sits at her desk unhappily
Mark Power / Magnum

America’s CEOs have a message for people who love working from home: Your happy days are numbered. Remote work is “suboptimal,” Jonathan Wasserstrum, the CEO of the New York commercial-real-estate company SquareFoot, told me. “I believe that work is better when most of the people are in the office most of the time together,” he said. As if to prove his point, at that moment our phone connection grew fuzzy, prompting him to sarcastically add, “Oh, because remote is so great, right?”

What really gets Wasserstrum’s goat is when people say no one should come into the office, because that would be more fair to the people who don’t want to come into the office. He said that although he wouldn’t fire someone for asking to work remotely full-time, SquareFoot is a real-estate company. “If somebody didn’t believe in the value of an office at least one day a week, they probably shouldn’t be at the company anyway,” he said. At a recent Wall Street Journal conference, WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani cheered cubicle life even louder, saying that the most “engaged” workers are those who want to work from the office most of the time. “People are happier when they come to work,” he added confidently.

Perhaps you’re thinking that People are happier when they come to work sounds like something a literal office building would say. Of course Mathrani and Wasserstrum extol the virtues of putting on work clothes, sitting in traffic, sharing an elevator, and trudging to your desk: Their companies won’t make money if people work from home. But the pushback against remote work hasn’t come only from real-estate executives. Earlier this month, Washingtonian magazine’s CEO, Cathy Merrill, wrote that workers who want to “continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary” are practically begging their bosses to change their status to “contractor,” thereby cutting their benefits and pay. Her op-ed prompted a wildcat strike among Washingtonian staff, but ultimately she can still make changes to her employees’ lives at any time. She is, after all, the boss.

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Herein lies the rub for workers who would be happy to never again drag an extra sweater into the office to protect themselves against the arctic blast of the corporate air conditioner: Remote work might feel great, but unless you go to extreme lengths to signal your devotion to your company, it can irritate your boss and hurt your career.

At first, the idea that remote work could hurt your career doesn’t make sense. Workers and bosses agree that remote work generally increases, rather than decreases, worker productivity. A 2015 study of a Chinese travel agency found that productivity went up by 13 percent when call-center employees started working from home. In a 2020 survey of 592 people, most of them office workers, respondents said that both they and their subordinates—if they had any—were more productive while working from home during the pandemic. If given a choice, the respondents said, they would want to work from home even more after the pandemic ends.

This increased productivity isn’t always rewarded, however. Compared with those who work full-time in an office, bosses are less likely to promote or monetarily reward those who work from home. The 2015 travel-agency study found that people who worked from home liked their job more, but weren’t promoted as much. A more recent study of 405 tech-company employees found that remote workers received as many promotions as in-office workers, but that their salaries grew at a slower rate. And the more people telecommuted, the greater the hit to their salaries.

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These studies suggest that workers are taxed either way: They pay more to live near their office, which is typically in an expensive city center, or they save money by living in and working from the exurbs, and thus don’t get as many raises. Remote workers deviate from what researchers call the “work-devotion schema,” an idea in American work culture that “reflects deep cultural assumptions about work that call for intensive allegiance and undivided attention to work and the expectation that employees will minimize time spent on personal and family demands or else risk career penalties,” according to the authors of the tech-worker study.

Remote workers might also be penalized because bosses make positive snap judgments about people who work in the office. For a study published in 2010, a research team led by Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC Davis, interviewed 39 managers about their views on face time and remote work. The managers said they liked when they saw their subordinates sitting in meetings or at their desk. “If I see you there all the time, okay, good. You’re a hardworking, dependable individual,” one person said.

The respondents seemed self-aware enough to realize that some people might be manipulating their boss’s impressions, coming in early and staying late just to show off. That seemed fine with the respondents, as long as there was butt-in-chair time. “There was this belief that if you really wanted to move up in the company, you had to be in the office, and be seen in the office, which often meant coming in early and staying late, because otherwise you weren’t noticed,” Elsbach told me.

Then, Elsbach’s team did an experiment: They asked 60 people—all professionals—to read a short story about a fictional person who spent a lot of time working in an office. A few minutes later, they gave the participants a list of words—none of which was actually used in the story—and asked them to try to remember which of the words had appeared in the text. People were most likely to wrongly remember the words dedicated, committed, responsible, and dependable—the kinds of traits that are important for being promoted to management. To Elsbach, this indicated that the study participants were subconsciously attributing those traits to the fictional in-office worker. The results are every remote worker’s worst nightmare: People will assume that those who put in a lot of office time are go-getters, even if they’re not.

Elsbach and her colleagues worried that their results spelled trouble for teleworkers’ performance reviews. “Our findings suggest that trait-based performance appraisals may lead to an unfair advantage for employees who are willing and able to hang around the office a lot,” they wrote.

This remote-work penalty is avoidable, however. In the tech-worker study, the detrimental effects of telecommuting were mitigated for people who had lots of co-workers who also worked remotely, or when the telecommuters did extra work outside business hours, or when they had more face-to-face interactions with their supervisors. Meeting with your manager face-to-face—presumably over Zoom, in this era—might serve as an “impression management strategy,” the study authors wrote, extinguishing the suspicion that you are slacking off. “This study suggests that people need to be aware of the signals that they’re giving off to their bosses if they want to be considered for promotions and for salary-growth opportunities,” says Timothy Golden, a management professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a co-author of the tech-worker study. If you want the freedom of leggings, midday walks, a quiet working area, and no commute, you’d better be ready to do extra work to prove that you’re not enjoying it all too much.

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Or managers could change. Joseph Grenny, the chief development officer at VitalSmarts, a training and organization-development company, used to be one of the pro-office stalwarts. But “I flipped my opinion on that,” he told me recently. “Co-location was just the coercion strategy of the 19th century. We forced people into offices; we forced them to arrive at the same time and have lunch at the same time.”

In place of that forced physical togetherness, Grenny realized that managers can create virtual events to generate trust and connection. That takes effort, though, and not all bosses are willing to do it. “Having a building really enables lazy leaders,” Grenny said.

Shishir Mehrotra, the CEO of the collaborative-software company Coda, was always supportive of remote work, and he has become even more so over the course of the pandemic. He thinks of the office as a service a company provides, not a requirement of employment. Many of Coda’s 120 employees will never set foot in an office again, and that’s fine with him. Instead, about four times a year, the entire company will gather in one place for a big hackathon or celebration, and these meetups will serve as the proverbial water cooler.

Mehrotra is skeptical that a boss can figure out how hard everyone is working by walking around and looking at their computer screens. (Focusing on face time “rewards performative behaviors,” he told me.) And institutional knowledge should be written down, not passed around informally in the break room, he argues.

I asked him why he thinks some of his fellow CEOs don’t share his sunny view of remote work. He reacted with the mild annoyance of a Silicon Valley person met with evidence of someone doing something irrational. “The world is changing,” he said, “and some people want to resist it. There’s some companies where you do have to be in the same place for it to work. And there’s others that are gonna have to be dragged into the future.”