Numlock Sunday: Ed Zitron on the fight to keep work remote
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to the wonderful Ed Zitron, who wrote “Say Goodbye To Your Manager” in The Atlantic. Here's what I wrote about it:
In the United States, there is one manager for every 4.7 workers, and 17.6 percent of the U.S. workforce — as well as 30 percent of the workforce’s compensation — is in management. With many companies going hybrid or remote, this is prompting some to ask if there are too many managers, or if at some point the understanding of what management entails has been lost. Having “management” be title-driven or esteem-driven incentive rather than genuinely overseeing the direction of employees may have some managers ill-suited for the actual needs of management: a study of sales workers at 214 firms found that when looking at promotions, companies prioritized current job performance over whether the person would actually be a good fit for their new role.
Ed’s been fascinating to read lately. His company has been remote for the entirety of its existence, so he’s been watching the freakout over companies dragging successful remote employees back into the office with a mixture of dismay and disgust. His newsletter has been chock full of hard data and numbers illustrating how these decisions aren’t actually being made on productivity data, more just the aesthetic of office culture, and he’s written some searing stuff challenging accepted norms of the current organization of plenty of businesses.
We had a blunt, rollicking discussion about how the profession and discipline of management has mutated into something altogether different, how that hurts both managers and workers, what happens when anecdotes have replaced data in stories about remote work, and where this all goes from here.
Ed Zitron, you wrote a really fascinating piece in The Atlantic last week really asking a fundamental question about what is management now, and has it deviated a little bit too far from what is actually good. What got you interested in this topic?
I've mostly had bad managers. I've run my own company since 2012, remotely. It goes back to something my father once told me, which was, "You learn two things from your parents. How to be a parent and how not to be a parent." I feel like the same goes with bosses and managers, I've learned a lot about management by just working it out.
By and large, my experience with managers and most management in general is bad. Everyone I talk to seems to have predominantly bad manager stories. There's always some asshole who probably says, "I have it good. I've only ever had good managers." I'm so tired of those people because if this was a spuriously founded article that no one connected with, they wouldn't have published it, and it wouldn't have been number one on The Atlantic for several days. This is not a storm in a teacup, it's a real thing.
You struck a nerve.
It didn't seem to be a nerve of being a contrarian, no one's screaming at me. Anyway, getting back to my larger point, most management I've seen does not seem to actually manage. I've had one good manager in my entire life. It was in my first job, surrounded by terrible managers who eventually left me with some degree of trauma. And that sounds dramatic, but my first job was awful, and large parts of that were made by managers who could not manage and did not want to. They wanted to get you to do stuff and then when you did the stuff, they’d take the stuff and go to the boss and go, "Look what I did." It's like that meme where it's like, "I did this", "I did this." But that's a lot of managers.
I know a lot of people who have become managers because they've not got fired. There's a nice way and a nasty way to look at this. There's the nice way, which is there was someone who was competent in their field and they got turned into a manager — that happens a lot. You're good at your job, so we assume you can now manage other people, despite management being a discipline, rather than than something you just vaguely do.
But I actually think the majority of people who are promoted to manager are not top performance, but they are diplomats. They are people who are able to kiss the right ass at the right time or steal the right work at the right time. And it's extremely prevalent in PR and elsewhere, I think.
You actually have some really good data in here that backs that up. You talked about this Edinburgh study of 214 firms that looked at what they prioritize in promotion. The stat alone, that there's one manager for every 4.7 workers that—
It's astounding. Anyway, do you want to expand on that research?
There were several people who took me to mean that I think all management is bad. Wrong, I don't think management is bad. Do I think we have too many managers and that most of them should go? Yes. I think that management, good managers, you need to vastly increase the ratio of people to manager and the manager needs to be graded on their work. I also do not believe in the manager who doesn't engage in the discipline. I don't believe in non-working managers. I think it is a fucking stupid thing. I think the idea that, "Oh, I'm just so good that I don't do work anymore, other than organizing people." In my industry, there should not be a manager who doesn't do media relations anymore.
I think that there is something brewing inside me, this idea that there is a problem with the vacuousness of work in general. This idea of, "What is strategy?" or "I do strategy." What the flip does that mean? What do you mean? Tell me what you did at work today. Tell me the actions that you did and the outputs as a result.
I see so much wrapped up in this. I see PR firms selling contracts, bad contracts, based on strategy because people think strategy is something that exists when it's like, something you put together as a team. To the larger point. I think that the ratio of managers to the managed is bad, but also I think the value proposition of labor itself is broken. I think the general sense of what makes a worker valuable has been turned into this absurd, usurious thing where you work until you don't have to, which theoretically means until you have a lot of money, but really it just means in many cases until you become a manager and other people do the work for you, which is screwed up, but really common.
I want to talk about this a little bit, because you've been writing a lot about the value of work lately, particularly in your newsletter, especially about how it's really been turned on its head over the result of the pandemic. You've talked a lot about this return to office concept, and how one thing that apparently people really valued was attendance in ignorance of actual performance.
Going back to my own history — anyone reading this, they'll go, "Oh, you're biased." Yes, I'm biased, everyone's biased, nobody is objective, shut up — something I noticed in my career and I've heard many anecdotes of is this idea of the hall monitor manager. The trauma that I have is predominantly, if someone walks up behind me at my computer, I still twitch, which is fucked up. It's why I genuinely hate and remember the names of every single manager I had at my first job, and their names shall live in infamy, because I am still twitchy because what they used to do was creep up behind you and go, "Oh, what you're working on?" Literally just to keep you in a state of anxiety. I know because I asked once and they said that was why.
Criminals, the lot of them.
Anyway, there is this over-insistence on presence and attendance and all this shit which doesn't actually mean anything with work. It's this idea that you have to have bums in seats for no reason. They justify it with, "Oh there might be spontaneous collaboration." There might be this moment, this "A-ha" moment, where all go, "Oh, shit. I'm so glad I was sitting next to Bob." Truth is —
I apologize for swearing so much as well.
Wrong side of the bed.
It's just with every single of these articles, I want all these people interviewing people, Chip Cutter at the Wall Street Journal, a great example of someone who continually interviews managers or CEOs, but doesn't ask them a very basic question: “Give me more than two examples of a collaborative thing you have seen as a result of people in the office, as your evidence. Give me evidence that this matters.”
The reason I bring up Chip is, sure, he's a lovely guy, but he's written two or three stories right now, about anti-remote work, where his sources are basically old, white men, and it's so insulting to workers. It's disgusting because all of these people who are making these decisions for millions and millions of workers who work at a desk are basing it off of an office culture they don't involve themselves in.
They say, "Oh, there's collaboration, spontaneity, office culture." Which does not exist. "It's so beautiful and it happens." But they're not in the office. Where are they? Reed Hastings at Netflix, he goes off about this, "Oh, the spontaneity of the office." He doesn't have an office. Does not have one. Has not had one in years. How often is he with the proles, walking around? Never. None of these people are. And that's the larger problem, that these decisions about labor are being made by people who do not labor.
And the managers are scared. The managers are terrified of not being in the office, Because their entire careers were based on this look of consternation, the "Oh, sorry, I'm on a call with my client," just these amateur dramatics. I used to think, "Oh, maybe it was my first job", but I saw it in the second, I saw it in the third, I saw it in others.
This is an insane way to... This isn't even good capitalism.
This isn't even good greed! This isn't even bottom line. This is like a weird kind of anti-capitalism. It's a cult of personality thing wrapped up in individual egos, but also a fundamentally broken structure. Management is not about managing.
It's a performance! People will always dunk on Japan's salaryman culture of "Oh, work at the office until the AM," and from a person who lives in the States, you'll look at that and be like, "That's an absurd way to work. Why are they attending and pretending to work until two o'clock in the morning just to impress the boss?" Then you got to look at a lot of what we've seen and see "Oh, maybe the pandemic was the step back that we needed to look at our own work culture and really be like, what the hell are we doing?"
What's confusing to me is these people, who are clearly very greedy, aren't greedy enough. If it's working, why would you want people back in the office? Do you really get that much satisfaction in seeing your little worklings going about their business? Is that really that fun?
Is it worth the money that you're spending on the real estate?
You've personally been remote for a very long time. How has that been for your business?
It's been great. I don't have to have an office. No one has to go to an office. No one has to commute. When COVID happened, I didn't have to tell anyone to not go to the office because there wasn't one. Worked out fine. Well, I mean, COVID sucked. It's terrible. Awful, awful time for everyone involved, but by and large, the business just kept going because it was on the computer.
I've been always impressed with the data that you've been able to bring that researchers and academics have looked into remote work and it is just as effective, if not more. I mean, not too many companies saw a ding last year because of a loss of productivity. Can you talk a little bit about what the data says about remote work?
The thing with remote work data is it is very sensitive to skewed questions. Kellen Browning, from the New York Times, I respect him as a person, I think he's done some good writing, but his piece about people feeling like they're going through isolation again because of not returning to the office? The logic of that data was so flawed, it made me furious.
Because there's a few ways you can make it flawed. First of all, they asked non-specifically. They said they asked regular office people as well as retail workers. Now how the bloody hell are retail workers going to work from home? That's what the website's for! And that's the thing, that question alone they should have just cut those people out. What value was having them in, unless you wanted to skew it?
Unless you wanted to skew the data to prove a point. On top of that, the study doesn't even say that people don't want remote work. It's so frustrating because the Gray Lady should not be fighting this war unless they're going to identify why they're fighting it. Nevertheless, the data in that was non-specific. That is one way in which data gets skewed and then gets used in the national newspaper.
There's also a way where you ask really specifically loaded ones, kind of like when people mess with Medicare For All studies and they go, "How do you feel about Obamacare versus the ACA?," or "How do you feel about Medicare For All versus single payer?" I realize there are nuances there, but nevertheless when you load a question you get an answer you expect. Lots of these studies are like, "Do you think it's good that we would never go back to the office and work at from home forever?" They try and get people scared of this idea because they conflate not going to an office with never leaving the house again.
Which is just, again, insane, but nevertheless most of the data about remote work says it's good. It works. I also think that the whole hybrid thing is complete bollocks and we're going to take years to really understand how stupid it is. But even if you put the data aside — which I don't, I try and get as much as I can — if it didn't work, why are the companies not shutting down?
Why are the companies still working? Why are companies still good? Then you read these articles, and they can't prove it with data, so they prove it with anecdotes. And they use crappy anecdotes, usually from some guy rambling, "Ah you need culture in the office, I have such a good culture, culture, culture, culture." And that's because they really can't prove it with data. The data does not tell them what they want it to tell them.
The data actually very rarely tells you a black and white story. It very rarely says 100 percent of people want to do one thing or the other and in fact, there is no consensus on remote work, I'd say. I think most people will do it if they can, if they have the space and if they don't, they won't. But I think that you also never really get that depth either. Because a good remote study to get good data would have to be: Do you think remote work works? Sure. How do you remote work? And then see if the people who don't like it, don't have dedicated setups, don't have the space.
Because you know what, as someone who remote works from Las Vegas with a big office, yeah, I get it, it would probably suck if I was in my kitchen, and I think a lot of people think that. That is not an excuse for remote work to go. It just means companies need to back these people up. They need to get in co-working spaces. They need to pay them more so they can get bigger apartments. They need to incentivize them, but also support them. The data is difficult to get, and the largest data set we have is the companies that didn't shut down during the pandemic that we're still in.
I think that's a really good point to wrap on. Do you want to talk a little bit about your newsletter, where people can find you and what's been really interesting you these days?
Yeah. My newsletter is free, it's at ez.substack.com and it's something that I write entirely for free and for pleasure. I get guilty if I don't write at least three times a week, which usually happens. Sometimes I'll knock out five in a week and it scares people, but I like doing it. I think it's good for me mentally. And it's one of those things where I think that I cover tech and culture from a somewhat unique perspective of, "I don't really have any skin in the game either way, my agency has been remote forever. If the offices go back, I will be very angry about it on a personal level, but it will not change anything for me."
But what is interesting, as a final note, is how I've been remote forever, but I've always had to hang around California. I moved, actually before the pandemic, for tax reasons, like everyone, and then I was shy at first about mentioning Vegas. But now I'm like, "Okay, I'm in Vegas now." And everyone's like, "Yeah, great. It's a sensible decision." I think that we're going to see that worm turn a lot.
Now I also think you're going to see organizations that fight it because they're cowards. The cowards that love seeing their people run around and they love feeling like the big puppet master and it's just brutally disingenuous.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.