Earlier this northern hemisphere summer, I moderated a dinner debate for the New York Stock Exchange with a clutch of esteemed US chief executives. I expected an earnest discussion about inflation, supply chains and the war in Ukraine. But that’s not what I got.
After one CEO asked a question about the merits of hybrid work, the conversation suddenly became highly emotive. A show of hands revealed most CEOs disliked the policy of remote working. Another showed most were only getting their staff into the office for two days a week at best.
Their dilemma was painfully clear. Should they force staff to return by threatening to fire them, as Elon Musk recently did at Tesla? Strongly urge them to return, like Wall Street bosses such as David Solomon of Goldman Sachs? Or take the same route as Tim Cook of Apple, who initially demanded curbs on remote work but was forced to compromise after mass protests?
As the debate raged, it turned this economics dinner into something more like a communal corporate therapy session. “It’s the biggest single issue,” the boss of a Midwest industrial group forlornly said.
Last month, it happened again, this time while moderating a discussion with an earnest consultant from EY. We were supposed to debate macroeconomic issues but as soon as someone uttered the phrase “remote work”, the conversation was hijacked.
Once again, middle-aged executives said they wanted employees to return to the office.
On this occasion, there were also younger workers present, and they were equally vehement that they wanted to work mostly from home. The only exception to this generational divide was one middle-aged software CEO, whose staff had always worked remotely.
The arguments were intense and driven by culture as much as logistics and economics. As a family therapist might say, the debates showed the generations often “talk past each other”. The same words can mean very different things to people because their assumptions clash.
Take productivity. Workers like me who started their careers towards the end of the 20th century assumed offices were more “productive” than home. “Going to work” was synonymous with “going to the office” and was defined in opposition to home, which was linked to time spent not working.
But for anthropologists, this mental split was an anomaly when set against most cultures throughout history. Today’s laptop-wielding workforce seems to underline this. To them, being in an office can seem less productive since “you end up socialising and that stops you doing your job”, as one young banker told the EY debate.
To this, the older generation would retort that conversation is never a waste of time; it fosters teamwork and leads to the unplanned encounters that spark creativity, not to mention the personal contact needed to manage people. I was repeatedly told all this by the CEOs I was interviewing.
But digital natives grew up managing social relations in cyberspace as much as in the real world. The latter does not always trump the former in their eyes; they think “managers just need to learn to manage remotely”, one said.
There is a third key point of tension: apprenticeships. Though the concept is most often associated with blue-collar work in the west, it also mattered for 20th-century white-collar professionals. Today’s established lawyers, bankers, accountants or journalists usually learnt their craft by observing others and through immersion in an office.
This wasn’t just because they needed to acquire technical skills. The key issue was the transmission of culture. Offices were where the younger generation learnt to network, comport themselves at work, manage their time and so on.
In anthropologist-speak, the office was an environment where deeply ingrained rhythms were seamlessly conveyed and reproduced from one generation to another.
Today’s corporate leaders take it for granted that the culture transfer matters, hence the existence of summer internships. But not everyone shares this view, especially when so much else is in flux and many of the older generation are struggling to make sense of an increasingly digital world.
It might prove to be a temporary clash. Another theme that emerged from these debates was that most older executives blithely assume it will be easier for them to put an end to remote work when the summer is over - and if a recession hits.
But this assumption may be misguided too; surveys from groups such as Gallup consistently show most people working from home today expect to continue to do so, most of the time. It is a fascinating moment to be a corporate anthropologist and a nightmare for those CEOs.
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