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May 7, 2021, 11:10 a.m.
Business Models

It’s not their job to buy you cake

Working remotely for the last year has revealed just how much of office culture is accidental, arbitrary, and sexist.

On Thursday, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Cathy Merrill, CEO and owner of Washingtonian Media, in which she expressed her fear that employees will want to continue working from home after the pandemic.

I am more bothered by the idea that other media executives think like Merrill. If they do, they are hurting their employees and their companies.

The op-ed’s original headline was explicit about the connection between working from home and being fired — “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risk of not returning to work in the office” — before being softened to “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.” On Friday, the editorial staff of The Washingtonian announced that, in response to Merrill’s piece, they are refusing to publish today. (Merrill addressed the opinion piece in an email to staff and sort of apologized, Maxwell Tani reported.)

The meat of the piece centers around Merrill’s weird estimate that “20% of every office job” is devoted to creating and sustaining office “culture.”

While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.

Possible labor law violations aside, it’s no coincidence that these nice office “extras” — the things you’ll rarely see listed in a journalism job description because historically nobody has considered them worth paying for — disproportionately fall to women and people of color.

Think back to the office you used to work from. Who unloaded the dishwasher, stocked the snacks, circulated the get well cards, made the coffee, bought the birthday cakes?

Did she get paid for it? And did the man who never did any of those things get paid 20% less than she did? No, because that would be insane, right? Because a mother works for free, right?

There’s another term for the “extras” Merrill mentions. Researchers call them “non-promotable tasks.”

“Across field and laboratory studies, we found that women volunteer for these ‘non-promotable’ tasks more than men,” Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart wrote in Harvard Business Review wrote a couple years back, “that women are more frequently asked to take such tasks on; and that when asked, they are more likely to say yes.” (Lots of other research bears this out.)

When women agree to these tasks, it takes a toll on their career prospects. (If they say no, the researchers point out, it also hurts them — that’s why the solution has to be for “management to find ways to distribute tasks more equitably.”) From the paper:

Relative to men, women are more likely to volunteer, more likely to be asked to volunteer, and more likely to accept direct requests to volunteer. These results suggest that the allocation of tasks with low promotability may differ even when there are no gender differences in ability and preferences. The resulting differences in task allocations can create barriers to the advancement of women in organizations and in society as a whole.

And though managers claim to value women’s helpfulness, it doesn’t actually, um, help them all that much when it comes to performance reviews. Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center, summed up some of her recent research for me:

In a study I conducted with Shelley Correll, Alison Wynn, and JoAnne Delfino Wehner, we examined gendered language in performance evaluations and their association with ratings at a Fortune 500 company. We found that women were more likely than men to have “helpful” or community-oriented behaviors mentioned in their performance evaluations. Yet, being perceived as highly helpful was not associated with receiving the highest performance rating (for men or women). We suggest that women are “viewed” as having more communal or community-oriented qualities, but these qualities are not valued highly for top performance outcomes.

Mentoring junior staff, meanwhile, isn’t some hazy nice-to-have that exists outside of “core” responsibilities, and the belief that it is is especially problematic at a time when newsrooms are struggling to hire, retain, and promote employees of color. For too long, informal mentoring, “inclusion” responsibilities, and requests or requirements to provide diverse job candidate lists or check articles for racism have been foisted off on journalists of color, who are never paid or recognized for their extra work.

Mentorship goes hand in hand with staff retention and the creation of a pipeline of future leaders. It’s a skill that connects directly to a company’s bottom line and to its stated values. Not everyone mentors, wants to do it, or is good at it. It’s work that should be stated in the job description (i.e., agreed to) and reflected in salary and with other support from the company.

Merrill writes that she has discussed “in several group calls with [other] chief executives … a great sense of pride in how well our teams have done during the past year.” She argues that’s not primarily because the employees are good at their jobs, but rather because they knew one another in person before the pandemic began and had a shared office culture to work from. She concludes the piece by implying that if employees want to keep their jobs, they’d better come back into the office.

There’s no need to acknowledge, apparently, that it’s pretty remarkable it is that these teams have “done” “well” considering that they were working not by choice from home in a global pandemic, many of them likely taking care of children while attempting to work full time during, again, a hopefully-once-in-a-lifetime-catastrophic event.

What should “doing well” over the last year even mean? Arguably, it could mean you didn’t die of Covid. That your children are still fed and at least partially dressed. That you went and got your vaccine and helped someone else get one. That you managed to eke out a little extra kindness to a neighbor, a child, a friend, a coworker on a bad day. Maybe “doing well” these days means you just got out of bed, put on some pants, and did it all again.

But the hero of this piece is “the son of a friend of mine, a young investment banker who was courted by two firms last fall.” This kid, who I’m assuming does not have dependents, chose to go with the job that said its employees “would be back as soon as it felt safe,” a decision you should definitely feel comfortable having an investment bank make for you.

Compare that banker to the unfortunate colleague of “a friend at a Fortune 500 company.” The colleague, hired “just as the pandemic hit,” “struggled.”

He wasn’t getting the job done. It was very hard for the leadership team to tell what the problem was. Was it because he was new? Was he not up to the work? What was the specific issue? Worse, no one wanted to give him feedback over Zoom when they hadn’t even met him. Professional development is hard to do remotely.

Did they ever ask how he was doing, though? Was the “specific issue” actually somehow related to the pandemic? We have no idea why he wasn’t “up to the work.” We also don’t know if he got fired.

It’s lazy to assert that you can’t be kind to or connect with someone if you don’t just happen to run into them in the office kitchen every day. (“As one CEO put it, ‘There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.'” But why not? Most Zoom calls are way too long, anyway. You could also call or text, just to check in, like a human person in the year 2021.)

Working remotely for the last year has revealed just how much of office culture is accidental, arbitrary, and sexist. Much of what’s lumped in with unpaid “culture” should be identified and divided equitably. (Do what we do at the Nieman Foundation: The managers buy the cakes.) And if it turns out people keep pointing to the same things as positive elements of their in-office experience, well, try to find the person who’s making those happy things happen — and recognize them with money and career advancement.

A change in thinking will not mean that nobody ever goes into the office; I’d bet most working journalists really miss being in newsrooms some of the time. There’s clearly value to coworkers sometimes being together in person, and you don’t have to hold their healthcare hostage to make it happen. But we should think about what, exactly, we want out of our in-person time, and go from there.

Much of the “office culture” that eroded during the pandemic was not built intentionally or thoughtfully. It hasn’t benefited everyone equally; in many cases, it’s actually been harmful.

Once we acknowledge that, we can think about building the kinds of places where people really want to work.

Smashed birthday cake by jasonsisk used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 7, 2021, 11:10 a.m.
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