APU Business Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Podcast

Why So Many Managers Resisted the Shift to Remote Work

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and
Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business 

Before 2020, many leaders thought working from home wasn’t a feasible business model, but the COVID-19 pandemic proved otherwise. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean of APU’s School of Business, about how leaders and employees responded to this forced change. Learn why managers were often the ones resisting the most, how working from home highlighted a generational divide, and why success depends on everyone knowing their own strengths and weaknesses as a remote employee.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today, we’re talking to Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean of the School of Business. And our conversation today is about the future of working from home. Welcome, Marie.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Thank you for the invite. It’s a pleasure being here to talk to you about this very timely topic.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. We’ve been meaning to do a podcast together for a long time, and I’m excited about this topic because it is now and it is the future. And so, the ability for employees to work from home has been around for years, and it has gained popularity, especially over the last 15 years because of, of course, the increased abilities of the internet and computers. And now because of COVID, working from home is a legitimate option for many people and for many businesses. So how did COVID accelerate working from home?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That’s a good question. I personally think it was businesses had no choice. Governments were shutting down, different states and so, there was no option. They had to come up with something to do. And I think what everyone thought was, “Well, let’s just let them work at home since we’re on lockdown.”

And I’m glad that you put out there how long it’s been around because I think I have in some function, worked from home, in a hybrid type of environment for about the last 20 years. My last three jobs have been this type of arrangement. So that’s why I’ve been an advocate for the topic as well, as to why it will work. But like anything else, like parental leave, sometimes businesses will not look at it till it makes sense for them, a bottom line sense.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, I’m really glad you brought up the bottom line for businesses because oftentimes businesses have to be encouraged or even sometimes pushed to actually institute different changes. And so, what are some advantages of working from home for employees and for the employers?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: This type of question reminds me of back in 2000, when people asked me, “What are the advantages of taking classes online?” And I think I have the same type of answer that I had back then. In my mind, this option is exactly that: Another option that there are employees who work better in this type of environment.

So my first career was HR and I am very into what can we do to make the work environment productive and meaningful for everyone. And in my mind, just like you diversify your 401(k) portfolio, you have to diversify the things that you offer your employees, the different types of benefits. As we have seen, this is a type of arrangement that works for some people that they didn’t realize until they were forced to do it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like how you said it works for some people. And the reality is that it doesn’t work for everyone. And it’s tough. It’s kind of like online school, which is great. And I myself got my MBA online and I was successful. I got it, but it’s not for everyone.

And you really have to know yourself to really know if it’s going to work for you. And so, there are some very specific advantages that go along with working from home. And now, so what are some disadvantages to go along with that, say for the employee or maybe for the employer, specifically?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’d like to address both of those because I have an opinion on both of those. First of all, for the employee, I believe you are correct when you say you have to know yourself. Some people cannot work in isolation. They need other individuals to talk to or collaborate with on a regular basis. I’m not just saying they need some. No, they need it on a regular basis.

The other thing that I’ve seen is there are some people who are not disciplined to work from home. They get distracted easily if they’re new to working from home. Let’s just put it this way, I’ve seen people come up with ways to scam the system by working from home. And that makes it worse for people who are doing legitimate work.

And then also, I think depending on the home environment, it may make more sense for the people to go into the office. Because I’ve met a lot of employees, they see their office as their escape. I can’t get around saying it, I’ve said, “You don’t like your family?” They would rather be in the office than at home. So for those individuals, I think this situation has been very traumatic. I’ve even heard cases where families have divided to the point there have been divorces or there have been issues with the children, especially if it’s a situation where the parents are still attempting to work while schooling their kids. It’s just been too much to be thrown on them all of a sudden and no preparation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all wonderful, wonderful points. And it makes me think about even my own experiences, obviously over the last year and a half of COVID, is I worked from home and my wife has been teaching my kids homeschool. And so essentially, we’re around each other 24/7, 5 days a week. And then my wife works two days a week, where she gets away working from home, right there.

And you have to know yourself. So you have to really be okay with being around your family all the time. And for some people, and it’s not a criticism, going into the office is a way of having a break, and then being around adults, and then intellectually doing something else, and then coming home and focusing on the family. Because we each need to figure out how much we can invest and how much we need a reprieve. And so, working from home, you really have to be okay with being home all the time.

So when are you going to get out? Do you get out by going to the gym? Do you get out by going with friends? There’s all these things you have to figure out, to have a successful work from home environment. Now, can I ask you, what are some things that you do? Because you work from home most of the time, correct?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And it’s interesting that you say that because I have work from home and then the new concept, I do understand work from anywhere. A lot of people are doing that in other countries. Personally, before the lockdown, what I learned about myself from doing this so long is I have certain times of the day that I do different tasks better.

For example, if you need me to be creative, to write a piece or write a blog, anything that has to do with writing and being creative and innovative, I have to do that between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM. It is what it is. In the morning, when most people are raring to go at like 8:00 to 10:00, that’s not me. I can do manual tasks that require me to move something from point A to point B, I can’t even go to point C. From 8:00 to 10:00, it’s point A to point B.

And for that reason, I usually tell people, especially if a deadline is associated with it, in my head, because I work off of a 24-hour calendar, when they say close of business, to me, that means 12:00 midnight. So there have been times that I have had to have a conversation with coworkers to allow them to understand how I’m relating to different things that we used to say in the office, the traditional office.

And I think another thing that has helped me, is I do the things that you said. I will go to the gym. I’ll go to the grocery store. What I’ve found is the times that I know I really am not the best as producing, I try to put things in its place so that when I’m up 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM, my employer is still getting the work done. And that’s another thing that I like about certain employers. I’ve always worked in knowledge-based businesses, therefore, they’re concerned with the deliverable versus, “I need you to clock in.”

So I’ve always been able to say, “You give me a task, when do you want to by? What time do you want it by, I’ll have it for you.” And I think I have been successful at that, my styles have never been questioned. But, with this pandemic, what changed for me was I could do those things before the pandemic, but when everyone was home and we were really supposed to be on lockdown, I couldn’t do those things. For example, I couldn’t go to the gym. So I learned to do things in my development or the developments around me, in terms of exercise. So I had to modify a couple of things because of the change in the rules. But for me, it works both ways.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all absolutely excellent. And for me, my gym time is very important. And now, we actually have a home gym, very lucky. And so, I lock myself in there and I don’t let my kids in. And that really helps, because then it gives me a way to work on my health. It really gives me a way to really focus on that and to get away from work and to get away from my family.

Now, you said a lot of great things. What are some ways in which you focus on not burning out? Because working from home and maybe working extended hours, whereas not just a strict 9:00 to 5:00 and some of your work goes later, some of your work goes early, how do you not burn out?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: As my chiropractor has suggested, I do a lot of different things. During the hours that I don’t have to be creative, that 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM, I will either get up and do something different at least once every hour. They would like it to be a little bit more, like once every half hour. But it’s adding in those things, even if it means walking out to the mailbox. I consider that something of a distraction to working. One, because when I get out to the mailbox, I see other people so I engage in conversation and it’s just something different to break up the day and not to necessarily think about work all the time.

This is very odd too, it’s also the time that if I need some type of service in my house, I will schedule an appointment when I will probably need a break. Because letting them in, answering their questions, again, it’s something different than work. And it’s allowing me to focus on doing another task that’s not related to my work.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love your response there. And from your previous response, it really makes me think of what you said about knowledge-based work. And it is a nice thing because ideally the employer will 100% trust the employee to get the job done. Now, when they get the job done, does matter as long as they deliver it on time?

And that’s one of the wonderful things about working from home, is that you can get the job done and deliver your product on time, all is good. Now, sometimes there are some jobs where you do have to work a shift. And so, in working from home again, still can totally work as long as you “log in,” you cover that shift and you log out.

But again, it’s all about knowing yourself and it’s all about knowing how you can respond. And it really makes me think that moving forward, there’s almost a stratification of when people are ready. And I’m totally generalizing here, so I apologize.

When you’re younger, you’ll probably go into the office, you’ll “prove yourself.” And then, as you get a little more experience, you can then work from home or different things. Or some people when they’re young, they might be ready right off the start. But there is that social isolation that does happen. Now, do you have any advice for anybody that might be working from home and might experience some of that social isolation?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s interesting that you broke it down by age groups because what I’ve found, it’s the young people, it’s just everyday work life. And I think that’s because they’ve grown up with computers, their cell phones. They’re used to doing tasks by themselves and moving on to the next thing. And there’s an article out in LinkedIn that was discussing that.

What they’re finding is now that a lot of businesses are going back to work, the young people are like, “I could work either way, but I prefer to work at home.” Because to them, it’s just another task. The ones who are struggling with it are the older workers and the bosses.

And I have a couple different theories about that, but there are things starting to come out to prove my theory. I always thought why work at home was not a viable solution in the past was because we would have to deal with management. I personally thought that it was because if we go to a work-at-home, most people work by themselves, may every so often have a Zoom meeting. And you have a lot of managers who would want to know, “What do I do now?” Because they’re used to watching, overseeing, almost like you as a parent, you watch your kids at certain points of the day, to make sure that they’re doing the right thing.

And we have had years of managers who “grew up” in that type of mentality and they are not, I can think of some of the service industries are not like the tech in the stories. When I say I’ve spent 20 years in some type of work at home environment, they have all been with tech companies or tech-related companies. And I think those type of industries just adjust better than some other ones.

Now, I have an example of one company, the CEO does not believe in work from home. By his age, I see why. It’s old school. And I have some workers who have a thought about that. My thought was, “They are wondering, ‘What happens to me now?'” But this CEO is approximately 71 years old. And another concept that came up was he has worked all his life to get to a point where he believed that he is successful. And it’s just not a state of mind for people in that generation, perks come with that.

And one of those perks is to have that nice office with people who report up to you, they’re looking to you for advice. And this individual is very adamant that he believes that his workers should come into the office and he’s compromised on a certain point, but that’s only because he believes work at home is going to fail. And the group that he has been comfortable with, it’s a business necessity, with it being hard to find workers, today, in certain industries, in certain jobs. He has to do it that way for the bottom line.

So getting back to your original question, I believe that, not the downside, but the obstacle to work at home has always been the management level.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you brought up the management because when I was a manager in the office, I loved observing other managers. And there were hands-off managers. I was a hands-off manager. And not that’s always positive all the time, but I tried to give my employees autonomy and I trusted them. Now, and I’ll use this term, but there were other authoritarian type managers, where they wanted to watch their employees, they wanted to make sure they’re doing their job.

So that way, they knew they were doing their job. And I could see how as a more authoritarian type manager, you’re going online, you are cut off, and then you don’t know, “Are my employees doing their job?” And if you’re more authoritarian, that usually comes with a lack of trust, honestly. You usually don’t trust people that they’re going to do it correctly or fully or anything like that. And so, by then observing them, walking around, the walk around type manager, you’re able to then do your job. And so, that’d be a very difficult transition.

And I’m glad you brought up that CEO. And so, one of my questions was, and this of course, because there’s been articles about this. There are a few high profile CEOs, such as Jamie Dimon, very famous CEO, and companies like WeWork, who do not like working from home that much.

And so, why do you think these people in these companies have this position? They have office space for people to use. So they’ve been coming out with articles saying, “Don’t work from home, go into the office. And here’s the office we provide.” So they have a financial benefit or even survival, that people need to keep on going to the office. But like you said, with that CEO, and I watched an interview once with Jamie, he was talking about the dynamic conversations that he has with his employees and how exciting that was, and how meetings are more, “Useful and productive when they’re in person.” But if you’re the CEO, every person that comes and talk to you, they’re going to give a hundred million percent when they’re talking to you.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, exactly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: They don’t want to drop the ball with my one time I’m talking to Jamie Dimon. Now, if you’re then having a meeting, where you’re discussing verbiage of a vision statement with your peers, I’m not going to say that’s not important, but it’s not going to be a wildly dynamic meeting. It’s going to be a nuts and bolts meeting, and that could easily be online. And so, like you were saying, how is it that this personality of leadership, how will they transition to be more accepting?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I don’t know that they will, but I think that’s okay. As you were speaking, I was trying to think of her name. I want to say the company was Google. I remember following her. She was a strong advocate with some major banks who said, “Our employees cannot work from home. We need them in for the water-cooler conversations.” And again, because I’ve been in higher ed and I teach and design online classes, I’m like, “You can take the same things you bring up, and do them online. For example, water cooler, we do it on Zoom.” Coaching, it’s the same both places. So it’s a matter of how do you adjust your style for the environment. I call that, “Meet people where they are.”

And I’d like to say my leadership style is, I’m not one that believes that everybody has to do everything the way that I say. I’m really into Myers–Briggs. I like to see other people’s style for two reasons. I want to see how they work well in an environment that is comfortable for them, based on their personality. But sometimes, I’ve used that as an exercise in my classes and I will switch it around and say, “Okay, I’m going to cause chaos. You have a different personality. You have a different style.”

For example, I’m very fun loving, can work in the abstract, when everything is fine. When chaos comes up, I still work fine. But for individuals who may be working with me and they’re very structured, they’re about to kill me, because they want everything told to them, “How are we coming out of the chaos? Can we write it down by step?” I’m not giving you that. I’m just telling you, “We’re here. We will get to Z. We might feel our way through it.” And people who are very structured, they cannot handle that.

I think it’s one of the reasons why people believe that you have to be in the office, because they’re thinking about, “What if something goes wrong?” You have people in their houses, it could be all over the country. It could be all over one state, but how do you physically get together? And I think why there is that need for a physical powwow is what I said about when chaos occurs. When people have their back against the wall, I think they’re more comfortable in numbers versus being isolated. And you don’t want people having panic attacks while they’re by themselves and you’re trying to come up with a solution to a business problem. So I think that’s something that the higher ups think about.

The other thing, I’m not saying about these individuals, because they may do something different, but a lot of people who sit in the ivory tower are just that, they’re isolated. I’ve seen a lot of different senior leadership and I’ve always told them, “What you get is not what the everyday manager gets. They’re putting on a show for you. That’s not them in their natural habitat.”

So the managers, the middle managers, the first-line supervisors, they have to deal with something totally different. And I’m a firm believer, and my style has always supported, a lot of times before I make a decision on something as major as this, I like to talk to the grassroots, because those are the people who actually do the work. And I want to find out what works for them. And I find it interesting that there are leaders who have taken a stance, will not move from it, in spite of surveys from their employees who say otherwise. That’s a little scary to me, but it is happening. In my mind, the question is, “What do you do with that type of situation?”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great situation. It really makes me think of when you have somebody who becomes a successful leader, like a CEO, this person, this man or this woman, they’ve had a successful career, they’ve been praised, they’ve made so much money. And so, so many steps along the way has supported their ego. And so, if you get to a point in which the employees want something different than you, in your mind, I can see how it’s like, “Well, what do they know? They’re only frontline workers. I’m the boss and I’ve done this, and I’ve had the vision. I’ve helped the company grow and I’ve, I’ve, I’ve.”

But it’s one of those things that, like management 101 rules is to let the ego go and to listen. And when you don’t do that, that’s when you start being disconnected and there’s different leaders for when the company goes up and there’s different leaders then when the company goes down. And each serves a purpose and each has a role because that leader that helps a company go up, might completely crash and burn if they hit tough times. And that’s not a bad thing.

I think the theme of this podcast is you have to know yourself. You have to know what you can do well, but you also have to know what you’re not as good at. And those things that you’re not as good at, you have to surround yourself with just a crackerjack team, just a wonderful team of people who can help you. And that’s why, especially online, when we work from home, communication is key. And so, the last question I have is, why is working from home better for the environment?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: If nothing else, the commute. Less cars on the road, people taking public transportation. One of the beautiful things that I have heard many people say about working from home, it gave them 18 months to get rested, because they weren’t doing the commute. I live in an area where the average commute is two hours a day. And because all of the good jobs are away from the state that I live in, most people work in one of the three surrounding states. So there’s a commute involved. They enjoyed having that time back because they were able to do things that were what I consider to be quality of life activities. So that’s two hours right there.

With the cars being off the road, you don’t have to worry about carpooling, you don’t have to worry about the pollution coming from the cars.

And I think the third thing for the environment is that you don’t have businesses producing pollution. I’m thinking about some manufacturing companies that have to start up the factory and everything and puffing off the smoke. And you can tell, I live somewhere that’s slightly industrial. So I still have these types of businesses around here. So I think that’s a third thing for the environment, what has been better because they have not had to do that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are excellent responses and it’s true. Ever since I’ve been, honestly, alive and that I can remember what’s going on, Earth Day started. I’ve always heard about the environment. And honestly, ever since I’ve been alive, the environment has only gotten worse. So it’s very odd that the political leaders and the business leaders hand-in-hand have not done much, or if they have tried, it’s been ineffective. And the one thing that has helped was COVID, which is so weird that a tragic pandemic has helped people realize how that can help the environment.

Now, with people working from home, it’s also kind of precipitating a demographic shift, where some people are deciding, looking around where they live, being like, “I don’t want to live here anymore.” How do you think that’ll change if you want to talk about politics? But how will that kind of change the cities and the states we live in if you suddenly decide, “I don’t want to live in,” say you live in Texas and you want to move to Idaho, or if you want to move to Tennessee or Maine, what downstream changes could that create?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Well, that’s a good point. And I think it ties to an article that’s again, on LinkedIn today. I have always believed that part of the fight against working from home, it’s not just some of the senior leadership in the standpoint of what is going on in their company, but also the pressure from the commercial real estate industry. Because there are so many buildings people will not need, what are we going to do with those buildings? These industries are not the most creative to come up with something on how to utilize an old resource.

And then you have businesses who have lived and thrived off of people coming in to that environment: New York City. There are vendors who look for people doing the commute, to have different goods to be able to sell to these individuals. When you don’t have that, what are these companies going to do?

I live in a college town and what happened was, it’s a large university. The students have the option of living on campus or living in some of the apartments. And there’s a whole street that is nothing but businesses that have catered to these students over the year. When these students weren’t here, they were at home, those businesses took a hit. One, knew how to bounce back. But for the most part, they didn’t know how to bounce back.

And you had made a comment earlier about leaders, when things are good and when things are bad. I’m going to do a plug for my own program, but I am not convinced the successful leader of yesterday can move companies through what is needed to be successful for tomorrow. And that’s an issue we’re going to have to deal with in development, because there may be some good people who are champion, get the employees back into the office. It may be because that’s how they know how to operate.

But what if some type of business model is needed, that, one: does not require the employees to be in the office. Two: not the way that that particular leader is used to functioning. We’re going to have a problem if someone does not step in and say, “Time out. Time out, we’re moving in a different direction as far as the economy is dictating. Therefore, we’re going to have to change and shift.” That is actually my biggest concern, is that as you mentioned with the ego, some leaders are going to say, “But this worked for me in 1947.” No, it’s 2021. We need something different. And I think that’s a real issue we’re going to have to deal with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And it makes me think, and I do agree, you hope that people grow and change with the time. It’s what we all hope to do, but I’m going to have this theoretical leader who was born in 1960. So today they’re 61. And so, they were raised in the ’70s. They became adults in the ’80s, and maybe they really had the first success in the late ’80s, ’90s. And so, say they’ve been a leader and they’ve been very successful in the ’90s and the ’00s. And now, in the teens and now in the 20s, are they still up to the task? Because they cut their teeth in the late ’80s and ’90s. And that is a lifetime ago. Even if you just think of the computers we had back then. The very rudimentary cell phones that started in the late ’80s and in the ’90s.

I mean, it was a different world and that’s okay. But it also makes me think of just the changing of demographics and the changing… As somebody gets older, sounds terrible, we’re replaced. And that’s okay. We get older and there’s younger people that come about and no matter what age we are, we can always stay on top of things, but you always have to be open to change and you always have to read.

And if leaders can do that, they can be a leader until whenever. But if they’re stuck, if our theoretical person who was born in say 1960, is stuck in the ’90s, they’re going to lose their job. And just like you said, they might be a leader that helps a company go up, but they’re not going to be that type of leader that helps the company go down and then recover. They might be the leader who takes it down and then, well, they get replaced because they can’t figure it out.

And it’s tough. I mean, there’s no tougher situation than if you’re a leader in a company that’s going down. Because morale gets killed, people are starting to stress, they start pointing fingers. And it’s a very stressful environment. And you were talking about chaos and there’s nothing more difficult in a business environment than chaos. Because business and people in general, they want to control. And it’s a natural human thing.

And so, working from home, it’s just one of those things that, it’s like you give up a little control, but honestly you get more productivity. And although we didn’t talk about this and you talked about it a little. Throughout COVID, if people were able to, they really should have focused on the meaning, “Why am I here? What am I doing? What is my job?” And so hopefully, now that we’re through COVID, which we’re not, it’s still going, really focus on meaning. Your job is an aspect of your life, but it’s not 100% of your life. And so, if you have good meaning, you can do any job. And so, we’re really at the end of this, any final words, Marie?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I think you were getting ready to go in another direction that is worthy of more conversation. But thank you for inviting me because as I said, when you first invited me, we were at the beginning, but now some time has gone by and so many questions have come up, just like you were giving the examples.

They actually have a job title now, chief transition officer, to deal with these types of things that we have been talking about. I find that encouraging because to me that means some businesses have identified someone’s going to have to be on top of this. If not, the environment is going to be very toxic, which could cause the company to go out of business. It’s very easy, even for a successful company, to go out of business. They’re calling the next two years, the interim economy because I think that’s going to make or break a lot of industries and a lot of companies, what they do in the next two years. Then they can think about after the pandemic. But right now, it’s a matter of survival.

And thank you for bringing this timely topic up because I think we’re going to continue to ask questions and try to get answers. And there’s no one answer fits all. One size doesn’t fit all. I believe each organization is going to have to find out what works for them and the people that work there.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you so much for an absolutely wonderful podcast, Marie, and thank you for being patient with my own kids, working from home.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I love them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: You can hear them throughout the podcast. And so, today we’re speaking with Dr. Marie Gould Harper about the future of working from home. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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