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Employees revolt after CEO's op-ed about hybrid workplaces

In an essay, Catherine Merrill, CEO of Washingtonian Media Inc., argued against hybrid workplaces, drawing a strong reaction from employees and HR analysts.

Many employers have plans to adopt hybrid workplaces post-pandemic -- including full-time remote work. But Catherine Merrill, CEO and owner of Washingtonian Media Inc., may not be one of them.

In an essay published Thursday in The Washington Post, Merrill, who publishes the Washingtonian, wrote of the merits of working in the office. For those who don't want to work in the office, she held out the possibility of turning work-from-home employees into independent contractors without benefits.

Employees responded Friday with a work stoppage. Merrill did not immediately respond to an email sent out late this afternoon.

The CEO's position may have consequences, HR analysts said.

"People want flexibility at work. It's their No. 1 request. And this kind of executive is going to have a hard time hiring people," said Josh Bersin, an industry analyst and head of Josh Bersin Academy. "It's OK to ask people to come in periodically, but remote work is now a part of everyday life."

Josh Bersin, industry analyst and head of Josh Bersin AcademyJosh Bersin

Merrill's essay cited the merits of employees interacting in the office, which includes "extras" such as mentoring, celebrating birthdays and other activities "that drive office culture."

And then she lowered the boom: "If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to 'contractor,'" Merrill wrote. That means not having to pay for their healthcare, 401(k) and other benefits, she noted.

Employees respond to 'threat'

In response, many Washingtonian employees announced a job action via Twitter, sending out a statement that read:

Merrill acknowledged that future employment "will probably be some type of hybrid," but then she suggested the biggest benefit of returning to the office "may be simple job security." She noted that, "the hardest people to let go are the ones you know."

Trevor White, analyst at Nucleus ResearchTrevor White

But hiring new people may be expensive. Researchers estimated that employers might have to pay their employees 8% more to get them to come to the office or otherwise deal with rising quit rates. HR managers and recruiters believe the hybrid workplace option is a top interview question.

People have become very comfortable working from home, said Trevor White, an analyst at Nucleus Research.

"Combine that with the continued [COVID-19] fear that some people have, even post-vaccine, and you have an HR nightmare on your hands," White said. "I think for those trying to get their workers back into the office, the approach has to be delicate."

R R "Ray" Wang

R "Ray" Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research, said companies are deciding what direction they will take post-pandemic, but he also argued that younger workers may want to go to the office to connect with coworkers.

"We've got to make sure that younger workers have the same opportunities to meet people and grow relationships and expand their career and find mentors," Wang said.

The Daily Beast reported that Merrill had apologized in a statement sent to the publication. It said, in part, according to the report: "I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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