As many companies including Google and Citigroup push for their employees to come back to the office, a software CEO with a fully in-person operation says remote work may be good for individuals, but not for the greater team.
Working isn’t just about personal productivity—it’s about being a team player and helping to raise the performance of others, Jake Wood, CEO of corporate philanthropy company Groundswell, wrote in a June 16 LinkedIn post.
“I can understand the employee’s perspective, but I think it’s lacking something critical: It’s not just about you,” Wood wrote. “What do I mean by that? You might be able to execute your work on time and to standard in a remote environment. But what about your colleagues? Absent your presence, leadership, mentorship—can they thrive?”
Wood is a former Marine sniper who used to run Team Rubicon, a disaster-aid nonprofit that he founded in 2010. He stepped down as Team Rubicon’s CEO in 2021 to found Groundswell, a service that enables corporate charitable giving via software and housing accounts. A self-proclaimed “huge proponent of in-person collaboration and work,” Wood told Fortune that remote work slows company progress and hurts efficiency.
Groundswell operates fully in person, and while this made it difficult to recruit a team early on, the model has paid dividends in productivity since, Wood said in an interview.
“I do believe that we move faster and have a better shared understanding of our mission, our objectives, our challenges when we’re together, and I think that the team would agree with that,” Wood said.
It’s ‘not just your individual contribution’
Remote work especially disadvantages lower-level or new employees, Wood wrote on LinkedIn, because it makes onboarding slower and eliminates potential mentors. The CEO told Fortune that he doesn’t judge those who prefer remote work, but says their priorities don’t lie with the team, so they should consider working independently.
“Employees need to take care of themselves, and I’m under no illusion that everybody feels this sense of dedication or selflessness and sacrifice for their employer,” Wood told Fortune. “That being said, your ability to do your job, from my perspective, is not just your individual contribution—your ability to stamp widgets. Part of your job is lifting up the productivity and capabilities of those around you.”
A 2021 study published in Nature supports Wood’s theory of collaboration, finding that remote work made collaboration “static and siloed.” When shifting to remote work, employees tended to maintain communication with colleagues they had strong connections with, but not for those where connections were weaker. The problem is that weak connections often provide the most helpful, new, “nonredundant” information. The study, which followed over 60,000 Microsoft employees, found that remote work’s shrinking of each worker’s network hurt the overall organization’s productivity.
Teamwork and human connection are paramount for Wood, who explained his leadership style to the New York Times in late 2021 by saying that “empathy is core to leading with love.” He added that he doesn’t see employees as tools, but futures to invest in.
Wood’s comments echo those of other CEOs who believe remote work hinders junior employees’ growth. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for instance, said in March that new employees do “empirically” better if onboarded and trained in person. These comments get to the issue of “proximity bias,” the phenomenon where even employees higher up the ladder depend on the amount of time spent at the office for continued career progression. This tendency, for workers to have more affection for those they spend more physically close time with, frequently means in the professional world that managers tend to favor employees whom they see more often in the office.
Not that remote work is without rewards. Remote workers earn $8,553 more on average than their in-person counterparts, according to a study by telecom company Ringover, which combed through over 35,000 remote and in-person job listings on LinkedIn. Remote workers also save on the transit, food, and clothing costs that office work entails. And while CEOs are quick to order their employees back to the office, a survey of more than 250 mid-market CEOs from June 2022 found that less than half were working in person five days a week themselves.
For many workers, even a pay downgrade would be worth working fully remotely. A third of workers said they would accept a pay cut in exchange for working fully remote, with the option being especially enticing for people ages 18 to 25 and single parents, a February survey by employment agency Robert Half found.
Still, the survey corroborated Wood’s philosophy: Two-thirds of professionals reported that their working relationships with colleagues were more effective when performed face-to-face.
For the Groundswell CEO, the remote versus in-person argument is all about how highly one prioritizes collaboration. If workers really want to advance their company’s vision, they should be showing up to make it happen.
“I think you lift others best when you’re in person and people are able to soak up your mentorship, your leadership, and your talents and reflect them in their own work life,” Wood said.
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