Salesforce's Marc Benioff.
Salesforce's Marc Benioff said the company's younger, remote employees could be less productive than colleagues.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
  • Salesforce's CEO said the company's younger, remote workers may be less productive than their peers.
  • Remote work might indeed be uniquely challenging for employees earlier in their careers.
  • But the problem most likely relates to how remote employees are trained, managed, and evaluated.

It's easy to assume remote workers are slackers. Too easy.

The number of US employees working remotely most of the time tripled to nearly 28 million between 2019 and 2021, according to recent government data. But many employers still worry that if they can't see staff sitting at their desks, those employees are probably off on a midday hike or a shopping spree.

Take Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who recently suggested, in leaked audio of an internal meeting that was shared with Insider, that remote workers could be responsible for Salesforce's decline in productivity. The problem must be worse, Benioff surmised, for young remote workers.

It's possible that Salesforce's younger, remote employees are less productive than the rest of the staff. But it's unlikely that the problem is remote work itself, or the work ethic of remote employees, based on the growing body of research on flexible work. If Benioff wants to get to the root of the issue and improve organizational performance, he should take a step back and examine how remote workers are onboarded, managed, and evaluated.

It can be challenging to start your career remotely

Salesforce employs roughly 73,000 people. In a November 2021 release, the company said it had hired more than 30,000 people remotely since the start of the pandemic. This month, the software company announced plans to cut 10% of its workforce; executives have warned that there could be additional rounds of layoffs to follow.

In the leaked meeting audio, Benioff questioned whether younger employees working remotely are able to build critical relationships with colleagues. He wondered whether they're "having the kind of social experience and meeting folks and getting the kind of swivel-chair enablement we used to have."

It's hard to say whether Benioff is correct in assuming that younger workers are less productive at home than they are in the office. Remote work might be uniquely challenging for employees who are newer to the workforce. After all, virtually training new hires is a relatively novel practice for many employers. A minority of workers in their 20s say they want to work remotely full time.

In general, hybrid work — typically three days a week in the office and two at home — appears to be the best model for productivity, said Stanford economist and leading remote-work expert Nick Bloom. "Well executed, organized hybrid seems to be the sweet spot," Bloom wrote in an email to Insider.

The problem isn't remote work — it's how remote workers are managed

But Salesforce's problem probably isn't necessarily that it permits remote work. "There are known impediments to remote workers' productivity," Tsedal Neeley, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School and the author of "Remote Work Revolution," wrote in an email to Insider.

In particular, Neeley cited orienting new remote hires, specifically whether the onboarding program helps employees navigate the org chart. It matters, too, how Salesforce is evaluating productivity. There are three criteria that matter in the hybrid workplace, Neeley wrote: results, team cohesion, and individual well being and job satisfaction.

The problem could also be related to management. Effective leaders in a hybrid workplace "focus on outcomes," Neeley wrote, "while coaching and supporting." On the other hand, Neeley wrote, leaders who micromanage their employees' time "are the kiss of death in hybrid work."

Read the original article on Business Insider