Opinion: When it comes to remote work, Stephen Schwarzman doesn’t get it

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” will be published by Alcove Press on March 5, 2024. Follow her on InstagramFacebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone, doesn’t think many of us put in enough work during the pandemic. Speaking on a panel at an investment conference in Saudi Arabia, he claimed that, during the pandemic, remote workers “didn’t work as hard — regardless of what they told you.”

Kara  Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo
Kara Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo

Schwarzman’s contentions aren’t just outrageously offensive and inaccurate. They also promote the billionaire’s economic interests at the expense of those who are up against enormous challenges in life.

As a professor who worked remotely during the first part of the pandemic, I find Schwarzman’s claims to be staggering because, like many employees around the globe, I worked harder than ever before. My husband is an emergency room doctor who treated Covid-19 patients before anyone knew how the virus spread. So in the initial weeks of the pandemic, he quarantined in a different part of our house, away from our toddler and me, and I did my full-time job while serving as a solo parent to our out-of-school child.

What’s more, employers often called on staffers to do more, not less, during the pandemic. I converted all of my courses to an online format practically overnight. I was asked to document extra efforts I made to provide support to my students — giving them my personal cell phone number, for example — for my school’s accreditors. And because the university where I worked at the time didn’t offer tech support on nights or weekends, I helped frantic colleagues who were also working overtime to try to make remote teaching work. Efforts like this by workers in all kinds of jobs are, of course, what got our country through our generation’s greatest public health crisis.

It also showed a lot of people that remote work can work. The option to work from home can be especially appealing to women who also balance caregiving responsibilities, those with disabilities and people of color who often face discrimination in the workplace. Accommodating these workers is, of course, good for business: Companies that are more diverse have higher earnings.

It makes sense that men like Schwarzman wouldn’t like remote work because it might not serve their economic interests. After all, if companies cut back on expensive office leases, it could hurt Blackstone’s real estate investments. While the firm has drastically reduced its commercial office holdings, it is still vulnerable to such a downturn. And, of course, remote work is bad for some businesses such as lunch establishments in downtown areas and dry cleaners that serve the commuter crowd.

It’s one thing to say that remote work was bad for certain businesses. But to say employees didn’t work as hard while remote is completely out of line.

Research on productivity during the pandemic found that remote work can make people more productive. For example, one study found that the output of economists increased by more than 20%. Different studies of call center workers found productivity increases and decreases. Stanford University economist Nick Bloom says the reason for the varying results is because so much depends on the skills of their bosses. “It all comes down to how workers are managed,” he told The New York Times. (I hope Schwarzman is paying attention.)

What’s more, research by the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago found that Americans devoted 35% of the time saved commuting during the pandemic to more work. That’s certainly the case for me — I used my time savings to work on a new book.

During the pandemic, many Americans made Herculean efforts for our employers, families and communities. The experience showed that remote work can be good for both employees and businesses. It’s the managers who can’t see this who I seriously question.

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