There are few relationships more complicated than that of a supervisor and a subordinate. The uneasy balance between being someone’s boss and their friend are what created the hilarity behind Michael Scott in the hit sitcom The Office. Michael’s desire to be everyone’s favorite person led to some great quotes:
“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
The Office was yet another version of that old trope: the uninspired office filled with unproductive workers. This theme is a recurring one. The only difference is that The Office replaced the hard-nosed, hateable boss that often accompanies our pop-culture portrayal of offices and replaced him with the lovable but cringeworthy Michael Scott. The reason that The Office did so well, both in Britain and the U.S., is likely because it is a very common occurrence.
Surveys have shown that people are increasingly considering their bosses their friends.
This is a good thing in a lot of ways. Having closer supervisor/subordinate relationships can help create what organizational behavior academia calls a flattened hierarchy which can help create more autonomy and facilitate sharing of information.
A good relationship with your boss can also create what business school professors call Perceived Organizational Support (POS). According to one paper from the University of Tennessee:
“This issue of motivation in relation to perception of an employee’s supervisor can also be a very positive thing. If someone is working for a manager that they feel very positively about, they are likely to complete their work with a much better attitude. This increase in motivation can save an organization a lot of money that would otherwise be lost on a demotivated employee doing less work than they should be doing. This should be a key factor in supervisors being trained to build great relationships with their employees rather than solely trained to get tasks accomplished through their employees.”
That isn’t to say that a non-work relationship between bosses and employees can’t have its setbacks as well. A report with the rather unadorned title Workplace Friendships from the Columbia Business School explains that:
“We have generated the evidence on how networks can help workers and organizations, and we teach the classes and run the workshops that encourage business students and executives to build networks for professional advantage. Yet, we have not come fully to terms with the tension inherent in our advice, that in asking business people to cultivate advantageous friendships, we are asking them to combine spheres of life that may contaminate each other.”
This contamination is exactly what makes us all cringe every time Michael Scott says something like:
“The people that you work with are, when you get down to it…your very best friends.”
“First make friends, make sales second, make love third, in no particular order.”
Whether it is right or wrong, the relationships with bosses are becoming increasingly personal and this will likely impact how we shape the future of work. We like to think of our enterprises as meritocracies, ones where the top performers advance accordingly. But we all also know that not to be true. Organizations are run by people and people are flawed. Even the most meritocratic organization can often turn into a game of favoritism. We can create safeguards to prevent nepotism but gates are only as good as their gatekeepers: the managers.
So much of what has been said about the future of work revolves around the employee. Employees favor remote work. Employees will quit if they are made to come back to the office. Companies have to embrace remoteness in order to win the battle for talent. These talk about “employees” in broad strokes but when you really get into the power dynamics behind what they expound they are really talking about highly skilled employees. There are a number of skills like coding, data engineering, and networking that are in incredibly high demand with a relatively low supply of workers able to do them. These skills create lots of value for some of the biggest companies in the world and are therefore highly sought after. But, let’s face it, most of us don’t have these kinds of skills.
The vast majority of “knowledge workers” are not performing incredibly complicated tasks, they are working on simple tasks as part of a complicated organization. That means that their most valuable skill, if you can call it that, is being perceived as valuable by their boss. Once we accept the fact that most employees exist only to prove themselves to their boss, the conversation around the future of work changes. For most industries, it doesn’t really matter if a lot of people don’t want to come to work. They never really did. What matters is that bosses want you to be at work. This reality hasn’t changed during the pandemic. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that most managers had “negative perceptions” of WFH. Forty-two percent of the supervisors they served said that they would “sometimes forget” about remote employees and found them “more easily replaceable.”
This doesn’t bode well for the remote worker in the race up the corporate ladder. It also can mean that bosses in charge of a largely remote workforce might turn into more of a Mr. Burns than a Michael Scott. Sixty-seven percent of all supervisors also said that they spend more time supervising remote workers than onsite ones. There are plenty of industries that are completely productivity-based, many of them track their employee’s work every six minutes (1/10th of an hour) to keep track. I doubt many remote workers would be willing to be subjected to that kind of monitoring, even if it meant commuting to the office every once and a while.
When it comes to who wins and who loses in the corporate world, perception is reality. You don’t always have to be a good employee or boss, you just have to be perceived as such. For the workers perceived as the most valuable, they will be in control of their own work future. For the rest of us, we need to bend ourselves to the perception of senior leadership, many of which have had to put in their time in the office and see it as a bit of a right of passage. It is important to remember that, even if they are our friends, the boss is usually still the boss.