The Future of Remote Work

I have been ghosting/editing op eds and think pieces about the pandemic, including some about the implications of remote work.

My wife is a non-profit executive and I hear her remote working downstairs all day long–chairing long Zoom meetings, managing her reports on the phone. Sometimes people bring things to our house that require her physical signature.

I’ve been a home worker since 2003, so the pandemic hasn’t really changed my way of working at all, except I no longer have to travel for occasional meetings. But it occurs to me that there is a problem with a lot of the “big” thinking about home work, which is that it that it takes a fairly privileged subset of idea workers and turns them into the norm. Some of that, I think, is narcissistic–it reflects the circumstances of the writers like me who are turning out those stories rather than a real inflection.

Big companies may or may not end up reducing their physical footprints going forward, because if they are growing, they are likely spreading out anyway, continually outgrowing their spaces, and if they are shrinking, their business is likely suffering, which is a much bigger problem for them than where they put their people.

In two or three years, the pandemic will be much less of a present threat than it is today. And two or three years is the blink of an eye, considering how long most commercial leases run, and how long it takes to prepare new space for occupancy. When Twitter got its tax break and moved to San Francisco nearly ten years ago, there were all these stories heralding tech’s urban turn (I ghosted some of them). Now that Twitter’s tax break has expired, Dorsey is talking about spreading his workforce throughout more locations and having more of them work remotely. But he isn’t giving up the building in San Francisco, either. Home work hasn’t changed the fact that engineering teams have to work together, that managers need to have a personal connection to their staffs, that off-siting infrastructure functions creates problems that will likely turn out to be bigger than the one they are meant to solve (assuming that COVID-19 becomes less of a threat in a few years). We have a lot of historical data on human organizational behavior (organizations benefit from physical clustering) and a lot of historical data on pandemics (they tend to burn out after a few years), and people aren’t putting the two datasets together.

Ten years ago, maybe 7 to 10 percent of the workforce worked at home. Today it’s closer to 50 percent (or maybe more, since 20 percent of the workforce is either furloughed, unemployed, or about to be). Tomorrow? Most likely it will be a lot more than it was 10 years ago and a lot less than it is today. I suspect that history will remember 2020 as the year that the Second Great Depression began and democracy died in America rather than the year that everyone started working at home.

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