Working From Home and the Future of Remote Work
The world of work is changing. The coronavirus which hit us hard at the beginning of March 2020 altered the way many of us think about our jobs. Millions of people - upwards of 50% of the American population, for example - began working remotely, from the comfort - or claustrophobia - of their own living rooms, bedrooms, and gardens. While evidently necessary to stem the COVID-19 spread, people had mixed opinions about working from home (and of course, not all professions were privileged enough to go remote). Regardless, it is here to stay - and it has changed the way we work forever.
The remote work revolution
The number of employees working from home in many countries was increasing even before the coronavirus forced our hand. In America, according to the 2017 consensus, around 5% of the population were working from home, which was up on the year before and an increase of 2% since 2000. Worldwide the number was edging towards 8% in 2019. Still, these numbers were relatively minute in comparison to how the situation looks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: aside from the 50% of workers in America working remotely, 93% of companies in Argentina adopted some form of remote work practice, and around 70% in Japan.
These numbers show that large parts of or even whole economies have switched to remote working. Naturally, not every business was able to do this. Sticking with America, research has shown clear correlations between age and profession and likelihood of being able to work from home. Younger people in general were more likely to have been able to work at home. Moreover, management and professional occupations - occupations that are broadly defined as ‘information work’ - were much more likely to be done remotely; this makes sense, as supermarkets and public transport, in contrast, necessitate people on site. And in those companies where digitalisation isn’t as advanced, or which necessitate blue and pink collar work, the remote work percentages fall drastically.
That being said, one of the biggest changes is that a wider range of people are currently working from home. The practice used to be something only available to the affluent: of those 7% working for private companies in America from the comfort of their homes, 25% were in the highest 10% of earners. Of those in the bottom 25%, only 1% were able to work remotely. Some of this is due to the type of job; however, even within white collar work, only those who were the most well off were able to work from home, in general. If nothing else, the coronavirus has slightly closed this gap.
The benefits of working at home
The benefits are manifold. One of the main psychological positives of working at home is the removal of the commute, which has been shown to harm social lives and our mental health. Moreover, the commitment of essentially cohabiting for a third (or more) of one’s life, as one does in the office, is huge - in a romantic partnership, this would be an enormous step. However, in white collar work in the office, this is standard practice, and most people don’t have any choice over who they have to work with. Not to mention that an office can never appeal to everyone at the same time - people will always want different temperatures, different moods, different styles, different levels of noise (such as music), all of which can cause a lot of frustration, and all of which can be mitigated when everyone has their ‘own’ ‘corner office’.
Of course, not everyone has access to the equipment needed to hold video calls, or the internet connection required. Some companies have overcome this by offering their employees funding to make their own offices at home. Automattic, for example, the company behind Wordpress and Tumblr (as well as many other projects), has a ‘home office allowance’ which provides funds for its employees to make their ‘home office’ as comfortable and productive as possible. Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of Wordpress, makes the argument that people can then include whatever they want to help them focus - a treadmill desk, a standing desk, music or no music, and in his example in a podcast interview, a candle which helps him stay ‘centred’.
There’s also the fact that it’s cheaper for companies not to hire out an office space, and on top of that, the lack of commuting for employees and the lack of energy consumption within the office is better for the environment. The hiring process, too, is improved through not interviewing people in person, a practice some companies have adopted since the pandemic began, particularly with regards to freelance content and development work. Unconscious biases and the first impressions we have of people which we can’t control all make interviewing a tricky business. Basing your judgments off of a person’s talents on an anonymous CV means that unconscious biases based on race, gender etc. can be mitigated.
The illusion of face to face magic
Automattic was a company that was already decentralised and almost entirely remote before the pandemic, so hasn’t undergone much of a change. For companies which have been forced to get their employees to work remotely, the transition period hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Employers fear workers are less productive at home in comparison to in the office, for multiple reasons: the ease with which distractions can arise, the lack of an authority figure to keep people in check, as well as the lack of peer pressure from other employees working around them, are some of the main ones. And some, even Mullenweg, speak of the ‘magic’ of face to face meetings which can’t be recreated over a video call.
Face to face meetings are good for friendship-building and team chemistry, but in reality, for the vast majority of white collar work, are totally unnecessary. A study from the Association for Computer Machinery found that video calls can be as effective as being face to face when communicating. In-person meetups can also serve entrenched biases within a company. Rather than a focus on quantifiable results of task-based work, meetups help establish partisan networks within companies, in that employees are judged on how well they ‘fit’ within the ‘culture’ of a company - that is to say, on subjective impressions, rather than the actual work they do. These impressions of people are more difficult to form over telephone, Slack, or video call, meaning employees are judged less on their character and more on the actual work they produce.
But companies are stuck in their ways. One of the main reasons companies choose to not decentralise their work and allow employees to work remotely is because of an embedded belief that it doesn’t work. These companies have functioned, and been extremely successful, by providing employees a centralised hub from which they work. Mullenweg was told on multiple occasions that remote work wouldn’t suffice if his company got any bigger; yet, it continued growing and he refused to rent a centralised office space. Wordpress now powers more than 60 million websites across the web and employs thousands of workers, all remotely.
A change in perspective
It seems the relative benefits of working from home, if the system is properly managed and funded, far outweigh any potential - and intangible - negatives of losing the ‘magic’ of face to face meetings. Positives and negatives notwithstanding, remote work is here to stay: the pandemic has seen to that. Post-COVID economies will look significantly different to how they looked before. Many will remain at home as more companies find remote working to be more productive and cheaper. Companies stuck in their ways need to realise working from home isn’t going anywhere, and that a decentralised, remote company can work - and there are examples to prove it. It only remains to be seen whether these companies will remain entrenched in their old biases - often to the workers’ detriment - or whether they will embrace the future of work.
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