Before the coronavirus pandemic, many American companies paid lip service to remote work or telecommuting. On the whole, they didn’t mean it.
Even tech companies such as Yahoo! would spool out the kite string only so far, then declare they were done playing and cancel all work-from-home arrangements. If you didn’t want your job to disappear, time to get your butt in a cubicle STAT.
Along came social distancing and flattening the curve and mandatory closures of all storefronts that are deemed nonessential. Right now, remote work is the only thing keeping some companies afloat. Jobs are being radically restructured so that they can be done from home. Those jobs that can’t be made portable are on the layoff block.
When the quarantine wall finally falls, fewer people will go back to work. Jobs are scarce. Some firms simply won’t reopen. Those that do reopen will have to make do with less. Companies are desperately searching for savings. Office space is a ripe target. Those businesses that can outsource their office space to your spare bedroom can free up significant operating funds.
There are large productivity gains to be made from mass remote work, because going into the office to do work that could be done from home is inefficiency on a large scale. Before we even talk about the bulk of how you spend your workday, you’ve got to get ready, commute to work, and then commute home after. Some might say the employer isn’t paying for that. Don’t be so sure. Far more things get priced into salaries than we expect.
During the non-virtual workday, you have seemingly endless meetings, drop-ins, team-building efforts, “open” floor plans, and TPS reports. If your job requires periods of intense concentration, the modern workplace is the enemy. Distracted employees are less productive employees. Tasks that could take minutes take hours. Jobs that should take hours take days.
It’s not that people don’t get distracted when they work from home. They do, of course. But it is much easier to measure remote workers’ output. That makes it easier to decide if their work is of sufficient quantity and quality to keep them on payroll.
Special pleading for favored employees gets a lot harder at a distance. No “Oh, but she always shows up on time” and a whole lot less “Oh, but he’s great for team morale” and “Makes great contributions in meetings.”
Remote work makes employees into something more like contractors or gig workers. This new dynamic makes collegiality less prized and elevates what you might call the productive virtues: speed, skill, and an eye for efficiencies.
Those are traits that company and country are going to need in abundance to help recover from the coronavirus crash. That’s why this unexpected experiment will continue after the mass quarantine has ended.
Granted, many of those people with jobs will go back into work when the time comes. Yet a surprising number of employees will continue to work remotely, this time with their companies’ no-longer-grudging support.
Jeremy Lott has worked from home for the last decade.
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