In the last few weeks, much of the white-collar professional world has gotten a crash course in remote* working. For the segment of society whose job is primarily done on computers, everyone’s working from home offices, bedrooms and kitchen counters now, meeting on teleconferences and Zoom. A lot of things are going to pieces in society right now, but the knowledge industry world has steamed right along. In doing so, it has destroyed many of the traditional objections to remote working.
There have been a lot of bold predictions about how the COVID-19 crisis will change our work culture forever. My own view is more ambivalent, though. I suspect that most companies are eagerly looking forward to the day when they can call workers back into the office and put this experience behind them. The biggest obstacle to remote work is and has always been cultural, not practical or technological. And it’s going to take something much bigger than a single exogenous shock like COVID-19 to shift the psychological boulder of American workism.
* – You’ll see me refer to “remote working” in this post. Reminder – I don’t particularly like this term. But it’s become the vernacular for how we talk about geographically distributed teams, and fighting it just seems futile. Nevertheless, “remote” still isn’t really the right way to think about people collaborating on work over the internet.
For a long time, the standard-issue objection to remote working was basically handwaving about how “it just doesn’t work.” This idea has now been shown demonstrably false. Companies large and small, all over the world, are now working remotely out of necessity, and… it’s basically fine. JP Morgan continues to make money. Facebook is launching new products. Even at companies famously opposed to remote working like Google, the gears continue to turn. Obviously, remote working truly is impossible in many lines of work, but knowledge industries like software are just not among them.
Instead, the dominant objection to our current state of affairs has now moved on to: I just don’t like it. This is the personal preference that always sock puppeted as fact (“it doesn’t work”). And what’s more, it’s a valid one. There are many people who do, in fact, prefer commuting into an open office to work and collaborate on computers, and who derive great enjoyment out of the social aspect of their jobs. For these people, the social isolation sometimes associated with remote working is a big concern. Of course, there are also lots of people who don’t agree, or at least find the tradeoffs involved with working remotely to be worth it for them, personally. (Surveys suggest this latter group is a clear majority.) Both views are fine, though it’s interesting that personal preferences are only deemed organizationally relevant on one side of the issue.
The social isolation that most of us are going through now – locked down at home, not seeing friends and family, our normal goings-about in the world curtailed – is obviously due to the plague, not remote working. Prior to this, I never personally felt it, though I know that others sometimes do. Again – people are different. Under normal, non-plague circumstances, I suspect that I might’ve felt more isolation working from home if I were more dependent on my job for social contact. If I were to make a generalization, it would be that younger, unattached and childless people, and those without a strong (or local) social support system, are probably more likely to value the social aspect of their workplace. For people who think nothing of spending long hours at the office, or for whom their workplace provides an important social circle, company work-from-home orders are probably taking a heavy psychological toll.
Not that it’s a picnic for the rest of us, either. There’s a sort of half-joke running around that parents, in particular, will be the very first in line to get back to their offices as soon as they’re able to drop off kids at school/daycare again. Everyone who’s trying to get in a halfway acceptable workday and provide an absolute minimum baseline of child care feels absolutely at wits’ end right now. I like working from home just fine – it’s daycare being closed that drives us bonkers.
Remote working collides with Workism
Our local parents’ group is absolutely frantic with parents worried that their employers’ patience with their lack of childcare is already coming to an end. Plenty of folks are worried about falling behind (or even losing their job) if they don’t figure something out, and plenty of them are going to eventually send their kids back far earlier than they’d like. I doubt that many bosses are handing down ultimatums to this effect (at least, just yet), but the point is that they don’t need to. With the staggering number of people who’ve already lost their jobs due to COVID (including many thought to be somewhat secure), the premium on keeping yours has skyrocketed.
American workers, especially younger ones, live in a permanent culture of precariousness. The American gospel of “workism” derives from a world where missing a step on the economic escalator can be potentially devastating – just ask the college graduates of 2008/2009. This results in a lot of competitive pressure in the workplace to one-up one’s peers and strive for a sort of highly visible validation. Anyone who has ever worked at a white-collar job, particularly in a “prestige industry” (like law, tech, consulting, finance or media) will recognize this dynamic instantly. Which is why this observation struck me as exactly correct:
Hypothesis: Not traveling for sales mtgs, board meeting etc, will be its own prisoners dilemma.
Works great for everyone to Zoom when no one can travel.
But second one person travels, rest of ppl will feel the disadvantage of not being there in person and go back to travel.
— Sarah Tavel (@sarahtavel) April 25, 2020
At any company where remote working isn’t a deliberate, strongly communicated and highly visible institutional choice, relatively few people will do it. (Alternatively, few people will be able to do it – I know many companies that publicly profess to be “remote friendly,” hardly do it at all in practice.) This is because everyone immediately, if tacitly, understands when being in-office is culturally preferable to being remote. If your boss and their bosses are always in the office, the expectations aren’t hard to understand. People are naturally, and rightfully, conservative about making choices that are different than those of their workplace peers. It’s not because employees are sheep – it’s because of our culture of precariousness. It’s similar to the reason why rates of entrepreneurship are down and why more young people are opting for traditional careers at bigger companies, when given the chance. We’re facing our third major recession in 20 years – wouldn’t you play it safe, too?
As an aside, it’s times like this when I’m deeply grateful to be at Salesforce. My group, Salesforce.org, has been fully distributed nearly since its founding 20 years ago. We have several hundred employees across dozens of states and time zones. The base assumption in our organization is that one is remote. This organizational choice was one of the first things that attracted me to what has become my current role. It has also meant that, childcare challenges aside, our work has pretty much kept right on going, without interruption, since the company-wide WFH order. No one feels weird or anxious about not going into the office. Distributed teams are a resilient organizational choice that way.
Remote working under COVID
I worked at my last company, SAS, for close to four years. That whole time, I had some form of commute or another into a traditional office. For much of it, I drove into the (gorgeous) Cary campus just about every day. I didn’t hate it – it was a pretty drive, I listened to some good audiobooks, and had the ability to run some errands if I needed to. The subsidized campus cafes were great.
But I traded that in for working-from-home again at Salesforce, and the tradeoffs have been hands-down worth it. I got back 90-120 minutes in free time every day, a good deal in gas money, and having to wear shoes. Our family benefitted, too. Drop off/pickup logistics at daycare are much easier to coordinate with my wife, who commuted into Raleigh until she, too, went fully WFH several months back. We had more time for better dinners together as a family. Our schedules gained a tremendous amount of flexibility. I really like my co-workers, but don’t feel like I miss out on much by not being in a big downtown office with them all the time.
Remote working during COVID has blown up all of our arrangements, like it has for everyone. Our complaints are pretty minor, insofar as we both still have jobs at all. But without childcare available (no daycare!), we’ve had to use that flexibility to make big adjustments. Personally, I am now waking up a few hours earlier every morning to get in some work before our toddler wakes up. My wife and I handle childcare by splitting the day up, with me taking mornings and her, the afternoons. This schedule sucks, and my fitness goals and caffeine intake are both not where I’d like them to be, but it has made the situation sustainable for the time being.
What happens post-COVID?
Remote working is here to stay, and will grow. I’m nevertheless skeptical about predictions that, post-COVID, you’ll see a surge of remote working at major companies, and lots of giant coastal metro residents fleeing to lower-cost areas to enjoy the arbitrage. Even pre-COVID, it wasn’t easy to find a remote gig. I suspect it’ll be even harder afterward. Our cultural bias towards safely traditional working models won’t erode so quickly. Remote adoption will continue, and perhaps at a quickened pace, but don’t expect to see Google or Facebook suddenly reverse course and go for it. It’ll be small and mid-sized companies struggling to hire in major metros who embrace it most readily, the same as ever. The VCs will continue to fight it, though perhaps fewer of them than before.
Remote working is a disruptive technology in the truest sense. It’s self-evidently superior in most ways: a wider talent pool, better retention, happier employees, etc. But it requires rewiring how your company works, and most organizations simply aren’t interested, much less ready, for that. I don’t see that the major, entrenched tech firms in Silicon Valley are very interested at all in tackling big cultural changes, especially not with their big investments in fancy campuses.
Wide acceptance of remote working would change our industry, and probably society, for the better. How transformative would it be if anyone with a broadband connection could actually compete for and work an engineering, product, marketing, sales, copyediting, graphic design, communications or whatever role at a company based a thousand miles away? Right now, this is mostly a luxury for a well-connected few. The future, just unevenly distributed. It can be done right now. I hope someone proves me wrong, and some companies decide to try.
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