“Remote work” is a euphemism

COVID-19 has many people predicting the “end of the office” as we know it. A third of Americans have started working from home, and big tech companies say that (some of) their employees can work remotely indefinitely. With social distancing guidelines challenging the ubiquitous open office, a rise in remote work feels inevitable.

Interest over time for “Remote Work” in the United States. Source: Google Trends

Today, this all seems innocuous and potentially life-changing. The benefits could include:

  • Ability to live in lower cost cities while making big city salaries
  • Radical reduction in long commute times
  • Safety! Particularly with invisible deadly viruses floating around
  • Increased flexibility for working mothers and other caretakers
  • Comfy perks: 24/7 access to your pantry, reduced wardrobe costs, mid-day jaunts around the block, etc.

This all sounds great. But, we’re likely to find ourselves with outsized unintended consequences.

1. “Remote work” will become “home work,” without the perks and with the biases

Working from an office has a set of expenses that have historically been assumed to be the “cost of doing business.” Think rent, utilities, office furniture, supplies, cleaning, and coffee. So much coffee.

As “remote work” increases, businesses no longer have to pay these costs. There’s nothing wrong with that per say, particularly given how much bloat there’s been in corporate real estate spend. In fact, that was the whole premise of WeWork and co-working. Why should every single business pay for office overhead?

But in a “remote work” world, the home will become the office, and there will be little incentive for companies to share the cost savings with employees. While an individual employee might not need all the bells and whistles of an office park, they will still have increased costs — including the need to have more dedicated space at home for work (= higher rents).

In a labor market like the one we’re in now with vast unemployment, this will have an outsized impact on those already hardest hit. Imagine taking a job interview from a messy kitchen table with your kid running in the background or presenting in a meeting with poor lighting or bad WiFi. There’s already enough implicit bias at work, and we’ve now opened up the “what your home says about you” set of biases. The kid in the background becomes a false signal that “you won’t work as hard” and the subpar look of your digs could trigger beauty biases, which are correlated with hiring and promotion potential.

To all those working in tech and thinking: Hey, I get a stipend. Don’t rain on my home office parade. People will be fine. Yes, some companies (i.e., larger corporations competing for top talent) will have stipends for employees working remotely to get equipment, set up their home offices, spruce up their WiFi, and more. But these companies will be the minority, just as most companies don’t offer free lunch or fertility benefits.

2. Remote work could mean bye, bye benefits

As I’ve written in the past, H.R. teams are America’s hidden policymakers. Employers are tasked with making decisions that are core to how we live our lives, from whether you can afford health care (benefit packages) to the balance of responsibilities at home (parental leave policies).

Historically, benefits have been tied to full-time employment (which has led to the current legal debate about how we classify gig economy workers).

A rise in remote work coupled with a surge in labor supply could make companies reluctant to bring back full-time workers who typically cost “1.25 to 1.4 times the salary” with benefits. Instead, we’ll likely see a rise in fractional work and contracting, which offers employers lower costs and more flexibility.

Here’s a dark take on the likelihood of full-time employment from Nouriel Roubini:

Either way, tons of people are going to lose unemployment benefits in July. And if they’re rehired, it’s not going to be like before — formal employment, full benefits. You want to come back to work at my restaurant? Tough luck. I can hire you only on an hourly basis with no benefits and a low wage. That’s what every business is going to be offering.

27M Americans may have already lost their health insurance due to COVID-19 job losses. This could be the beginning of the end of the employer-sponsored safety net.

3. Remote work creates emotional distance

In addition to the hard costs of remote work, what about the emotional impact?

Source: Buffer State of Remote Work 2020

The top two issues — collaboration & communication, and loneliness — are particularly challenging in a time when people are seeking more purpose and meaning from work. 9 out of 10 people say they are willing to make less to have more fulfilling work.

Building culture and purpose is no easy feat, and physical distance will make things harder.

To succeed, companies will need to become community builders. They will need to create a common purpose, define social norms, and moderate how individuals engage and argue.

To succeed, companies will need to become community builders. They will need to create a common purpose, define social norms, and moderate how individuals engage and argue.

Are managers equipped to become moderators? And how do you draw the lines around what conversations are “safe for work?” These decisions will be more impactful for culture than any happy hour or bowling night — especially with Trump in office and protests in the streets.

It’s not all bad

This was a particularly dark take on the future of remote work. It won’t all be bad, and in some cases, the impact could be very positive.

For example, assuming there’s a childcare solution, remote work could offer far more flexibility to working mothers. People working remotely today want to continue working remotely, in large part because of the flexibility it offers.

But if we are going to make a huge cultural and economic shift to remote work, we need to think through the real impact it will have on individuals — particularly through the lens of rising inequality.

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Carine Carmy

Carine Carmy

2.8K Followers

CEO and Co-founder at Origin theoriginway.com | Formerly Amino, Shapeways, Monitor Group & all over | Writing about tech, design, health & daily absurdities