Thank you for most likely being among the 1,700-plus people who read my March 12th post, “Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home”! I’m back to that topic, looking at four pieces published since then. What did they have to say?
The oldest, “Stuck on Zoom: How having more tech at home during COVID-19 creates longer, more stressful workdays,” by Terry Collins in the March 22nd USA Today, described a problem reminiscent of the early Industrial Revolution, when employers had to learn that workers being physically able to stand and move for 19 hours a day didn’t mean that was what they should be doing. Per Collins, but not unique to him, “the workday… doesn’t just feel longer. For many of us, it actually is longer,” and “screens, keyboards, and computer mice on dining room tables are now commonplace,” which “is creating a never-ending workday for some employees who struggle to decide when it’s time to turn off the switch.” He found people were working between 48 minutes and 3 hours longer daily, extended by “email, texts, and distractions,” to which I add porous personal boundaries and poor time management. Exactly how this issue will be resolved is unknown – as it was about 200 years ago, it could be through labor unions, or just by enough people refusing to answer communications outside of their negotiated availability hours – but it will be.
A week later in the New York Times, we got Matthew Haag’s “Remote Work Is Here to Stay. Manhattan May Never Be the Same.” While as I wrote before the trendiness of working from home has swung like a pendulum, this central borough may never again match its “more than 1.6 million commuters every day” which has “sustained” it throughout, “from the corner hot dog vendor to Broadway theaters.” As of the story’s date, Haag claimed that 90 percent of office workers there were working remotely – that number has shrunk greatly since, but must still be high. It is wrong to expect the share of people working from home to settle at any approximate percentage – as it has for over 30 years, it will continue oscillating.
That assumption of indefinitely large amounts of remote work is at the center of Derek Thompson’s June 14th The Atlantic “Winners and Losers of the Work-From-Home Revolution.” The author, similar to what I wrote in the post above, started with studies showing the best and the worst views of remote labor. His apparent contradictions, such as “It obliterates focus and extends working hours, but people want more of it?”, can be understood by realizing that workers don’t always want what is best for their productivity, and that companies are hardly unified over time or with others on its merits and drawbacks. The article had an informative section on skills and attributes which working from home favored, such as introversion, “being a clear and fast writer,” and those skilled with Zoom and other tools, but does not mean they would attract raises, promotions, or even good performance reviews, so saying that it will “reward certain skills” overstates. Other doubtful items are that “young people and new hires” are hurt from remote work though it is easy to disappear in a cubicle farm, with a “post-pandemic shift to WFH… spending in downtown restaurants, movie theaters, barbershops, and other retailers” will drop much more than 10%, and organizations, if they keep individual desks, will not reduce their footprints if people work only part-time from home. As well, some business activity, especially restaurant lunches, will not resume around employees’ houses but will, truly, “disappear into the ether.” Providing technical and other resources to support remote work, though, is indeed a good area for future ventures, and, yes, it will widen the social and political gap between educated people with good jobs and everyone else.
Then we have the opposite side, with “Google’s Plan for the Future of Work: Privacy Robots and Balloon Walls” (Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times, May 3rd). A picture here showed something far better than possible at home offices, a semi-circular Campfire meeting room with seats for people physically present alternating with large screens displaying the life-size heads and shoulders of remote attendees. There were other views of innovative office space, such as movable work areas with heating and ventilation ducts to match, outdoor conference areas, and lower density plans. Many of these ideas may become the norm even when the pandemic is a decade or more in the past, but the question remains: What would happen to these offices if, in 2035 or 2040, Google discovers a great innovation called “independent work” or letting employees do their tasks where they live? Then they wouldn’t need to commute, would be more productive, would be able to balance work and life better, would like it more…