Friday, November 12, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part I

One of the steadiest press topics this year has been what used to be called telecommuting, or employees doing their duties from where they live.  That was an old interest of mine, from times at AT&T around thirty years ago, and through my education, for which I wrote about it. 

In March I posted something called “Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home,” giving my views on this new-old-new-old-new-old phenomenon, about which companies seemed to learn little from what previous generations had discovered.  I was generally skeptical about telecommuting’s advantages, saying that in practice it served more to facilitate workers’ slacking off, to accentuate wealth and home-situation differences, to wreck most of the social side of office jobs, and to illegitimately transfer costs to employees.  In a June update I still stood on these principles, and found occasional agreement in recent articles.  Now, in a three-part series, I will assess how much, if at all, companies and other observers are coming around to my beliefs. 

I start with three pieces from before my last pertinent writing.  The first, “The Pandemic of Work-From-Home Injuries,” by Jeff Wilser in the September 4th, 2020 (updated September 11th) New York Times, is old but addressed an issue still undercovered.  The piece started with the following anecdotal, which perfectly described the problem.  “Elizabeth Cuthrell, a Manhattan-based film producer, used to work in an ergonomic office space:  comfortable desk chair, monitor at eye level, external keyboard.  Then came Covid-19.  During stay-at-home she worked on a laptop from a wicker chair, or sometimes on a couch with “cushions like marshmallows.”  A month later she felt pain in her neck, write and shoulders that sent her to a chiropractor.”  In my MBA program in the late 1990s, ergonomics was important enough for an entire course – now, with companies as always notoriously unwilling to pay for premium home equipment, such as chairs that can easily cost $1,000, we are in danger of throwing away all of the progress there we have made.

Next, a reminder that not everyone is clamoring to stay at home: “The flip side of ‘flexibility’:  Working moms make the powerful case for going back to the office” (Erin Schulte, Fast Company, March 11th).  It’s not so they can get more work done, but rather to avoid “constant juggling,” “crazy hours,” and such from children as “no matter what, someone will come flying in with no pants on and ask me for Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”  Employers, per Schulte, “assume a lot about their employees,” described in a colorful paragraph including that they have a fully-professionally-outfitted office “that would score 8 or above on Room Rater,” and that “you don’t mind your boss knowing what your bedroom or your spouse looks like, or what your kids sound like when they’re squabbling in the room next door.”  

We got a look from the other side in “What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers” (Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, May).  When the pendulum I mentioned swung in the direction of favoring people being in offices, we had, per Khazan, “a pushback against remote work” with those of you making that choice remarkably likely to “irritate your boss and hurt your career,” and tending to get smaller raises.  That may be a holdover from the pre-pandemic days where only some people worked from home, but for now the evidence in this piece is insufficient to say that any kind of discrimination continues today.

Starting the newer articles, we can’t really disagree that “Remote work is here to stay, survey of Canadian businesses shows” (Alicja Siekierska, Yahoo Finance, June 15th), but we still know nothing about the extent, or when if ever the pendulum will stop swinging.  Here we learned that “most Canadian business owners say they will continue to allow employees to work from home after the pandemic,” but that means some say they will not, and it’s hardly a lock that they will keep those views, especially after the main reason for workers doing that has faded back.  And as above, not everyone would choose it.

At least Austan Goolsbee, in the July 20th New York Times, had the foresight to see the issue in less rosy and dogmatic terms, in “The Battles to Come Over the Benefits of Working From Home.”  Although the author confused “gasoline” for much-higher car expenses, he named lack of commuting as “the biggest prize of all” for those working remotely, and reminded us that management could ask for compensation for that, by formally “asking employees to work longer from home” and noted the real problem of “blurring the lines between work and the rest of life,” which “does not have to benefit workers in the end.”  As I documented, the pendulum was swinging in the other direction before the pandemic, as employers were providing onsite gyms and free snacks to encourage workers not only to appear in the office but to stay there longer, and in some well-publicized cases barred them from remote work altogether.  So there we will see.

I end this week’s installment with another from the Times, “We Are Not Going Back to Business as Usual,” by Taylor Trudon on July 25th.  This piece delved into the murky area of doing personal errands and tasks on company time, hardly rare and often not considered wrong by many managers, during days either in or out of the office.  Trudon also seemed to imply, through examples, that the “hustle culture,” with such things as work-harder messages on watermelon slices, may have been peaking.  We have certainly seen some of that in the three-plus months since, as candidates have been more likely to hold out for positions with the remote-work rules they like, which still vary greatly by company.  And as before, we don’t know how it will be in 2022, let alone 2023. 

Next week:  more on this topic.

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