Friday, November 19, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part II

We start this week’s installment with one piece having a headline with an unexpected meaning.  John Zavitsanos’s July 26th New York Times “We’re Kidding Ourselves That Workers Perform Well from Home” did not address telecommuting employees failing to buckle down, rather that, in his law firm, it could “drain morale and diminish collegiality,” and that “some people were distracted and anxious to leave meetings, but in person, they were engaged and animated – there was just no comparison.”  Perhaps as a result of the company reopening its offices after only five 2020 weeks of closure, its revenue rose without furloughing or laying off anyone.  Zavitsanos did mention productivity being higher in person, and those who wanted remote work were allowed that, but concluded that “ambitious lawyers at firms like ours simply couldn’t thrive in a virtual setting.”

Although incomplete statistics detracted from “These careers added the most remote jobs in 2021:  report,” by Audrey Conklin on August 4th in Fox Business, it still provided new information, including that “remote work” increased tenfold earlier this year, with surprising growth in some categories, such as from-home health care positions almost tripling and “sales and business development” more than that.  Although the status of and prospects for telecommuting are uncertain, opportunities involving it have, indeed, skyrocketed.

On the same day, The Atlantic Daily provided a quick view on “The Remote-Work Experiment.”  A “remote company” CEO, Ed Zitron, maintained that “for the tens of millions of us who spend most of our days sitting at a computer, the pandemic proved that remote work is just work” (italics his), and that managers leery of it now have “the tangible proof of their still-standing business.”  I don’t find that a compelling argument, and the unbilled article author didn’t seem to either, as his “few things to consider,” from Zitron and two other sources, included “the work-from-home revolution will have winners and losers,” even if the latter are landlords, and “younger and less-established workers could have a tougher time.”  Sobriety, which as we will see was not an attribute of every contribution here.    

A choice employee have been making, and how much they should pay for it in other ways, was the subject of Sarah Kessler’s “Will Remote Workers Get Left Behind in the Hybrid Office,” in the August 5th New York Times.  She had only a general assertion that people not in offices could be underrated and not a part of certain interactions, and showed better that remote work is often an option taken mostly by women.  Not everyone takes the maximal career path – for example, when I was in AT&T management I understood that my best opportunities would call for me to move from Central Florida to New Jersey, which many did, but I declined that – and it is wrong to claim unjust discrimination when career path outcomes turn out, on average, to vary.  There is nothing pejorative about saying that women – as a group, not individually – tend to choose greater work-life balance.  More of the same came from Martha White, in Yahoo News on August 18th, in “Remote workers could face cuts to pay, visibility.”  White cited a study showing that “72 percent of supervisors… said they prefer to have their underlings in the office,” meaning they may not assess them objectively.  Lower recognition could turn out to be an accepted optional-telecommuting disadvantage.                    

So who are “The Winners of Remote Work” (Dror Poleg, August 31st, The New York Times)?  Not as many as we might think.  While it gives something desirable to many existing employees, it massively expands their competition for jobs, high performance reviews, and promotions, as it makes the pool of available candidates national or even worldwide.  Some annual salaries Poleg cited included the most skilled online elementary school teachers over $100,000 and fitness instructors earning five times as much.  The number of clients each can have is of course vastly larger than if they were working in person, leading to a concentration in which others cannot find opportunities at all.  The same thing, per the author, has been happening with “lawyers, doctors, consultants, bankers and managers.”  This situation is similar to people taking on more than one full-time position, differing only in the number of separate employers, and may indicate a de facto decrease in the numbers of some jobs.        

Evolving and oscillating philosophies on where workers should be have caused some to call allowed telecommuting an employee benefit.  Not so fast, said Gretchen Gavett in the Harvard Business Review on September 28th.  Her piece, titled “”Remote Work Isn’t a Perk to Toss into the Mix,”” was an interview of authors of a “forthcoming book, Out of Office:  The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” which seemed to unambiguously advocate telecommuting.  The best the book’s authors could do toward being even-handed was to acknowledge that management, not the workers, should be “vigilant about” how technology could “create more work, more stress, more wasted time.”  That wasn’t enough to be fair on this cyclical, divisive, and thoroughly unsettled issue.

The last part, along with conclusions, will appear next week.

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