Now that the pandemic has eased into an endemic, if that, the medical need for people to work from home has disappeared. Yet one thing it told us is that many employees would like to do that. Is remote work a good idea? Here are several pieces maintaining it is not.
In “You Call This ‘Flexible Work’?,” in the New York Times on April 12th, Fred Turner contrasted the current situation with the 1938 establishment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which “formally ratified the division of work time from free time.” Per Turner, “until recently, the physical distance between workplace and home helped guarantee those terms. The commute enforced a boundary between professional and personal time that millions observed every day. So, too, did the calendar, dividing days into weekdays for work, weekends for leisure.” Since then, people have spent less time on commuting, but in the past two decades our homes’ “walls had been well and truly breached,” as “everything we do online can be tracked,” and employers can even “peer into our living rooms, learn a great deal about who we are and use it to alter the terms of our employment.” And some wonder why unions have made a comeback.
One chronic problem with employment beyond offices is “What Young Workers Miss Without the ‘Power of Proximity’” (Emma Goldberg and Ben Casselman, The New York Times, April 24th). Both formal studies and common knowledge have told us that ample feedback is not only possible but achieved mostly when people are physically near their bosses or mentors. The problem of remote workers being “out of sight, out of mind,” has not been solved, and neither has the downside of remote meetings.
There are plenty of objectors to people working from home on the other side of the desk, as “Bosses are fed up with remote work for 4 main reasons. Some of them are undeniable” (Jane Thier, Fortune, June 14th). “The golden age of remote work seems to be ending,” as there is “increasing anti-remote literature” and “even tech firms (the first industry that told employees they could work from home forever just a few years ago) are getting engineers and project managers back in the office.” Thier’s four reasons are “remote work is bad for new hires and junior employees,” “workers admit that remote work (sometimes) causes more problems than in-person work” (with unaligned office days), “remote workers put in 3.5 hours less per week compared to in-person workers” documented in a 2022 Liberty Street Economics report, and “productivity plummets on days when everyone is working remotely (anecdotally)” – especially on Friday afternoons? In all, “the tide is turning.”
Though how individual workers manage it varies, working from home provides a broader, richer, and more satisfying set of goofing-off opportunities. Alyssa Place told us how many protect themselves from inquiries into them in “Caught! Remote employees reveal their top excuses for not working,” on April 20th in Employee Benefit News. They were “technical difficulties,” “family or personal emergencies,” “illness,” “misunderstandings,” “distractions and interruptions,” and “other work obligations.” These all can be legitimate, but the same ones over and over, especially from the same workers, can be telling.
Perhaps pithiest, and therefore most scathing, was “The working-from-home illusion fades,” subtitled “It is not more productive than being in an office, after all,” on June 28th in the “Free exchange” column in The Economist. As “a gradual reverse migration is under way, from Zoom to the conference room,” “new research,” including a paper showing that workers handled fewer calls with less efficiency when working from home, has shown that “offices, for all their flaws, remain essential.” As a result, “higher productivity” will direct supervisors to some combination of office mandates and lower pay for remote-only positions.
The pendulum between work from home and work from offices, as it has since the 1990s, is moving back and forth. Its motion was disturbed by Covid-19, but the spirit of present times is toward the latter. There are other sides to this controversy, but for now, awaiting a possible 2030s rediscovery of the advantages of working from home, the office is winning.