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The dangers and benefits of a post-pandemic work-from-home revolution

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  • Working from home is only possible for some people – primarily professional class workers.
  • And for those whose occupations do allow remote work, there are still risks.
  • Remote work is neither the first step towards utopia nor a surefire negative outcome for workers.
  • George Pearkes is the global macro strategist for Bespoke Investment Group.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

COVID-19 has driven a major reconsideration of how professional and managerial (“white-collar”) Americans work.

With centralized, high-density open office floor plans presenting a major risk of mass spreading events, knowledge workers have been logging in from home.

Large social changes like the end of the office carry costs, benefits and risks which are not evenly shared by all the stakeholders involved. Before declaring a post-pandemic revolution toward remote work, workers, employers, and anyone else impacted by such a shift should think carefully about all of its implications.

The benefits to working from home

Back in 2016, the love of my life decided she was going to attend law school in North Carolina, so I approached my employer about the possibility of working remotely. After implementing a few technological tools, the transition went smoothly, and I haven’t looked back.

Remote work has been a wonderful experience. Gone are hours of commutes, replaced with more comfortable attire, canine friends beside my desk, and the chance to make a real lunch at home instead of trying my luck at the deli.

Flexibility to quickly duck out to the grocery store, get a workout in, and sleep a bit later is helped along by being productive at night or on weekends when that better fits my schedule. Communication is easy with instant messages and cloud tools for our shared work output.

Add in relaxing trees out the window of my house (something I and most of my peers would have a hard time affording in New York or San Francisco) and I’m very happy and many others would be too. 

Even for workers that take a pay cut to work remotely (as Facebook proposed last week), equivalent salaries in different cities may leave an employee better off because what they want to spend their salary on isn’t available near the office but is remotely. Housing (and those trees out my window) is definitely the best example of this.

Working for home doesn’t work for everyone

It’s important to acknowledge that being able to work at home is a privilege mostly reserved for the relatively educated and those in specific occupations. Black or Latino workers are also much less likely to work remotely.

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For those whose occupations do allow remote work, there are still risks.

A shift away from offices could be yet another way for businesses to crush labor. For instance, if Facebook decides to claw back more than the “fair” adjustment to a lower cost of living outside of the Bay Area, workers might pay a penalty.

For workers that already have a lot of bargaining power due to special skills, high degrees of responsibility, or lots of demand for their capabilities, any change will always be easier to manage than for workers who have less bargaining power. The way remote work impacts workers is in no small part a function of the status quo. 

Venture capitalist Jeff Morris Jr argued last week that remote workers may face a penalty in terms of perception, with folks who choose not to show up at the office in person signalling they are less willing to “do what it takes” for advancement.

There are also concerns that once workers aren’t tied to physical locations anymore, they will effectively be competing in a global market where they are relatively expensive versus workers in other countries, Higher-prerequisite jobs that shift remote within the US might shift remote outside of it. This process played out in the 1990s through 2010s with manufacturing jobs; does remote work open the door to a similar effect in remote work-enabled occupations?

Employees working remotely also may struggle to network, both inside and outside their companies, which hurts both their bargaining power with employers and productivity within their firms. That’s especially true for young workers at the start of their career.

As a related issue, unless whole industries go remote, it may prove hard to find a new role if you’re fired as a remote worker outside a major center for your industry than if you had stayed in a big, expensive city. 

Finally, family and gender need consideration. With persistent gender inequity in terms of household chores and childcare, there’s reason to worry that remote work will free up time for fathers and mothers alike, but women will have that dividend taken up by expectations of non-career work, whether it’s chores, childcare, or other gendered tasks.

The challenge with most of these problems is that they are not directly caused by remote work as a new concept, but exacerbate or focus existing conflicts within society. On the other hand, that opens the door to avoiding some of the worst outcomes.

How to make remote work work

I have no grand pronouncements about what needs to be done to make remote work a viable option for all workers or employers, but I can draw on personal experience to highlight some factors that have made my experience not just viable, but optimal.

First, I had already worked for my employer for years before approaching them about the idea of remote work. Those years had built up trust and rapport in-person, and the fit I had with my team before taking the leap made it all much easier. Workers and businesses who launch into remote work as the starting point may have a harder time.

Second, I had a professional network in the financial industry developed through years spent living in New York City. My specific line of work makes remote professional networking very easy, so my Twitter presence and other professional communication tools meant there wasn’t a big networking penalty leaving the city I had lived in.

Third, my work is not very dependent on collaboration. While any written work needs editing, and any team needs to get on the same page from time-to-time, it’s rare that I need to sit down with the rest of my firm to discuss something. Roles that are more dependent on that sort of meeting may not find a permanent switch to Zoom calls or webinars as easy.

Fourth and finally, my firm is small. That limits the cross-organization interactions which can be eased significantly by in-person meetings, happy hours, or lunches. Firms that have a more developed “office politics” that comes with bigger, more siloed teams may penalize workers that are remote and less able to participate in struggles for promotion or new responsibility.

Best practices, or at least a start

It’s unlikely we’ll see a policy solution for the question of how employers shift to remote work, leaving decisions in those employers’ hands. 

Some of the loudest voices advocating for remote work within an organization may be those least exposed to its costs or risks, and employers should think carefully about who they listen to in that conversation. Over-weighting the voices of the wrong stakeholders raises the risks of botching the transition and leaving everyone worse-off.

For employees, there might not be a decision to make, but opting-in to remote work arrangements has big risks as well as big opportunities. I’ve tried to lay out as many as I can and hope that workers can use that perspective making their own decision.

One thing I’m sure about: remote work is neither the first step towards utopia nor a surefire negative outcome for workers. The details, approach, and tools used for remote work are incredibly important, and suitability also varies dramatically across society.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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