How Working From Home Could Reshape Society
At 8:45 each weekday morning, I drop off my four-year-old at preschool, hug him goodbye, and drive back home. Most days, that is the last time I share a room with another human being until he and my wife return home at 5:15 p.m. Often, it’s the last time I leave the house.
That’s not to say my life is particularly lonely. I have interesting and pleasant interactions with co-workers on Slack, friends and family via text message and strangers on Twitter. (Okay, not all of them are pleasant.) I conference into meetings using Google Meet and Zoom. And I do it all from a little college town in Delaware, where my wife and I can afford to live in a modest house for less than we used to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in graduate student housing in New York City.
Never going anywhere turns out to be especially convenient in a time of pandemic. While my virtual friends in big cities cower in terror from sneezers on the subway and scrub their hands with the fervor of Macbeth, I roam my house in luxurious freedom, a bottle of hand sanitizer accruing dust in a medicine cabinet. Sometimes I touch my face just for the hell of it.
In the face of a coronavirus outbreak that has so far eluded all attempts at containment, mine is a shut-in lifestyle that millions of people find themselves trying on for the first time. Tech companies are encouraging workers to stay home; schools and colleges are moving their classes online; conferences are being canceled; sporting events are being held in empty stadiums.
It feels, in some ways, like a dress rehearsal for a future that was already on its way — one in which more and more of us self-isolate voluntarily, interacting with the outside world only from behind screens.
Dreary as that might sound, the advantages would be enormous. Think of the effects on commute times, housing prices, gridlock, and greenhouse gas emissions if large swaths of society stopped driving into the office and began working from home. Think of how it would empower people whose disabilities make it hard for them to get around.
It feels, in some ways, like a dress rehearsal for a future that was already on its way.
But that’s a future not everyone can share in. And it’s worth asking before we reshape our society around it in ways that turn out to be irrevocable, whether it’s one we really want.
Long before COVID-19, people were hailing remote work as the future — not as a public health precaution, but for its convenience. Some research suggests it can actually boost individual productivity in some sectors, as employees skip their commutes and avoid workplace distractions. In 2014, Fast Company wondered whether half the population might be working remotely by 2020.
The trend is real, but the transformation hasn’t been so rapid: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just under 30% of U.S. workers had the ability to work from home at least part of the time in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and about one in four actually did. A 2017 Gallup survey put the number higher, at 43%. Either way, the proportion who work remotely all the time is probably much lower.
The movement was slowed by a mid-decade backlash, headlined by former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s 2013 ban on employees working from home. Aetna, Best Buy, and IBM also moved to curtail the practice in subsequent years. They were acting on research that suggested a remote workforce is bad for collaboration.
In just the past few years, however, that equation has changed. Workplace communication software, such as Slack and Zoom, has moved both the water cooler and the conference room online. Enterprise platforms like Asana and Jira, Salesforce and Netsuite, G Suite and Office 365 look the same whether you’re in the office or in a different country. Corporate VPNs extend the company firewall to remote devices.
My co-workers interact mostly over Slack anyway, even when they’re sitting next to each other.
Those tools, combined with astronomical housing prices in the largest cities, have helped to bring remote work back into vogue. In May 2019, the San Francisco-based online payments company Stripe announced that it would hire 100 new engineers to form a fifth engineering hub — but not put them anywhere. Its new hub, the company explained, would be entirely remote.
These days, on the rare occasions when I visit my company’s headquarters, it strikes me how little conversation I’ve actually been missing. My co-workers interact mostly over Slack anyway, even when they’re sitting next to each other.
Now, with coronavirus threatening offices and other gathering spaces around the country, telecommuting is about to go mainstream, as part of a broader campaign of social distancing. Workers are already staying home in swaths of China, Japan, Italy, and South Korea. They’re beginning to do the same in major U.S. cities, with smaller cities likely to follow as the virus extends its tentacles across the country.
It isn’t just work, of course. The elderly and ill are being advised to avoid travel and crowds. Colleges are asking students not to return to campus after spring break. California’s Santa Clara County, which includes the core of Silicon Valley, has banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people.
It’s conceivable that this will be just a blip, and everything will return to normal once the threat has passed. But that seems unlikely. Once employers and employees realize that they can function largely as normal without gathering in an office every day, odds are that both will want to try more of that.
That goes for other types of virtual gatherings, too. In his Stratechery newsletter, analyst Ben Thompson predicted that at least a couple of the big tech companies who are moving their annual spring events online this year — Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft — might never hold them in person again. People who start buying groceries and necessities online, and ordering their meals from Seamless and Doordash, may come to view that as the default.
The reason is this: For people whose jobs and incomes can support it, staying in is just simpler in so many ways. To return to my own example, since it’s the one I know best, I no longer have to live in an expensive city. I not only save upwards of an hour a day by not commuting, but my wife and I can share a cheap, old car, which we don’t even use much because we moved within walking distance of her work. If we need work done on the house, scheduling is a snap because I’m always here.
Telecommuting might emerge as the default for office workers as much by inertia as by active choice.
Even some of the apparent downsides are surmountable, at least in theory. I no longer walk two miles per day as part of my commute, but I can leave the house and go for a jog at any time, without worrying about returning to work sweaty and unkempt. (I mean, I usually don’t, but I could!) I can’t spontaneously grab lunch or coffee with a co-worker, but I can with my wife or a neighbor down the street who also works from home. I’ve started occasionally having “remote coffee” with co-workers who are also at home; we each brew a cup and as we video chat for 20 minutes or so.