Remote work can play a major role in equalizing job opportunities and be a catalyst for economic justice, globally. As someone who considers humanity as truly one, I think this can be a positive outcome, the right direction for the globe. However, I also wonder if the workforce in developed countries is ready for this. It’s inevitable that the shift will be more of an equalizer, meaning it will cause a reduction in pays in some parts as it increases pay and opportunities elsewhere. Said more bluntly, similar to the migration of manufacturing jobs, this will result in net migration of jobs from places like the U.S.
Can remote work cause more damage than good? Why is it that not enough of us are talking about it?
We are seeing a seismic shift in how people work and are compensated. A recent Gallup poll showed that by summer 2020, more than half of all workers in the U.S were working from home full-time. Gallup's research also found that roughly a quarter of U.S. workers preferred to continue remote work if given the choice.
There’s been much applause for high-profile businesses, across varied industries, declaring their now remote (or hybrid-style) work environments and in no small part due to COVID-19. Pandemic precautions matter, of course, but I also understand the appeal for businesses to be seen as woke, hip, and cool as they jump on the virtual office bandwagon.
I wonder about the motivations of businesses that are shifting to remote work. I also wonder if employees pushing for remote work understand all its impacts.
As this shift continues, it is paramount that companies operate with integrity and transparency – for everyone’s good. Remote work carries significant implications for social good and equity. It’s time to acknowledge and wrestle with that from every angle and not be quick to yield to the loudest voices who may be potentially working against their own self-interest.
Remote work – the good
We know some of the benefits of remote work. Employers can now save significantly on costs for office space and related operational expenses. There’s also the productivity factor. A global study by Mercer, an HR consulting firm, found that 90% of companies surveyed reported equal or higher rates of productivity than before the pandemic with employees working from home.
Employees now benefit from less time (and stress) spent commuting to and from the office and have the bonus of money saved on gas, parking, or transit passes. Remote workers also have more flexibility and autonomy in their day. While working from home they can more readily accomplish other tasks like laundry or grocery shopping and can use the hour or more they’ve saved in commuting for exercise or quality time with family.
To some degree, remote work has also levelled the playing field for access to employment and even housing. Now, employees can work from anywhere in the state, country, or even the world. This means that people and communities in parts of the country that have historically experienced economic challenges, those who have experienced a decline as manufacturing jobs have left, for example, now have more opportunities. As businesses reduce their footprint in major cities or downtown cores, workers now have the freedom to buy or build housing outside of cities. Homes they’d probably never be able to afford in the city. Smaller towns and communities will have more consumers for goods and services as people migrate outside the metros – a lift for small town economies.
What is not good and very concerning
But remote work doesn’t work for everyone. If we look closer we can see it doesn’t include everyone, either. A 2020 MIT study compared the transition of remote work across 30 countries including the U.S. The study found that developed nations with more occupations “conducive to working from home,” access to “high-quality internet,” and “pro-worker policies” (Luxembourg, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Canada, for example) ranked higher than other countries in terms of best transition to remote work. The U.S. ranked 11th with its “about average” internet quality compared to other countries and having a larger number of jobs that require “physical proximity to other people” among key factors.
In Michigan entire communities have been devastated by upheaval and decline in its manufacturing industry over the years. Now – think about the restaurants, coffee spots, the small ‘mom and pop’ shops and other retail spaces that have depended heavily on local foot traffic from businesses now going remote. Some have been able to pivot quickly to takeout, curbside sales, or online operations with reasonable success. But it’s not every business that can lend itself to these operations, and the migration from the cities to smaller communities will make this worse. Many people who work in these places were already lower-income earners. Their livelihoods – and the lives of the families they support – have been impacted.
There’s also the concern about what remote work employees will be paid in relation to the cost of living. Corporations have no moral or ethical obligation to pay based on the cost of living. In fact, it begs a concerning question: What incentive will corporations have at all to hire in places like the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago if anyone can work from anywhere and they can pay them less to do so? Remote work is an accelerator to offshoring in far more ways than manufacturing has ever been, and this can kill communities across the country.
I highly encourage employees who are pushing for this to consider the long-term effects of what they are seeking. If an individual is simply a presence on a screen, why should that presence be in an expensive part of the country or the world? Historically, it has made sense for companies to have a physical presence in areas where they can access great talent and where there is an ecosystem that they can benefit from but if everything is going remote why should that physical presence that comes with much higher salaries continue?
Mental health is at stake
Remote work needs to be considered carefully from a mental health and wellness perspective as well. Working from home can blur the necessary line between “home” and “office”. It’s too easy to stay connected to laptops and other work devices when what we really need is to take a break or shut it down for the day. Some people may not live in (or be able to afford) as spacious or versatile homes as some of their higher-income colleagues. They may not have a defined workspace or extra bedroom to convert to an office. Instead, they’re sitting at the kitchen table, often competing with their partner or other family members for physical space. This can be frustrating, stressful, and a hindrance to quality of work.
There is also the very specific and real sense of isolation that comes with working from home that can be especially challenging for people who are onboarding in a new company or who thrive on the energy of working in-person with a team. This may not be a huge concern for everyone. If I’m a coder, for example, I’m really an individual contributor and I may not need to partner with others. It may be that it works well for me to be on my own, or to not get distracted. But very few jobs are designed in that way.
Eroding a sense of culture and team
At One Planet Group, culture is our number one priority. Our 2nd and third priorities (respectively, and in that order) are financial stability (which is driven by our culture) and growth of the business. But culture is number one. Our biggest differentiator is our culture.
As humans, we are social beings and I’m not convinced that a culture that isn’t built in person is going to be as strong as culture and trust cultivated through in-person interactions and relationships – especially in companies where teamwork and relationships are so integral to the work.
Remote work has affected our teams and our people have thoughts about it, too. Recently we ran a series of internal employee surveys and it turned out that not everyone in our company wanted to work remotely. I’ve personally experienced and seen that it has become far more difficult to maintain that sense of team and relationships that are so vital to our culture.
Walk-by chats, going for lunch or coffee breaks together, being able to read each other’s body language and gestures in meetings and respond accordingly, gathering to celebrate milestones (work anniversaries, birthdays, baby showers) – these are all engagements and interactions that influence a team culture and help build trust. We can replicate these interactions to some extent virtually, but I’m not convinced this is the best or even adequate replacement.
Companies continue to experience mass resignations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I wonder if working remotely has played some notable role in that. When I have fewer personal relationships and engagements with my colleagues, I may be less committed to staying with the company if another opportunity arises.
Do the benefits outweigh the costs?
Remote work will be equitable to an extent in that it will redistribute jobs and opportunities worldwide. It will result in lower wages in places like the U.S. but higher wages in developing countries and that by itself may be a good thing. But are we ready for it? And are we pushing for this seismic change while prepared for the unintended consequences?
For millions of people, there will be fewer opportunities to earn the income they are used to, income congruent to the cost of living where they currently live. Jobs and livelihoods will be impacted. Some local economies and communities will be devastated. Increasing isolation and the compromise of work-life balance. Impersonal and less human work experiences. We all need to be willing to at least consider these consequences of remote work and ask ourselves: are we prepared for the outcome of what we are pushing for? Do we have the courage to forgo looking woke, hip, and enlightened and instead ask some tough questions?