Remote Work: Be Careful What You Wish For

By Payam Zamani

On a Monday morning, you may wake up with a sense of relief that you no longer need to battle traffic making your way to work. You may also decide to dress in a collared shirt paired with sweatpants and then head to your dining room table to login to your company-issued laptop and begin work for the day. None of these choices should be judged against how hard or the over-hours you spend working, but the comforts of home are perceived as a welcome perk to many working from home whether there is a shelter-in-place mandate or not. 

While you may enjoy the freedom to establish your own version of workplace attire, take your dog for a walk during the day, and add a load of laundry in before your Zoom call, there are some dangers to this “new normal” of working from home that you may not yet see or that may not reveal themselves until post COVID-19 pandemic.

An Increase In Inequality

Not everyone can work from home. In fact, the higher the income earner, the more likely the person can be able to perform their work remotely. 

This means professionals in finance, human resources, marketing and IT are more likely to move their work to their homes. This leaves low wage workers behind. 

BUT it isn’t just socioeconomic inequality we should be worried about - remote work can give corporations opportunities to exclude racial groups. 

Systemic racism in America has widened the technology and education gap between White and Black Americans. With on-the-job training and fast WiFi connections from an office now unavailable, certain people will not meet a company’s requirements for work. 

The Washington Post recently revealed that“thirty-seven percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites said they could work remotely. But only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics said they had that ability.

The lack of diversity in a communal workplace can not only stifle racial healing progress, it can set back race relations for decades. Important conversations, sharing ideas, and in person collaborations will not take place, and friendships will not be formed if companies move to a strictly remote workforce model. 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

You need to ask yourself - ‘How safe is your job in a remote situation?’ If you are not coming into the office everyday, if your supervisor does not become familiar with your name and face by seeing and hearing from you often and in person, what will make you memorable when it comes time for promotion or when it comes time for layoffs? 

That brings us to the next point.

Remote Work Could Mean Off-shore

There is nothing wrong with having a global workforce, but if our current capitalist society has shown us anything, it’s that the maximization of shareholder value and profits means that, at the end of the day, employees are viewed as commodities. Ultimately, the intention of corporate decisions matter. Are they made for the welfare of the employees or are they primarily designed to maximize shareholder value?

This has been clearly evident to me when the big tech companies demonstrate that it’s cheaper to offer perks such as ping pong tables, free massages, and a general fraternity experience that keep people on the clock for many extra hours than actually paying for those hours. It all sounded good at first, but what has been the outcome?Less than 30% of the employees at Google, Facebook and Apple are femaleand typically in their 20s. 

Large corporations like the ones mentioned above for example, will have nothing stopping them from replacing their remote staff who are now a square on the Zoom call with another highly educated square - but for a fraction of the cost - in another country.

Let us not forget billionaires in this country make their money primarily as a result of stock appreciation. If a CEO of a public company can reduce employee costs by 25%, he/she will do so. It’s not about moral decision making. It is about profits and maximization of corporate and personal wealth. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown large corporations - and even some mid and small businesses - that a lot of work can be done remotely. 

Twitter and Facebook have already announced plans for employees to work remotely if they choose, but Facebook says that relocation will determine salary. 

“Our policy here has been for years - is already - that [compensation] varies by location,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a livestream meeting. “We pay a market rate, and that varies by location. We’re going to continue that principle here.” 

In other words, a Bay Area engineer who chooses to relocate to Omaha or Birmingham would take a paycut. Or even better for Facebook - why not simply replace these employees with much cheaper resources in other parts of the world? Again, if you don’t see people in person, a productive Zoom square on your screen (how many companies will see their employees) can come from anywhere! 

And note that while in the beginning it may be up to the employee to decide... later, it becomes a target - what percent are in the Bay Area vs. lower cost areas - it may then be followed by proactive action. The fact is, employment in the U.S for the most part is at-will and employers can decide at any time to implement these kinds of actions. 

Do You Trust Multi-Billion Dollar Corporations To Do The Right Thing? 

Over the past two decades,wages have not kept up with inflation and yet, corporations have become more efficient. So, who got the benefit? 

 A well known Silicon Valley CEO, who I rather not name, was quoted as saying,“You can be unethical and still be legal, that's the way I live my life.” 

Think about that. That statement has been the guiding principle of Fortune 500 companies. Can we really trust that multi-billion dollar companies that have reached their current level of so-called success  - at whatever cost it had on the social good - will now, all of a sudden, start making the right decisions for the average worker?

What is measurable is the number of billionaires created in this time period has gone up.According to Forbes, as of March 18, 2020 there were 2,095 billionaires worldwide.In 2009, all known billionaires combined had a networth of about $2.4 trillion. By 2019 this amount had increased to about $9 trillion. Where did it come from? Will remote work and the “efficiencies” it will bring to corporations be the Holy Grail for the next 400% growth in billionaire wealth? 

Will remote work create more billionaires or will it increase pay to employees? I highly doubt the latter based on our history. 

Is there any reason to believe that cities will be better off in remote work? What will Silicon Valley, New York City, Los Angeles look like if companies move out of their skyscrapers and campuses? What will happen to the cafes, restaurants, ride shares, dry cleaners, and other industries that depend on commuters and frequent foot traffic from nearby workers? And what will happen if, say, 25-50% of those who have lost their jobs to remote and out-of-area employees can no longer afford to buy a home or rent where they currently work and live?

There will be seismic shifts in how people work and how they will be compensated. We need companies that operate with integrity and transparency to lead this shift.

Conclusion

In conclusion, when facing uncertainty in a global health crisis and racism pandemic, we need to not be short-sighted about remote work. We need companies to have a balanced approach when attempting to run more efficient businesses and generating wealth. The question should really be - how can a business generate revenue and also be a source of social good? 

By that, I don’t mean just a checkmark, but rather a real and meaningful part of what they are and how they operate.

The issue here is we should have much higher standards. No one will want their tombstone engraved with their last balance sheet or the market cap of the company they built. What we should want is for people to remember us for our positive impact on the world.  That’s what companies and their CEOs should pursue. As we make strategic decisions, our intentions do matter. 

Based on our current capitalist model, I do not have faith that remote work will ultimately be a good thing for U.S employees. In fact, I’m highly confident that the move will negatively impact the U.S workers. Having said that, in a global world with borders becoming less relevant, this may be an inevitable thing. However, it will require better understanding of its ramifications and better planning for those who will be displaced.

###