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The Remote-Work Revolution

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books and culture

The Remote-Work Revolution

A celebration of the benefits of working from home gets bogged down in too many left-wing bromides. February 11, 2022
Economy, finance, and budgets
Covid-19

Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen (Knopf, 272 pp., $27)

With laptops and smartphones, many people can now do much of their work from anywhere. Futurists predicted a turn toward working from home long before—and even long after—it became technologically feasible, arguing that employees would gain a better work/life balance, while companies would save on real-estate costs.

Yet this shift remained a mere Friday perk for years—until the Covid-19 pandemic forced the future to accelerate. Amid widespread workplace closures, according to one Gallup poll, the proportion of Americans who had ever worked from home doubled between mid-March 2020 and the beginning of April.

Such a quick transition was inevitably going to be stressful, particularly during a sudden and deep recession. People liked not commuting, but when you can see your laptop from your bed and worry that your job is in peril, it’s hard to shut down. “This is the dark truth of remote work as we know it now,” write Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen in their new book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “It promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office, but in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance.”

The two journalist authors left the bustle of Brooklyn for Montana in 2017 but soon found themselves working just as much as before, albeit with prettier views. They realized that they needed to rethink their own habits and in doing so came up with insights to help others reimagine work: “[n]ot just by shifting the location where the work is completed, but also by rethinking the work we do and the time we allot to it.” When managed well—that is, when adequately supported and trusted—remote workers can be productive and have time to invest in the communities that they aren’t leaving from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

The authors make some smart points about remote work. For instance, the pandemic pivot revealed just how many companies had measured management solely in terms of whether people were sitting in their chairs. In work cultures marked by low trust about how employees spend their time, “you feel the need to underline just how much of it you’re dedicating to work. You update, you check in, you sneak in casual mentions of how late you worked on something,” the authors write. All these updates distract everyone from doing actual work, let alone relaxing. Microsoft Teams users, for example, began sending 45 percent more chats after hours between February 2020 and February 2021. In theory, it’s fine to ignore such chatter, but about half of Teams users would respond in five minutes or less.

A big part of the problem is that many organizations have underinvested in management training. People get promoted because they are good at their jobs, but “management requires skills that are other oriented: being open to feedback, supporting colleagues’ development, communicating well, and having good interpersonal skills.” When employees are working from home, these skills become even more important.

Good managers help employees set challenging but achievable goals and then support their progress toward them. The hours don’t really matter for many jobs—which, the authors wisely note, is one problem with the inflexible rules that some reformers and policymakers have proposed for remote work, such as a 6 p.m. cutoff for work emails. This approach “reifies the standard work schedule, which has long privileged people who aren’t caregivers,” they note. Plenty of parents might prefer to stop work at 3:30 p.m., hang out with their kids, and then get back to work again at 8 p.m. after the children go to bed. Smart organizations can accommodate those and other flexible arrangements, too, while keeping employees from driving each other crazy.

The authors profile a few companies that are reaping the efficiencies of remote work and providing examples of what high-trust organizations should look like. But the book suffers from its frequent invocation of left-of-center clichés. In the authors’ history of modern work, for instance, they write, “Tax cuts in the mid-1960s made it easier for the rich to stay and get richer, and waves of deregulation began to turn the purpose of previously public-oriented institutions over to the whims of the ‘free market.’” Remote work is a good thing, but it “can’t promise to fix the rot at the core of modern capitalism.” The authors are so convinced that capitalism is burning everyone out that they fall into using bad or misleading statistics. For instance, they lament that “between 1980 and 2000, the average American added on an extra 164 hours of work in the course of a year.” That does sound bad, but data on work hours in the two decades since then show a downward trend.

In recent years, many people have chosen to move from high-cost coastal areas that tend to vote blue to lower-cost red states like Florida and Texas. The direction of this migration ought to inspire some humility on the authors’ part, yet they write, “Even if you can now afford your dream house, a city where housing is unaffordable for most is a broken city. Even if you can afford to buy and use your own car, a city where transportation is difficult for many is a broken city.” To mend these “broken” places that somehow keep attracting people in droves, new migrants should be “getting on board with paying for civilization, better known as taxes.” For instance, the authors praise a Portland initiative that would have funded universal preschool with higher taxes on higher earners. If residents want to see such policies, they “just need to refuse to shut up about it until it happens.” You don’t need to be a futurist to see how moving to a new place and deeming it “broken” and in need of your activism might not go over well.

These flaws are unfortunate, because Warzel and Petersen are fundamentally correct that remote work is hard to get right but beneficial for both businesses and the broader society. When people can work from home, even small businesses can hire from anywhere, and those with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities have a fairer shot at getting and keeping a job. These are all good reasons for the “guarded hope that undergirds this book,” as the authors write. “What remote work ultimately does is nudge companies to do the things that they know they should be doing anyway.” Sometimes the future takes time to arrive. With remote work, it’s generally going to be a future worth celebrating.

Photo: champja/iStock

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