The Covid pandemic led to a huge increase in remote work. I’m not sure that’s as good for workers as we all want to believe.
Let me concede at the outset that I make this argument from a privileged position. For more than 20 years I’ve been teleworking on what we now call the “hybrid” model—sometimes at home, sometimes at work. The main difference between my life before Covid and after is the degree to which my work habits annoyed my superiors. Before Covid, they annoyed them moderately. After Covid, they annoyed them not at all. But lately remote work has started to annoy me.
The Covid emergency declared on March 13, 2020, created an abrupt increase in telework. According to Gallup, the proportion of workers who put in a full day at the office every day fell from 60 percent in 2019 to 12 percent in May 2020, before stabilizing at around 21 percent about a year ago. The proportion of workers who never went to the office went from 8 percent to 70 percent and then fell gradually to 29 percent about a year ago. As for hybrid workers like me, Gallup found, we make up about half the workforce today.
Those who have this flexibility tend to be wealthier and whiter than the general population, and they have taken maximum advantage of it, according to a June 2022 survey by McKinsey. Eighty-seven percent of workers offered the chance to perform “at least some remote work” said yes, spending on average three days a week at home. Indeed, McKinsey found workers doing more remote work than their employers strictly allowed. According to Pew, 71 percent of those who work from home said it “helps them balance their work and personal lives.” That sounds like they’re slacking off, but 56 percent said remote work helped them meet deadlines. That’s been my experience.
Here are the reasons I like hybrid work. I can set my own schedule and focus on getting the work done rather than looking busy. I waste less time in meetings, and most of the meetings are online, where it’s easier to sneak away when I have to. I waste less time talking informally to co-workers. I never have to wait until a janitor is done cleaning the bathroom. I am seldom interrupted in the middle of reporting or writing a story, which drives me crazy, especially when I’m on deadline. I save money by not being tempted to buy lunch or a cup of coffee.
But lately I’ve been missing office life. I go into The New Republic’s D.C. office a couple of times a week, but there’s never more than a couple of other people there, and often there’s no one at all. People ask, “What’s it like at your office?” It’s lonely! I miss wasting time with colleagues, informally or in meetings. I get good stories that way. Also, it’s a way to acquaint myself with co-workers.
Workers experience greater freedom working from home, it’s true. But office life is not a realm in which absence makes the heart grow fonder; it makes the heart indifferent. When you work remotely, you make yourself more dispensable. Not by a lot, perhaps, but enough to make a difference when layoff season arrives. In the Pew survey, a 63 percent majority of teleworkers said that working from home neither helped nor hurt their opportunities for getting ahead. I think these remote workers are kidding themselves. Among those who said it did make a difference, slightly more said it hurt (19 percent) than said it helped (18 percent). Had the survey included people who go to the office every day, the proportion saying it hurt would surely have been much greater.
I don’t know how interns manage remote work. Part of being an intern is getting to know people in your chosen profession who will speak well of you to future potential employers. Remote work shot that all to hell. A 54 percent majority of teleworkers polled by Pew said working from home neither helped nor hurt mentoring opportunities, but not many of these people were interns themselves. Among those who said it made a difference, 36 percent were honest enough to say it hurt mentorship prospects, versus 10 percent who said it helped.
During Covid it became necessary to fire people remotely because offices were closed. The bosses liked that so much that they kept doing it when the crisis passed. McDonald’s actually sent all its corporate workers home earlier this month so it could lay off hundreds of them. “McDonald’s decided to close our offices out of respect,” a “source familiar with the layoffs” (I’m guessing a timorous company flak) told Helaine Olen of The Washington Post. “We’ve all been through restructures before, and our goal here was to provide confidentiality and respect to our colleagues.” Actually, I think management was just looking to spare itself a punch in the nose. And think of what it saved on Kleenex!
Working from home can cause co-workers to see each other as abstractions and breed resentment. “Workplace conflicts, which have always been around, are increasing in a remote world because people who can no longer physically see each other when sharing information or solving problems are missing the pieces of data that come from body language, observation and casual banter,” Beth Wonson, a “workplace conflict specialist” in California, told the Society for Human Resource Management. One survey found that 80 percent of remote professionals experienced conflict, mostly with co-workers rather than the boss. The most common source of the problem (tied with “stress about work”) was “lack of teamwork” (25 percent), followed by “rude behavior” (24 percent). Of course, it’s much harder to work as a team when you aren’t in the same place, and it’s much easier to be rude, or thought so, when you aren’t addressing somebody face to face. (As a journalist, I’ve long noticed a similar dynamic play out between the Washington bureaus of various news organizations where I’ve worked and their New York headquarters. One Washington boss of mine was resented by members of his staff because he was too nice to New York.)
Even if you show up at the office, there’s no guarantee the boss will be there. In the workplace, people higher up the chain of command usually enjoy greater freedoms. One of these is the opportunity to work from home. Writing on April 12 in The New York Times, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac reported that even as Meta laid off thousands of workers, top executives were managing the company remotely from Tel Aviv and London. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, was encouraging lower-level employees to return to the office. It’s not just Meta. Axios reported last week that “62 percent of non-managers work exclusively onsite, compared to 45 percent of managers.”
A final problem with remote work is that it can set in motion a train of thought that is not in the worker’s interest. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday about a technology worker in Northern Virginia who told her boss that she wanted to work from North Carolina. “Then a lightbulb went off,” the boss, Johnny Taylor Jr., told the Journal’s Konrad Putzier. Instead of allowing his employee to work from North Carolina, he outsourced her job to India, saving 40 percent on labor costs. The punch line: That workplace was the Society for Human Resource Management. As the Journal noted, other managers have had similar epiphanies. A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that 7.3 percent of managers copped to moving more jobs abroad since more employees started working remotely. Asheville: good. Bangalore: better!
As I write this, the sun slants through my office blinds onto an empty floor. Washington, D.C., is not only the nation’s capital; it’s the nation’s remote-work capital, with 48.2 percent working remotely in 2021, the last year for which census data are available. That’s more than in the tech (and therefore remote-friendly) capitals of Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin. Partly that’s because nobody makes anything here, partly it’s because the city has a higher proportion of college graduates than anyplace other than Seattle, and partly it’s because the federal government has encouraged remote work. It’s killing D.C.’s commercial real estate market; in January, the office vacancy rate was 19.5 percent.
As George McGovern said: Come home, America. Not that the office is home, exactly. And sure, everybody should be able to work at home sometimes, as I do. Just not all the time, because it feels too sad when nobody’s around.