Expanding Remote Work Won’t Inherently Empower Workers. It Could Do the Opposite.
Working from home has obvious benefits, which is why so many people want to keep doing it after the pandemic is over. But the outward appeal of remote work masks serious downsides for workers. We ignore them at our peril.
In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 swept across the United States, millions of people found themselves cut off from the familiar routines of job, commute, and home. Now, two years on, it’s clear that the world of work will never be the same. Today, the job market has mostly recovered from the worst of the lockdown, and wages are rising. But many jobs that were once done in person are now partly or fully remote — and seem likely to remain so indefinitely.
The persistence of remote work can be seen from survey data on US workers. In a Gallup poll last September, for instance, 45 percent of full-time employees said they were working from home some days or always. That broadly corresponds with the findings of a research team tracking trends in remote work that in mid-December, over 40 percent of all workdays in the United States were being done from home.
There is growing evidence that health concerns are no longer the main factor causing this trend. Instead, the biggest driver seems to be that most employees strongly prefer working from home to commuting to an office. Depending on the survey, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of workers who are presently remote want to remain so after the pandemic.
It’s no surprise that the move to remote work is viewed so positively. Anyone who’s ever had to work in an office — or seen the movie Office Space — knows how soulless and disempowering they can be. Add to that the prospect of escaping the daily commute (which for the average American takes up almost an hour of their day) and gaining some measure of control over the work environment, and of course most people prefer to work remotely.
However, even if it’s rational for individuals to prefer working from home, the push to make this a permanent new norm is highly dangerous, and profoundly conservative. Remote work has obvious benefits for those who can take advantage of it. But it’s in many ways a Trojan horse — it may look like a gift, but its outward appeal masks an existential threat underneath.
There are a few major reasons to be wary of the increasing popularity of remote work.
First, remote work is inherently inegalitarian. Since only a minority of jobs can be done remotely, it has the effect of splitting the workforce in two. In a study for the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the authors conclude that, in the United States, “more than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office,” while a smaller number could move toward a “hybrid” model involving fewer remote days. However, a much larger proportion of US workers — 61 percent by their estimate — are in jobs that cannot be done remotely at all: jobs that require face-to-face interaction, can only be done in a specific location, use specialized equipment, and so on.
Of the 40 percent of jobs that could go partly or fully remote, a disproportionate number are occupations that require a college degree. These jobs are heavily concentrated in a few, highly influential sectors of the economy, the report concludes, with finance and insurance showing the greatest potential for remote work, followed by management, business services, and IT.
In effect, remote work splits the workforce between those who can work from home and those who can’t. The former would include a large number of college grads and professionals, while the latter would include the vast majority of workers in sectors like health care, manufacturing, and retail. That’s a scenario we should find unacceptable. The injustice of a world where rush hour is reserved for those without money and status is impossible to stomach.
This isn’t just an ethical problem, but a political one. If society is split between those who commute and those who don’t, the divide will inevitably narrow support for public institutions. It’s not that working from home makes you right-wing. It’s that if you’re a well-paid professional living in a middle-class neighborhood, why should you worry, for example, about transportation infrastructure you rarely use? When people work from home, where they live becomes their world. That’s a scary thought in a society as unequal as ours.
Above all, remote work is a Trojan horse because it makes labor organizing nearly impossible. Unless a union already exists, there is little prospect of organizing once a company has gone remote. The key here is the elimination of the workplace: there cannot be any collective organization of workers if they don’t work collectively. The more atomized and isolated a workforce is, the harder it is to develop the culture of solidarity and communication necessary for successful organizing.
A remote model is therefore at odds with both the practical aspirations and the fundamental principles of the labor movement. And without a strong and principled labor movement, all workers in society will suffer, no matter where they work.
Always There When You Call
Proponents of working from home describe it as a more flexible model of work, which gives employees more control over their jobs and work environment. They emphasize the benefits of remote work for people struggling to juggle the demands of job and family: by cutting down on commuting time and freeing them from the inflexible rules of the traditional 9-to-5 workday, it improves “work-life balance.”
That’s especially important for women with children and single parents. If you have kids, the ability to manage childcare and spend extra time with your family may measurably improve your life — and for women, can make it significantly easier to stay in the labor force.
But research on the net effects of remote jobs points to a more mixed record. Working from home has many advantages, but it also dramatically reduces face-to-face interactions and overall communication with coworkers. Besides the practical problems this can create, it also results in widespread feelings of loneliness and isolation (something that should be familiar to us, having lived through the isolation-focused early days of the pandemic). The psychological damage of long-term remote work is a serious downside of this model. These repercussions are likely to be felt most keenly by exactly the people expected to benefit the most from remote work — working women with families and young children at home, especially if they don’t have full-time paid childcare or a spouse who also works remotely.
Also troubling is the way these arrangements blur the line between working time and personal time. Workers who go remote often report a sharp increase in the number of hours they spend working or “on call,” ready to respond to work emails and do other job activities. Data from the lockdown shows a bump in average work hours following a transition from in-person to remote. Compared to both their in-person counterparts and their pre-COVIDselves, remote workers were significantly more likely to devote time at night and on weekends to work tasks. (The situation is analogous to “unlimited paid time off” policies, which promise benefits for employees, but actually result in employees taking less time off.)
Why did these workers work more during the lockdown than they had previously? Part of it may have been the effort of making the transition online at the start of the pandemic. But it also illustrates the problem of trying to demarcate work from leisure/family time when both happen in the same location — the home.
Of course, it’s harder for managers to monitor employees when they’re remote. Fears of shirking seem to be a primary concern for employers, especially in small and medium-sized businesses, who are unwilling to let workers go remote, even when doing so would make them more attractive to potential employees. But the development of more sophisticated computer technology has alleviated many of their concerns — and should ring alarm bells for remote workers about increasing digital surveillance from their bosses, even when those bosses are not in the building.
The remote model also has a number of distinct advantages from business’s perspective. For instance, it allows companies to outsource the costs of running an office onto their employees. Even if a company adopts a hybrid model that still requires some kind of office, a smaller in-person workforce can allow for a smaller, less expensive workplace. It can also permit employers to reduce the number of full-time office staff (secretaries, janitors, tech support) they employ on site. Furthermore, this change allows the company greater flexibility to alter the work process. Going remote offers employers new opportunities to establish new norms, eliminate redundant costs, and reorganize their workforce.
Finally, in the long run, any time savings that might result from being remote could eventually be turned to the benefit of employers, not workers. As former Barack Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee wrote in the New York Times, while at the moment conditions on the labor market are better for workers, that could easily change, and when it does, employers will want concessions. Why should an hour saved commuting be an hour of extra leisure time, rather than an additional hour of work? “If employers can choose among lots of workers, working from home may end up being much less favorable than it first seems,” Goolsbee writes.
Thinking Long-Term About Labor
In the end, whether workers or employers are the beneficiaries of this change depends on the balance of power between them. The Left has always rightly argued that unless workers are organized, management will tend to have the advantage in workplace disputes. It’s precisely here that the shift to remote work will cause the greatest damage.
The obvious, unavoidable truth is that when employees move from a collective workplace setting to individualized remote settings, they become almost impossible to organize. If you have any commitment to labor, you should dread the prospect of entire sectors of the economy where coworkers are rarely, if ever, present in the same workspace.
Remote work is by definition atomized. How can you develop the kind of culture and identity that is forged through day-to-day interaction when you never see each other? It’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to challenge the terrible treatment of drivers at rideshare companies like Uber: even if workers share the same grievances, the conditions of their work create barriers that make it hard to organize and act collectively.
This isn’t an abstract concern. In the mid-twentieth century, elements within the union movement identified white-collar office workers as the key to labor’s future, even though there was little history of successful organizing among these workers. By the 1960s, their organizing efforts were beginning to bear fruit, helping pave the way for a massive expansion of unions in the public sector. Even today, these workers are a backbone of public sector unions in a place like New York. But with the looming shift to remote work, we are effectively writing off the modern equivalent of those white-collar workers. In the end, the downsides of making remote work a new norm for much of the workforce outweigh the advantages. This model exacerbates employment-related inequalities and creates new divisions in the workforce. It contributes to the privatization and individualization of social life. Most importantly, it destroys what has been the foundation of labor organizing and working-class politics for two centuries: the collective workplace.
While working from home is broadly popular, it’s easy to envision better solutions to problems of overwork, “work-life balance,” poor working conditions, and lack of autonomy. Instead of having a minority of mostly well-educated, high-status employees turn their homes into workplaces, what’s needed is an encompassing strategy for transforming work more broadly: to democratize and humanize working life, as left-wing trade unions used to put it in the 1970s. In the long run, that would have to include measures like shortening the workweek, the expansion of social rights and public services, and stronger forms of workplace representation for employees.
Obviously, that agenda is well beyond our capacity at the moment. But we can at least be clear-eyed about the situation we face. Labor and the Left should identify the spread of remote work as a fundamental challenge and think seriously about how to respond. Where there are unions that represent the kinds of higher-status employees who are overrepresented in remote jobs, they should resist that tendency: not by hectoring or lecturing their members who want to work from home, but by endeavoring to develop a shared vision of a different kind of collective work environment for the post-pandemic world.
Some may object that this is pointless or self-defeating. The move to work-from-home is happening whether we like it or not — and frankly, it’s extremely popular. Of course, they’d be right. But even if it’s an uphill battle now, neither the Left nor labor can afford to let the move to permanent remote work pass. If we acquiesce to it now, we’ll regret it later.