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The future of remote work

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A big debate at the moment is whether the COVID pandemic is going to cause any sort of permanent shift among employers, especially in the “knowledge worker” economy, regarding work from home policies.

BTW the phrase “work from home” is a typical patriarchal misnomer, since enormous amounts of the most crucial work performed in our society have always been done at home, although this work generally hasn’t featured wages.

Vox has a piece on the current debate at Apple, where management is planning to require everyone to come into the office at least three times per week as soon as the pandemic has receded sufficiently, which a lot of workers there aren’t happy about:

For Apple employees like Scarlett — a single mom with ADHD — working remotely has been a godsend. At home, she’s not distracted by coworkers’ conversations as she would be in an open office, and she can use some of the time she saves to pick up her daughter from school.

“Being a single mom, there wasn’t anybody to get my daughter or stay with her. Before, it would come up that I leave the office a lot to do that,” Scarlett told Recode. “Now, I no longer have that anxiety of feeling the need to explain that there is no one else to pick up my child.”

Scarlett is one of over 7,000 Apple employees who participate regularly in an internal corporate Slack group called “remote work advocacy,” where workers discuss their frustrations with management on the issue, and how other companies are offering more flexible arrangements. The group’s beginnings were relatively uncontroversial — it started as a place for Apple employees to share tips about how to work productively from home — but it turned into a hub of worker organizing.

“Over time, a lot of people started realizing how great things were going as we were working from home,” said Janneke Parrish, an Apple employee who has been active in pushing for more remote work options and was one of several employees who drafted the petition. “And as the initial trauma of the pandemic wore off, the membership of that group just grew and grew and changed, from ‘here’s some tips on how to survive’ to ‘how can I talk to my manager about doing this [working from home] more permanently?’”

Apple’s management’s position is that spontaneous in-person collaboration is crucial to enhancing employee creativity/productivity, although the evidence for this is fairly scant. (Curiously management at the same time maintains an intensely secretive internal culture in order to protect intellectual property, which assures that workers often know nothing about what anybody else is doing outside of their immediate work group).

A couple of critical and related factors here are:

(1) A lot of big companies, especially in tech and finance, have poured enormous amounts of capital into their physical plants. They don’t like to think of this as a sunk cost, because people in general are psychologically speaking very resistant to the concept of sunk costs.

(2) Relatedly, it costs about a zillion dollars to buy a dwelling anywhere near those physical plants, which means even well-paid workers have insane commutes, which makes the value to them of working from home increasingly higher.

All these questions have a great deal of relevance to the future of higher education, as well. I personally find it quite demoralizing that basically nobody has come to work at my workplace for a year and a half now, since it seems to me that, whatever the virtues of spontaneous collaboration may be in the broader knowledge economy, they’re pretty crucial to the very idea of a university (Alfred North Whitehead once said rather facetiously that the university has been obsolete since the invention of the printing press. I can only imagine what he would have said about the Internet, Zoom etc.)

Anyway there’s some evidence that the short-term reaction of management to all this is that there’s a general reluctance to allow the pandemic to create any kind of permanent shift in the expectations of workers regarding the requirement to be physically present at work. And of course it’s still the case that, for the majority of work that has always been done outside the home, this still isn’t an option.

But I suspect that this is going to be an increasingly contentious issue in the coming years.

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