Bosses won't like it, but working from home is a happier way to work

Simon Kuper: Remote work is much more than a corporate issue — it’s a rare chance to create a better society

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Elon Musk calls working from home morally wrong. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has begun including office attendance in its employees’ performance reviews. Amazon.com Inc.’s chief executive, Andy Jassy, who previously seemed relaxed about remote work, told staff last month that “it’s probably not going to work out” for them at Amazon unless they come in “at least three days a week.”

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The corporate backlash against working from home is cheered on by many jealous retirees who spent 40 years in offices. But we should treat remote work as much more than a corporate issue. It’s a rare chance to create a better society.

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Bosses who oppose working from home tend to argue from economic efficiency. However, it’s unclear why we should optimize societies for gross domestic product. Americans have higher average incomes than almost all Europeans, but they also emit far more CO2 per capita, don’t have guaranteed paid vacations and live seven years less than Spaniards.

In any case, the argument for the efficiency of office work is dubious. Sure, office workers are more productive than the small minority of workers who work entirely remotely, but there’s a trade-off: the latter are cheaper to employ and easier to retain. In fact, the low cost of fully remote workforces is helping encourage startups, says Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University. He adds that hybrid workers — people who come into the office sometimes — appear to be about as productive as office workers.

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No doubt certain jobs ought to be done on site. We should identify them. But overall, as a report by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. notes, “economic studies disagree on the productivity effects of remote work.” Or as my colleague Robin Wigglesworth phrased the conclusion: ¯\_ (ツ)_/¯.

This seems a slim basis for scrapping a happier way of organizing work. Some people live to work, while most work to live. But nobody lives to commute. Policymakers who fret that public transport is no longer full at rush hour ought to reflect that few passengers wanted to be there every rush hour.

Then there are would-be workers for whom a daily commute is close to impossible. That’s true for many disabled people, about one in six humans, who have been clamouring for remote work for decades. The U.S. employment rate of disabled people hit a record 21 per cent last year.

Remote work also benefits the people who keep our aging societies functioning: unpaid caregivers for elderly or disabled relatives. More than one in five American adults (disproportionately female) falls into this category. Many will only take jobs that they can do from their mom’s kitchen table. Yet office bosses tend to ignore the issue, possibly because few bosses have ever been caregivers (or disabled).

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Anyway, working from home should keep getting more productive. It emerged at the worst possible moment: unplanned, during lockdowns, when many workers had children at home. To borrow a metaphor from Dutch writer Joris Luyendijk, the day the Wright brothers took their first flight in 1903, they couldn’t yet have designed an aviation industry. Solutions emerge over time.

A mere three years into the mass work-from-home experiment, inefficiencies remain. For instance, remote workers still waste endless hours managing their managers. Bloom reports that U.S. hybrid workers with degrees spend half their day in meetings, twice as long as office workers, probably to please bosses who worry they are slacking. No wonder remote workers struggle to switch off and suffer burnout. But then so do office workers.

Working from home, as it improves, will give employees more autonomy. We have lived through more than a century of Taylorism: “scientific management” of workers by bosses. Its latest iteration is “digital Taylorism,” tech that monitors workers in real time.

Remote work could help make people the masters of their own days. Gig workers know how that feels. The one great upside of their working lives is not having bosses peering over their shoulders. Similarly, many schools are giving children more autonomy in learning, instead of training them for lives of desk-bound obedience.

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The transition to remote work will be bumpy. Many office buildings will become obsolete. But then, the point of life isn’t to prop up the commercial-property market. Handled well, remote work will allow us to convert offices into homes. It could spread high-skilled workers to poor regions.

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Employees will continue to prize remote work even after the job market turns against them. That’s especially true for the post-2020 generation of native remote workers who have never known anything else. If governments take on bosses and pass laws to encourage remote work, workers will thank them at the ballot box.

© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd.

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