The U.S. economy is undergoing a major transformation largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic. One hallmark of that transformation is the explosion in what is called “remote” work.
In 2017, according to a Census Bureau study, only 3 percent of full-time workers in the United States reported that they primarily worked from home. Today, in response to the pandemic, some 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is working from home—with only 26 percent still working on-site.
Corporate leaders appear to have embraced this shift to at-home work and are pursing the use of new technologies designed to increase managerial control over the remote work process. The response of workers to these changes is still evolving.
The pandemic and the corporate embrace of at-home work
Although most corporations initially viewed the shift to remote work as a necessary short-term response to government mandated closures and consumer and worker health concerns, a number are now planning for a permanent, post-pandemic increase in its use. As the New York Times reports:
Facebook expects up to half its workers to be remote as soon as 2025. The chief executive of Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company that employs 5,000 people, tweeted in May that most of them “will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.” Walmart’s tech chief told his workers that “working virtually will be the new normal.”
Quora, a question-and-answer site, said last week that “all existing employees can immediately relocate to anywhere we can legally employ them.” Those who do not want to go anywhere can still use the Silicon Valley headquarters, which would become a co-working space.
And these large firms are not alone. As Luke Savage, writing in Jacobin, notes:
With the lockdown still only a few weeks old, a survey of company CFOs by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that almost 30 percent were already planning to reduce their business’s physical footprint, with an April study by Gartner suggesting that some three-quarters were planning to shift at least some employees to remote work on a permanent basis.
It’s a different world
Of course, this is not the first time that corporations have embraced remote work. A number—including such major companies as IBM, Aetna, Best Buy, Bank of America, Yahoo, AT&T and Reddit—actively promoted telecommuting as recently as 15 years ago. But they all eventually reversed course, concluding that employee productivity, loyalty, and innovation suffered. Tech companies, in particular, responded by building expansive and expensive new facilities that offered a range of free on-site benefits such as communal cafeterias and gyms to keep employees motivated and loyal.
Because of this history, some analysts doubt that the current corporate celebration of remote work will last long. But there is reason to believe that this time is different. Certainly, early indications are that at-home workers remain focused and hard at work. Savage cites a Globe and Mail article that leads with this head: “Employers used to believe remote workers were happier but less productive. Turns out it’s the opposite.” The Globe and Mail article goes on to say:
One fear about shifting to a work-from-home culture is that it would lead to operational chaos: missed meetings, spotty WiFi, games of broken telephone (both figurative and literal). Instead, even companies with tens of thousands of employees are finding that the IT infrastructure is holding up and so are lines of authority. Workers are responding to their emails and joining Zoom calls at approximately the right time. Everyone is always reachable.
The Globe and Mail is not alone in finding evidence of high worker productivity. For example, the New York Times quotes John Sullivan, a professor of management:
“The data over the last three months is so powerful,” he said. “People are shocked. No one found a drop in productivity. Most found an increase. People have been going to work for a thousand years, but it’s going to stop and it’s going to change everyone’s life.” Innovation, Dr. Sullivan added, might even catch up eventually.
And Bloomberg came to much the same conclusion, reporting that corporate executives at several different finance and investment companies all see evidence of gains in productivity.
Underlying these gains are three potentially long-lasting developments that provide support for the view that the current corporate commitment to expanding remote work needs to be taken seriously. The first is the availability of relatively low cost and easy-to-use online communication platforms like Zoom that allow managers to easily communicate with their workers and for workers to engage in group work when necessary. The online infrastructure for corporate communication continues to improve.
The second is the recent and ongoing development of technologies that allow management to monitor and evaluate the online work effort of their employees. As the New York Times explains: “Demand has surged for software that can monitor employees, with programs tracking the words we type, snapping pictures with our computer cameras and giving our managers rankings of who is spending too much time on Facebook and not enough on Excel.”
Of course, corporations have long used technology to monitor and direct work, and large companies like Amazon have pioneered the development and use of software for directing and intensifying the pace of warehouse workers. Josh Dzieza, writing in the Verge, offers an example:
Every Amazon worker I’ve spoken to said it’s the automatically enforced pace of work, rather than the physical difficulty of the work itself, that makes the job so grueling. Any slack is perpetually being optimized out of the system, and with it any opportunity to rest or recover. A worker on the West Coast told me about a new device that shines a spotlight on the item he’s supposed to pick, allowing Amazon to further accelerate the rate and get rid of what the worker described as “micro rests” stolen in the moment it took to look for the next item on the shelf.
But as Dzieza makes clear, there is also growing availability and use of new software that makes it possible for corporations to easily oversee the work effort of their online workers. One example is WorkSmart. Dzieza describes the experience of a software engineer in Bangladesh who was required to download the software as a condition of his employment with Austin-based Crossover Technologies. Among other things:
The software tracked his keystrokes, mouse clicks, and the applications he was running, all to rate his productivity. He was also required to give the program access to his webcam. Every 10 minutes, the program would take three photos at random to ensure he was at his desk. If [he] wasn’t there when WorkSmart took a photo, or if it determined his work fell below a certain threshold of productivity, he wouldn’t get paid for that 10-minute interval.
Other recently developed software programs currently in use to monitor the work of call center employees could easily be used to monitor home-based employees doing the same work. Recording the number and length of calls is old hat. These new programs, using artificial intelligence, can now evaluate the “emotional” tone of the worker’s voice during their conversations with customers. Some programs can even “coach workers in real time, telling them to speak more slowly or with more energy or to express empathy.” The growing corporate interest in remote work can be expected to spur the development of ever more sophisticated products that will allow even tighter control over at-home work and more detailed evaluation of at-home workers.
The nature of the ongoing transformation of the economy is the third reason that this period may well mark the start of a major shift in the location of work. Simply stated: unemployment is now high and, when possible, workers welcome a safe alternative to on-site employment.
In the past on-site work was the standard corporate practice and most workers preferred it. Thus, workers were generally able to undermine individual corporate attempts to push them into working from home. Now, not only is remote work the new norm, because of the virus it has actually become the desired alternative. With fear of the virus likely to remain for some time, corporations are in a far stronger position than in the past to normalize remote work and win worker acceptance of new work relations even after the pandemic is brought under control.
Benefits and costs
It is easy to understand why corporations are excited about increasing their use of remote work. One reason is that it will allow them to greatly reduce their spending on facilities. Gains on the labor side are likely even larger. Companies will be able to expand their job search, hiring workers who may live thousands of miles away from the location of corporate operations with no need to pay moving expenses and with the possibility of cheapening the cost of labor by paying salaries commensurate with local living costs. And, as a bonus, the more a company’s labor force is geographically separated and isolated, the harder it will be for its workers to build the bonds of solidarity needed to challenge management demands.
The use of remote work opens up possibilities for even greater labor savings by making possible the reclassification of new hires into independent contractors. After all, many remote workers are already paying for the equipment they need (desks, chairs, computers, webcam), the supporting technological infrastructure (high speed Wi-Fi), and office maintenance (cleaning).
Of course, most workers also viewed at-home work positively, at least initially. They appreciated being able to remain employed and work safely from their homes during the pandemic. But the costs of remote work, as currently structured, are mounting up for workers.
As a Bloomberg article summarizes, “We log longer hours. We attend more meetings with more people. And, we send more emails.” The article highlights a recently published study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which was based on surveys of some 3 million people at more than 21,000 companies across 16 cities in North America, Europe and the Middle East. The researchers:
compared employee behavior over two 8 week periods before and after Covid-19 lockdowns. Looking at email and meeting meta-data, the group calculated the workday lasted 48.5 minutes longer, the number of meetings increased about 13% and people sent an average of 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.
An online survey of 20,262 people in 10 countries by the technology company Lenovo Group Ltd. found that “A disturbing 71% of those working from home due to Covid-19 have experienced a new or exacerbated ailment caused by the equipment they now must use. . . the most common symptoms [being] back pain, poor posture (e.g., hunched shoulders), neck pain, eye irritation, insomnia and headaches.”
Looking just at the United States, a study done by NordVPN, based on tracking when at-home workers connected and disconnected from its service, found that at-home workers logged three hours more per day on the job than before the start of city and state lockdowns. And a survey of 1,001 U.S. employees by Eagle Hill Consulting found that “By early April, about 45% of workers said they were burned out. Almost half attributed the mental toll to an increased workload, the challenge of juggling personal and professional life, and a lack of communication and support from their employer.”
Given the direction of corporate planning, it is likely that the costs of remote work for workers—physical and emotional—will only increase. As one public relations executive explained when discussing why his company now views remote work so positively: The technology is better. Moreover, “we have rules now,” he said. “You have to be available between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. You can’t use this as child care.”
For many workers, it is the pandemic, with its forced isolation of family in small housing units, that has made remote work so difficult and emotionally wearing. And, for many, the experience of on-site work before the coronavirus pandemic forced closures was also far from ideal. Thus surveys show, as the New York Times reports,
Most American office workers are in no hurry to return to the office full time, even after the coronavirus is under control. But that doesn’t mean they want to work from home forever. The future for them, a variety of new data shows, is likely to be workweeks split between office and home.
For example, a survey by the company Morning Consult done in mid-June found that:
Overall, 73 percent of U.S. adults who have careers where remote work is possible report that the pandemic has made them feel more positively about the prospect of remote work. And given the option, three quarters of these workers say they would like to work from home at least 1-2 days a week once the pandemic is under control.
At issue, then, is who will decide the place of work and perhaps even more importantly, the conditions of work, including remote work. Current indications are that corporations plan to push workers into more remote work than surveys suggest they want, and definitely under conditions of surveillance and evaluation that they will find objectionable. It is less clear whether those working remotely or threatened with remote work will be able to organize rapidly enough to force corporations to bargain with them over both the location of work and the work process, on- and off-site, including the aim and uses of new technology.
If there is a reason for optimism it is that there appears to be a growing solidarity between white- and blue-collar workers in the tech industry that includes support for unionization, especially at some of the large firms like Google and Amazon. As Tyler Sonnemaker and Allana Akhtar, writing for Business Insider, describe:
Even a year ago, the idea that tech’s cafeteria workers and office workers were on the same page about forming a labor union would have seemed unthinkable.
The recent wave of employee activism and organizing efforts represents a widening rift between the industry’s rank-and-file employees and its executives. For the first time, developers and product managers with higher pay and closer ties to management are siding with their lower-paid colleagues in warehouses, cafeterias, and contract gigs. . . .
Frequent leaks to the media – notable given the historically tight-knit culture at tech companies – and the emergence of groups like Rideshare Drivers United, Tech Workers Coalition, Athena, and Amazonians United are just two signs of the rise in employee activism in recent years. But over the past few months, emboldened by the pandemic and racial justice protests, workers at startups like Away and giants like Facebook have become a vocal chorus of critics.
Passively allowing management to use technology to shape the work process and the resulting final product is a recipe for ever worsening working and living conditions for the great majority of working people. Hopefully, the ongoing worker agitation and organizing in the United States will continue regardless of the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, producing a shared critique of profit-driven work and support for new organizational forms, including unions, that can fight for a more humane economic system.