The Price of Remote Work
They are ending transit service to my neighborhood of Minneapolis this month; we will now be a mile from the nearest bus line. A mix of driver shortages and low ridership, they say. Work-from-home (WFH) was the coup de grâce.
It’s the latest casualty of remote work, the amazingness of which has been exalted as innovation over the last two years. We have a penchant in this country of deeming every technological advancement as not just helpful, but unimpeachable. Remote work surely fits this. Repeat after me: Things have never been better!
(To be clear, when I talk about remote work I’m not talking about flexible hours, weekly WFH days, etc. I was an advocate of that in my workplace long before Covid. I’m talking about companies that do the vast majority of interacting from home.)
Remote work evolved from a necessary stricture of a global pandemic to a rationalization of convenience for the privileged, who hide behind it as a form of progress or a need, when in fact it’s just a different way of working. It is only in a society that can’t tell the difference between faux connectedness via technology or social media and the real thing that such a transformation could take place.
The price we are paying is both practical and personal. Practical in terms of loss of transit service, the emptying of our downtowns and the destruction of the small businesses that served workers there, and the spikes in crime and fear of crime that hover over streets and skyways that have been given over to the maladapted and sociopathic. How many billions have we taxpayers spent on rail lines, downtown infrastructure, and public amenities to de facto abandon them?
It’s personal in that we are social creatures. Work evolved as it did not simply to slavishly serve corporate masters but because communal work is done more effectively together (I see this in my own work life and my company’s every day) and we evolve as professionals by observing others. I learned to be a journalist by watching other journalists work.
A young professional I know, who is 24, started his third post-college job this week. His first two, for respected local firms, both lasted roughly a year. They were sold as flexible, but in actuality they were entirely remote because his colleagues declined to leave their homes. His employers’ sexy downtown workspaces sat empty. He received minimal onboarding and training in both jobs, made no friends, and received no mentoring. Yet both employers boasted in internal messaging about the strength of their cultures.
This is not an exception these days, but the rule in remote work. To companies that extol their innovative ways (summer parties, LOL) of maintaining culture, I say there is no culture in remote work, only the memory of culture before. We are all gig workers now. It’s transactional, and young professionals who need mentoring are the most disadvantaged.
That many of those same young people demand WFH is not surprising. It’s a hangover privilege from the days of the lockdowns, where people with less social leverage had to risk their health so more advantaged people could “stay safe.”
To companies that extol their innovative ways of maintaining culture, I say there is no culture in remote work, only the memory of culture before.
That companies are patting themselves on the back instead of sounding the alarm should not surprise us. They have offloaded so many costs onto their workers (and anticipate offloading expensive leases when they come up), who accept it as the price for their “freedom.” Toner, personal cellphones as work phones, needing a bigger apartment to support a home office—it adds up.
I get it—we have never been more self-absorbed and self-interested, so why should we care if our downtowns die, if young people molder in isolation, if our businesses lose their capacity to motivate and inspire loyalty? After all, it’s self-care to have a pet in your lap all day. Commuting destroys the climate. And some of us already have all the friends we need.
Oddly, the waiting list for mental health services is longer than ever. Probably unrelated.
Like much of Gen Z, the 24-year-old I know left his old job without a plan B. He’d had enough of a place where he felt no support. In two weeks, he had a new job with a better salary at an even better company. He specifically sought an employer with required office time; he did his due diligence with an ex-employee to verify it was not just boilerplate.
I hope he receives competent onboarding and training, makes friends, and finds a mentor who wants to pay it forward rather than get to Barry’s Boot Camp by 4:30. Because if he doesn’t, I assure you, he will be gone in a year, and he and his soon-to-be workplace will be the poorer for it, ad infinitum.