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The future of work looks like staying out of the office

By Kate Cox

Dozens of studies find remote workers happy and productive. Why not let them be?

It’s 2020: we finally live in the future! Or at least a future—one where broadband Internet connections and portable, reasonably high-powered computing tools are pervasive and widely accessible, even if they aren’t yet universal. Millions of workers, including all of us here at Ars, use those tools to do traditional “office jobs” from nontraditional home offices.

Tens of millions of jobs at all points of the income and skill spectrum are of course not suited to remote work. Doctors, dentists, and countless other healthcare workers of the world will always need to be hands-on with patients, just as teachers need to be in schools, construction workers need to be on building sites, scientists need to be in labs, wait staff need to be in restaurants, judges need to be in court, and hospitality employees need to be in hotels. All of that said, though, many more of the hundreds of different kinds of jobs Americans do can be done off-site than currently are.

Roughly a quarter of us are already doing at least some work remotely. About 24 percent of US workers employed full-time did “some or all” of their work at home, according to the most recent federal data available. Even as some workplaces become increasingly distributed around the nation and the world, though, others are reversing course and doubling down on the corporate campus. So, as we here at Ars look toward the future of work, we find ourselves wondering: employers and employees alike benefit from getting some folks out of cubeville, so what are so many businesses and managers afraid of?

A surprisingly ancient argument

The idea of remote work, as we currently imagine it, goes back about 50 years. The fight over whether employees should be allowed to do remote work—whether they can in fact be trusted with it—goes back almost exactly as long.

The first documented use of the word “telecommute” showed up in 1974 when The Economist wrote: “As there is no logical reason why the cost of telecommunication should vary with distance, quite a lot of people by the late 1980s will telecommute daily to their London offices while living on a Pacific island if they want to.” Similarly, futurist writer Alvin Toffler (together with his wife Heidi Toffler, uncredited) described the concept perfectly in the 1980 book The Third Wave:

“When we suddenly make available technologies that can place a low-cost “work station” in any home, providing it with a “smart” typewriter, perhaps, along with a facsimile machine or computer console and teleconferencing equipment, the possibilities for home work are radically extended.”

As the idea of telework landed in the 1970s, “pro” and “con” camps formed, became entrenched, and dug in rapidly thereafter. By January 1984, Time magazine had “fans and foes take second looks” at proliferating “experimental projects” in telecommuting—at the time still novel but potentially destined to become much less so.

In the 1980s the state of California commissioned a study on the potential costs and benefits of expanding telework among state employees. The final report, published in 1990, is an extremely familiar tune to the one still sung today.

Remote work “enhances the quality of work life for telecommuters, including those with disabilities,” the report found. “Telecommuting more than pays its way … there are societal benefits as well.”

The group that compiled the report determined that telecommuting “should be encouraged to expand within state government, that every state agency should have the option of using telecommuting both as a means of improving its effectiveness and for reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.” That said, the working group also cautioned that in order to be effective, a telecommuting program must be “implemented properly and [have] its utility monitored regularly.”

The California report was one of the earlier deep-dive efforts to determine if remote work could be effective or valuable, but not the last. Dozens of studies have emerged in the 30 years since backing up the state working group’s findings. Taken in aggregate, they show remote work, where feasible, has a clear pattern of benefits for both workers and the firms that employ them.

“The advantages [of telework] are many,” Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, told Ars. “It’s a good thing for several reasons from the employer’s perspective in a very tight labor market.”

The idea may date back to the 1970s, but the potential for telework on a mass scale truly took off in the early years of the 21st century. While about 50 percent of US adults had Internet access in the year 2000, that number had jumped to more than 75 percent by the year 2010 and currently hovers around 90 percent, according to data gathered by the Pew Research Center. Broadband use in particular jumped from being virtually nonexistent in US homes in 2000 to greater than 60 percent of US homes by 2010. (Presently, an estimated 42.8 million US residents lack broadband access at home.)

Likewise, the computing tools to use on all those home broadband networks became not only higher-powered but also cheaper and easier to acquire. A mid- to high-range laptop in the year 1999 cost between $1,800 and $2,000, was a pain in the butt to drag around on a college campus or public transit, and probably did not have Wi-Fi capabilities. (Mine certainly didn’t.) In 2019, you certainly can pay that much for a high-end laptop, but you can also purchase an array of good-quality ultra-thin, lightweight computers for less than half that much—to say nothing of how connected you can stay with a smartphone, which more than 80 percent of US adults now own.

Get off the road

In the most populated and congested US cities, an average commute can easily run an hour or more each way. Ten percent of US workers commute more than 60 minutes each way per day. And while public transportation, cycling, or walking are a good option in several of those cities, housing costs and decades of infrastructure and policy choices mean that more than 75 percent of American workers drive solo to work.

Commutes in California’s high-tech hub, the Bay Area, are legendarily bad, driven by a surge of tech workers and support staff facing a severe housing crisis. Unable to find nearby housing, many employees and contract workers for major tech firms such as Google live farther and farther away from the corporate campuses they need to get to each morning.

Drivers have their coping mechanisms—see also: podcasts—but nobody really likes driving to work. No matter where you live, other drivers are absolutely the worst, and being part of a traffic jam doesn’t really improve anyone’s Monday. Paying for a car commute is also not particularly pleasant, as the cost of gas climbs over time, and more and more cities introduce some form of tolling (sometimes very high) to major roads to alleviate—or at least get compensated for—congestion.

Even those among us who do live in the handful of cities with strong, robust transportation networks don’t always enjoy the experience of using them. A subway commute that should take 20 minutes can stretch on all morning if something goes wrong (as often seems to happen).

Less stressful by far is simply not commuting at all and winning back between 30 and 90 minutes on each end of your workday for something more productive. And the less time you spend on the road, the less likely you are to become one of the more than 36,000 people who die in auto crashes and accidents each year.

But reducing car commuting is perhaps even more of a collective good than an individual good, as every single car that isn’t on the road is at least one small step toward not making the climate crisis worse. Transportation accounts for about 29 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions. Individuals in passenger vehicles certainly don’t represent all transportation—the massive web of trucks, ships, and aircraft used for shipping factor in there, too—but they represent enough that it’s worth reducing the number of commuters on the road.

Dell Inc. prides itself on encouraging remote work. The company published a report (PDF) in 2016 describing its telecommuting policy as a driver of sustainability efforts for the firm. “Dell work-from-home programs mitigate approximately 1.15 metric tonnes of CO2e per employee per year,” the report determined, “with most of the decrease being related to employee GHG emissions and a smaller percentage attributable to Dell GHG emissions.” Presently, the company estimates its telework programs prevent 35,000 metric tons of CO2e per year as compared to having the whole workforce commute.

An enticing, low-cost perk

SHRM’s Taylor stressed employee demand as one of the major drivers behind firms expanding telework:

“People are now saying, “I’m really talented. I live an hour away, when local, and that commute is two hours of productivity plus stressing time, fuel costs, dry cleaning bills, etc. And I can do this work remotely quite successfully, so—why not?” As that demand increases and the pool for talent is shrinking, we have to be willing to entertain it.”

The national unemployment rate, at press time, stood at 3.4 percent. Among 389 US metropolitan areas, 136—about 35 percent—have unemployment rates lower than 3 percent. Among the 51 largest US metropolitan areas, those with populations of 1 million or higher, the highest jobless rate in December still stood at only 4.7 percent.

“If you’ve got 50 people who can work from home—to let them do so as opposed to pay for expensive real estate in major market cities—I’ve seen companies literally say, ‘I can reduce my square footage footprint by thousands of dollars per month.”

That is, as they say, a hot market. When unemployment is high, employers have the upper hand and can still get a stream of candidates signing up for jobs that offer mediocre pay and terrible benefits. But when unemployment is low, workers have options, and employers start competing with everything they have to offer to draw good candidates in the door. Would-be employees—particularly in the so-called “knowledge sector,” who are exactly the kind of workers who can most easily do remote work—have options.

Offering remote work is “something that can distinguish your brand in the employment market—this war for talent, as it’s been referred to,” Taylor said, particularly for companies trying to attract younger talent. The much-ballyhooed millennial generation may have infamously killed a whole range of consumer products and industries, but not the idea of work. Members of that generation, now approximately 25 to 40 years old, not only comprise a huge portion of the workplace, but also the majority of parents of young children.

Parents, not only women but of any gender, are embracing telework as a way to “truly strike that balance of work and personal life and not trade off,” Taylor explained. “What we’re seeing is, as people think about how to take care of and provide for their children, especially in the younger years, that there’s a major benefit” to avoiding the commute and clawing back those hours, even if you still have to arrange daytime care for your kids to get anything done.

Whether, how, and for whom wages may or may not increase in the face of that competition is too complicated a question for this piece. Other benefits, such as comprehensive health care offerings, are extraordinarily expensive for employers to offer, and so many companies are wary of how they expand that kind of benefits plan.

Allowing employees to work remotely some or all of the time, however, not only tends to make workers happier—it actively saves employers money. “It’s quite the deal” for employers in major cities, Taylor told Ars. “If you’ve got 50 people who can work from home, to let them do so as opposed to pay for expensive real estate in major market cities—I’ve seen companies literally say, I can reduce my square footage footprint by thousands of dollars per month,” especially once the cost of utilities are factored in.

About a dozen major metropolitan areas have average commercial real estate rental costs of more than $40 per square foot per month, at least one commercial real estate provider has found. In New York City, that figure is higher than $85; in San Francisco, it tops $92. Generally, businesses need a minimum of 100 square feet of usable office space per employee—using those figures, then, a room big enough for just 10 “creatives” to work cheek by jowl in an open concept plan (which are actively terrible) in New York is going to cost you more than $1 million per year. Not maintaining that office space is, obviously, significantly cheaper.

And while it is rare for employer cost-cutting moves to make employees happier, telework is the rare win/win where those interests can overlap. The American Psychological Association last year published an article finding that, in the right situations, “Employees who telecommute tend to be slightly more satisfied, and their performance tends to be the same or a little higher,” than those who commute to work.

President Obama in 2010 signed into law a bill promoting federal telework. In 2012, John Berry, the head of the Office of Personnel Management—basically the clearing house for federal HR matters—testified before Congress on how the change was boosting the federal workforce.

“We have found that individuals who telework are more likely to agree that they know what is expected of them on the job, that they feel they are held accountable for results in their work, and that they are more likely to agree that they have a greater sense of control over work processes,” Berry said. He went on:

“Best of all, individuals who telework are much more likely to report being satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. With the obvious correlations between job satisfaction and employee turnover, affording Federal employees the opportunity to telework has the potential to avoid future recruitment and training costs.”

A wide net

Employers, particularly but not solely state and local governments, have for decades been trying to get a handle on diversity and inclusion in their ranks. Allowing for remote work significantly increases the pool of potential candidates who might be able to fill open roles. Not only can you reach for members of racial groups or religions that might be under-represented within a feasible commuting distance of your office, but also you can potentially hire more folks for whom a commute can be a significant burden.

Among those potential workers are individuals with disabilities, who can often face significant infrastructure-based barriers in getting to a worksite. The 1990 California paper found that workers with mobility challenges had “their work-related stress levels significantly decreased as a result of telecommuting.” The report went on:

“Their effectiveness changes were positive, like the rest of the telecommuters. We did not specifically explore new job opportunities for the disabled; however, telecommuting clearly appears to benefit the disabled. Few information jobs have inherent restrictions to entry if telecommuting is an option for the employee.”

Workplaces with more than 15 employees are required by law to allow “reasonable accommodation” to allow workers with disabilities to apply for and perform jobs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers remote work to be such an accommodation.

“Not all persons with disabilities need—or want—to work at home,” the EEOC writes. “And not all jobs can be performed at home. But, allowing an employee to work at home may be a reasonable accommodation where the person’s disability prevents successfully performing the job on-site and the job, or parts of the job, can be performed at home without causing significant difficulty or expense.”

In many fields, geographic location itself can be almost as valuable a point of diversity as making sure to hire workers of different races, genders, religions, national origins, and physical abilities. In journalism, for example, there are frequent cries for national outlets to hire writers based in locations other than New York or San Francisco. Doing so would not only broaden the candidate pool to those who cannot afford to live in the nation’s priciest cities, but also would allow outlets to hire reporters with understanding of local politics, culture, and trends as local media outlets they could once have partnered with go under by the dozen.

When cutbacks kick back: Stealth layoffs

Even as telework goes more than mainstream, some employers stand firmly against the trend. Some high-powered tech firms, such as Google, prefer to keep confidential code in-house, where it can be more tightly controlled. Meanwhile, others who once embraced the potential for remote hires have reversed course under either political or financial pressures.

Yahoo, at the time under the leadership of new CEO Marissa Mayer, recalled employees to the office in 2013. In a memo to employees at the time, Yahoo said the move was intended to foster collaboration, saying: “It is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

Isolation among employees, and a lack of impromptu in-person encounters, is indeed the biggest drawback of a workforce that is predominantly or wholly remote. However, the move at Yahoo may have been sparked by other organizational concerns rather than a lack of hallway chit-chat. When Mayer was named CEO in 2012, she became the sixth person in five years to hold the role. During those five years, meanwhile, Yahoo’s stock price largely remained under $5 per share. Shares did rebound after Mayer took the reins, and three years later, the company was sold off to Verizon for a little under $4.5 billion.

At the time, one employee told USA Today that the move was in part designed not only to increase productivity among the workforce, but also to “weed out” workers the company did not particularly wish to retain. The harsh stance also, apparently, eased over time once the weeding was through: Huffington Post reported in 2015 that several Yahoo employees said they worked part or all of the time out of the office.

IBM pulled a similar move in 2017. The company made headlines for slashing its telework program, while at the same time ardently singing the praises of remote work to other firms to which it sold connectivity software. Many at the time assumed the move was designed to pare down the company’s workforce. Ars’ own Sean Gallagher observed at the time that the recall “is essentially a way of laying off thousands of employees who can’t afford on their current IBM salaries to move to a major metropolitan area like New York.”

That widespread read of the situation seems reasonably well-founded. IBM also conducted actual old-fashioned layoffs in 2017, following a 2016 round of cuts, and continued laying off thousands of staff in 2019 as well.

More recently, a course reversal on telework has hit federal employees. As recently as 2018, federal workers were explicitly told to telecommute more to deal with major service disruptions to Washington’s metrorail system. Severe disruptions are scheduled to continue, but this summer any federal workers left in Washington may have to find a different way to manage work.

While the Obama administration both embraced telework and found success with it, federal agencies have been significantly curtailing remote work during the Trump years. The Washington Post reported last month that employees at the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Interior have all cut back on telework, as have the Environmental Protection Agency and Social Security Administration.

The USDA also relocated multiple research agencies out of Washington. Employees at those agencies were not permitted to become remote workers, but instead were told to relocate to Kansas City or lose their jobs. As a stealth layoff, the move was effective: the Washington Post reported last July, two months ahead of the move, that of the employees first given the move-or-else ultimatum, 250—about two-thirds—had already refused to go and effectively signed up to be laid off.

The cuts to Federal telework programs seem driven in large part by political and leadership challenges, rather than by workplace challenges, and workers are unhappy with what they see as revocation of a useful benefit. One EPA employee told the WaPo that cutting telework was “a subtle way of getting rid of old-timers.”

If the feds were a business, the WaPo wrote, “the recent federal retreat would hinder the government’s ability to participate in a knowledge-based economy in which collaboration among far-flung employees is now the norm.” Some employees the WaPo profiled were quitting due to the new commutes, now made untenable by cost, distance, duration, or child-care needs. The change in telework policy “could make the government less competitive in recruiting and keeping employees,” the WaPo added. “And with many federal offices redesigned to fit fewer people, it’s unclear if there’s room for them now.”

Administrations come and go, as do C-suite executives and corporate parent firms. But one might well wonder: for those that slash telework to get rid of perceived chaff when things take a downturn, will enough new employees be willing to take a chance and come on board again down the line?

About The Author

Kate Cox
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