The Debate on Remote Work After the Pandemic

Stop thinking any particular way of doing things is forever

Let's talk about something real in vogue in the working world right now, the in-office vs. remote work discussion. 

The pandemic changed many things held as sacred truths. The abrupt suspension of the 40-hour work week promised to be complete chaos, but despite some investor quivers, nothing cataclysmic happened due to reduced work hours. Restaurants that bemoaned the vanishing crowds soon made up for it on the back end through delivery fees and ghost kitchens. Profit margins soared despite the growing pains required to adapt to increased shipping demands. Though shaky, we've primarily acclimated to another way of doing things that involves a much more mobile workforce. 

Remote working didn't break anything. It created niche services that bolstered a richer and more convenient home life. It began to resolve the inequality in work-life balance that has been a pain in the ass since the industrial revolution. Home prices shot up in some small part because people had to look around at their walls more often and started to care about the view. For the first time (ever?), Americans were spending more time at home than at work. And they liked it. 

The recent push to return to the office has reignited the debate over remote working, spawning a whole load of articles pegged out for clicks, and fuck me, I just made another one. Still, it shows many are questioning the wisdom of staying in a stuffy building you have to rent instead of doing the same thing on a computer from home if you have the option and it's feasible. 

Pro-Office doesn't necessarily mean Pro-ductive

One of the stronger pro-office arguments says that office spaces are more productive and promote a better working environment, but a recent study indicates the opposite. The analysis, performed by 4 Day Week Global, jumpstarted 61 companies in the UK with techniques designed to help with the transition to the shorter week. The results were overwhelmingly in favor; 92% of companies that tried it said they would continue with the change. Although the results of the North American studies and other locations are still forthcoming, such a high success rate predicts that similar results are likely in other areas. 

Unsurprisingly, happier, less stressed employees are more productive and have lower turnover. As a result, they need less time to make the same amount of product as a workforce working an entire 40-hour week. I'm not buying that hanging around in an office enriches the quality of the work done. It's a vast generalization and largely depends on what is being done, although I can see the POV that if you're a manager, it makes you nervous as hell because you start to look real expendable. In-person collaboration is great, but forty fucking hours, y'all? If you work more out of necessity or because you're a little pain pig that likes it, the point still stands - you ain't gotta interface with other people that often unless your job specifically requires it. To do otherwise is a waste of gas. 

Speaking of productive, where's my money

For a variety of jobs, there's less of a reason to make a commute now, and the hours used to make it are coming out of the already shrinking portion of workers' free time conceptualized in Robert Owen's "Eight hours' labor, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest" slogan from over a century ago. A century! Haven't we all deserved to carve away a little more time to privately enjoy since then? Not rhetorical, the answer is yes: look at this chart on the Productivity-wage gap in America over the last 40-odd years. 

productivity-wage gap chart showing the flattening of wages starting in 1980
I like the part where I was born when hope died.

This is a direct result of policy decisions over the last half-century, which have diverted worker wages elsewhere. If you want a history on that, read up on the source of the chart I've left in the footnotes; it's part of a much larger conversation, the summary of which is that since the early 80s, managerial workers like CEOs and other corporate executives have wrung the absolute shit out of wages and left scraps for everyone else. 

Shortly after these regressive policies were penned, the personal computer revolutionized the workplace, streamlining workflows and eliminating redundant jobs. Despite the additional influx of funds these changes brought into the payroll department, none found its way to even out the wage gap. Able to do more with less, companies could get the same profit with even fewer worked hours. Even so, labor hours increased. Work emails started showing up at dinner time. Lines blurred. 

Depending on which side of the fence you fall on, reimagining this is either arousing you or pissing you off, so I'll arrive at the point. We're about to undergo a similar productivity shift with the recent introduction of GPT use into the mainstream. Tools like these are still in their early stages, much like the first computers were. Though GPT may appear to be a singular interruption event, this could indicate a much more significant shift could be coming in how people work. With numerous white-collar positions, having an ass in a seat will become much less necessary. Rest assured, Boston Dynamics will soon be coming for the blue-collar workers, too. Those robots aren't doing flips for nothing. We're coming towards another opportunity to settle the disparity in the productivity-wage gap, if not with the money owed, then with an equal measure of time. 

Work Culture is a contradiction in terms

So far, the pendulum still swings. Instead of the acquiescence of decades past, many workers are continuing to work from home, finding footing in the freelance economy. The threat of outsourcing loses its sting when a worker can just as easily merge into that same outsourcing environment and compete based on talent. 

I'm not sure how the dust will settle, but I'll end with a general note on work culture that I hope will drive my opinion on the issue home if the rest of this post hasn't. Work does not produce culture. 'Work Culture,' as a term, is a weasel word used to draw your attention away from the fact that interoffice politics is the primary product of an office environment, not what you would consider the products of culture like, say, music or art. Work is the antithesis of culture by this definition; we're working to give ourselves the time to produce these other fruits that come from being human. Experiences from the small, meager hours at home or abound with loved ones, far from the confines of an office park. If we give ourselves time to nuture a culture based around our own families, I am confident we will have more productive and positive working lives.




Sources used: 

Full report of the UK study: 

The Productivity–Pay Gap from the Economic Policy Institute