Editorial: We’ve discovered we can work from home. There’s no turning back
Last spring, the shift to remote work appeared to be one of the few bright spots in a landscape of sorrow and fear. The state was a few months into sheltering in place, and if you weren’t an essential worker or unemployed, you were told to work at home.
Three of California’s thorniest challenges are housing, transportation and the environment. Remote work seems like the magical solution to all of them. With fewer people commuting, there was less traffic and fewer tailpipe emissions. Untethered to an office and a daily commute, employees could move further from their jobs to cheaper homes.
Plus, analyses showed workers were just as productive at home, and the shift allowed caregivers, more often than not women, to keep working and earning during the pandemic when schools and day care providers shut down. Remote work appeared to be a win-win-win.
As time passed and the pandemic dragged on, some of the shine came off remote work. Yes, there was still a glorious freedom in being able to work in pajamas and avoid the hustle of reporting to the office every day. But some surveys have found that workers kept up the pace by putting in more hours on the job, including evenings and weekends. When the line between home and work blurred, people tended to work more rather than less, leading to burnout. Younger, less experienced employees felt disconnected from their virtual colleagues and bosses.
For every news article extolling the benefits of remote work, there was another praising the perks of the office. Not surprisingly, then, employees overwhelmingly say they want a hybrid schedule with some days at home and some days at the office. But what they’re really saying is that they want the flexibility and freedom to choose where they do their jobs. Of course, it makes sense: Every worker is an individual with his or her own needs and work habits. That fact, however, has largely been ignored by the vast majority of employers. Until now.
The pandemic radically infused the white-collar working world with enormous flexibility. Let’s be clear: This is largely an option for a segment of the workforce; employees who perform hands-on jobs or must physically show up for work largely did not have this option. Still, remote work is now a proven concept for many jobs, including many that seemed impossible to shift to telework before. Based on the pandemic experience, it is estimated that 1 in 3 workers could do their jobs entirely from home. A larger portion of the workforce could do some of their job remotely if we, the users of services, are willing to incorporate more virtual medicine, education and other activities into our lives.
The real question is whether employers and society at large will evolve and allow employees to continue to work remotely at least some of the time. Or will the working world snap back to life pre-pandemic and pro-office? Given the history of telecommuting in the U.S., the outlook is not promising without some intervention.
The idea of telework or telecommuting has been around since the early 1970s, when it was first pitched as a way to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and energy consumption. The idea began to gain steam, particularly in Southern California, in the 1990s, when leaders were desperate for solutions to the region’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and sickening smog.
Los Angeles city and county set up pilot projects that allowed public employees to work from home. The region’s transportation and air quality agencies spent $10 million to set up telecommuting centers — the predecessors to today’s co-working spaces — where employees could travel just a few miles to an office setting with high-speed internet connections and fax machines. Regional planners set a goal of having 20% of the workforce telecommuting by 2010.
Well, it didn’t happen by 2010. It didn’t even happen by the beginning of 2020. Remote work remained a niche perk, embraced by some employers, shunned by others. Before 2020, about 8% of workers in Southern California telecommuted on any given day. Then COVID-19 hit. There are no regional numbers, but an MIT survey last spring found that about half the nation’s workforce was working remotely.
The biggest barrier to telecommuting is company culture, explained Jack Nilles, an expert in remote work who coined the term “telecommuting.” Some managers believe employees have to be in the office to be productive. There’s a tendency to focus on the hours employees work, rather than what they produce. And companies often lack creativity and willingness to experiment with remote work arrangements. An employee may need to be in the office part of the time but could easily perform aspects of his or her job at home.
While some bosses may be sold on the benefits of telecommuting now, company executives have short memories. And other bosses still buy in to the idea that the best employees — the hustlers and the “uber-ly engaged,” as two CEOs recently described them — will choose to work in the office. That outdated thinking locks the workforce into rigid commuting and housing patterns. If you have to be in the office for set hours every day, that’s going to affect how you get there and where you choose to live. It also penalizes parents, caregivers and others trying to balance life and work, not to mention the workers who thrive when they are untethered to their office desk.
As long as corporate America remains fickle, the future of remote work will depend on whether employees demand the continued flexibility of telework or vote with their feet if employers refuse to adapt. One recent survey found that 1 in 3 employees would look for a new job if they were required to come to the office full time. That should send a powerful message to employers. But not all workers have that kind of leverage or can afford to quit and find a new job.
There are larger societal benefits to workplace flexibility. It can help keep parents and caregivers, especially women, in the labor force. It can reduce workers’ expenses for things like child care, commuting and office attire. Telecommuting cuts down on traffic and vehicle emissions, which is good for air quality and for fighting climate change. It can decouple opportunity from location, allowing companies to hire from a broader labor pool and employees to live farther from their jobs, in communities that have lower housing costs or are closer to their families.
There are good reasons for government policies to support remote work and to prod employers to do so as well. Employers tend to oppose mandates. Last year, companies in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area railed against a proposal to require that employees from larger companies work remotely three days a week to cut climate-warming emissions from commutes. The proposal was dropped in favor of requiring that more workers arrive at the office by bike, transit or other environmentally sustainable commute.
There are ways to encourage companies to embrace remote work. There are financial incentives, tax breaks and other regulatory perks that can be offered for employers that allow telecommuting. Investments in universal broadband would help too, ensuring workers in all communities can do their jobs without being hindered by unreliable, slow internet connections. In some cases, it’s actually illegal for companies to allow flexible working conditions. Business groups have lobbied for a change in state labor law to allow employees to work four 10-hour days and other flexible schedules without triggering overtime. Two such bills introduced this year by Republican lawmakers didn’t even get a hearing. The Democratic-controlled Legislature should at least allow the idea to be debated.
When COVID-19 hit California, employees and companies scrambled to take work from the office to home and keep the economy rolling to the best of their ability. And it worked. If we want workplaces that are humane, that support caregivers and allow individuals to live their best lives, we must not turn back the clock on remote work.
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