Remote work is the best thing to happen to families in decades
Yet commentators and politicians keep missing it
One of my more strident “controversial” opinions, and one you might not expect, is that I think the rise of remote work is an unalloyed good. In a world of Covid, rampant social media mobs, rising ideologies, increasing risk of nuclear war, AI threatening some sort of hockey-stick growth curve, and so on, the rise of working from home is a rare bright spot. In fact, in my ideal fantasy world, everyone would use video calls and high-tech virtual reality to work, and then, like, live on farms or beside lakes. We’d all commute only via horses and, ah, electric bikes. Etc. I may, self-admittedly, be an extreme case in that my preferred aesthetic could be described as “high-tech pastoral,” but I’m definitely not alone in thinking that remote work is good.
The numbers are interesting. First, support for remote work, at least during Covid, leans democratic (68% “strongly approve” vs 41% of republicans). And the "disapprove” numbers are even more stark (11% of republicans disapprove of working from home, and only 5% of democrats do). This may not seem like a big deal in terms of a difference, but it shows up in policies outside of Covid, e.g., like how the GOP has been, at times, openly hostile to remote work. In fact, this year House Republicans will likely introduce a bill that tries to curb remote work at the federal level as much as possible. I understand why they’re doing it—GOP leaders think the federal government is pretty wasteful and want to curb that, and, like many of remote work’s opponents, seem to believe remote work is less efficient.
But is it? This is the sort of thing which is incredibly hard to actually study. In the surveyed opinions of bosses, remote workers are less efficient. But the academic literature, in the rare cases where you can do things like randomize who works in-office vs. remote at a call center, shows a conflicted case.
Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and their attrition rate halved, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell.
Regardless, if the effect were huge either way, I’d expect it to be a lot more obvious. Instead, where you end up on this question is essentially a Rorschach test for how you view work in general. Just speaking about the poles of opinions, there are essentially two views.
In the first view, the majority of time in the office is spent productively working, and home is naturally distracting. This is because human beings need structure, and without structure plus the social impetuses of work, they get very little done.
In the second view, perhaps best expressed by David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, most jobs are like somewhere between 20% to 80% bullshit. Perhaps the clearest expression of this second view involves the recent controversy over tech workers posting “day in the life” TikToks, the viral ones of which have a tendency to look a little more like, well, adult day care, than actual work. A lot of people on Twitter are connecting these sort of videos to the current tech layoffs:
Whatever you think of the reality, such videos feed into the Graeber-esque view. If you’re looking at this from the outside, it can indeed look like if someone happens to be elite enough (have gone to the right colleges, etc), society sort of supports them automatically, and it is inevitable they’ll be whisked away into the womb of some Big Tech company and given a cushy salary while mostly eating free fruit cups and drinking free coffees and, when not in a litany of meetings, they’ll occasionally make a PowerPoint.
Of course, some people’s concerns with remote work have nothing to do with efficiency, nor the nature of work itself, good or bad, adult day-care or well-deserved, but rather a more general concern over social cohesion; that if the 2000s were about “bowling alone” then the 2020s are about “working alone.” Here’s Freddie deBoer in a recent essay expressing this concern over remote work:
I’m on record as fearing a future where nobody ever sees each other - where there are no interactions between strangers. . . Even when we go places physically, we minimize interaction. . . And, of course, there’s remote work, where you only see some of your colleagues over Zoom, and many of your coworkers never at all. . . Now, I think this is all concerning: democracy requires that we think of other people than ourselves, including and especially people who we would never consciously choose to spend time with. . .
I understand the concern, but I think precisely the opposite: remote work is actually really good for social cohesion. Why? Because, despite the heavily politicized and fractious debate over working from home that both sides participate in, for the most part the actual main benefit of working from home is weirdly under-discussed by both its supporters and critics.
So I’ll say it: the primary benefit for remote work for a lot people, if not most of them eventually, is that it makes balancing career with family much easier. Like my sister, who works a high-powered job at Lego from an office in her house with her three kids a couple days a week, and commutes the other times. Does she work during the day when she’s home? Obviously. But if you have kids, you know that one of the biggest issues is just the lack of flexibility and adaptability. Sometimes you just need 15 minutes. Sometimes you need to make lunch. Sometimes you need to switch the laundry. Sometimes you just want to spend a couple minutes saying hi and playing. Sometimes you need to spend ten minutes settling a toddler down for a nap and then you’ll have the next three hours free, but this could happen at 11:15 or 11:30 and you don’t know which. Sometimes you want to be there when they get back from school, just to ensure they settle in doing something productive or interesting, and a full-time office job plus a commute makes such little conveniences and acts of organization impossible.
Since this is the internet, I’ll now say the very obvious thing: there are many amazing families wherein no parent works remotely and both have full-time jobs. My point is merely that remote work, ceteris paribus, often makes it easier to balance the differing demands of having a family and a career. And that a lot of people, often especially moms, clear-headedly pursue remote work specifically for that reason. And having had many people tell me this was their reason, I find it hard to believe that making it easier to have a family is contributing to the atomization of society.
Despite being an obvious and primary benefit, there has been little discussion about the positive aspect of remote work for families on either side of the political aisle. This is strange to me, since families are normally used as a political football in America, and yet the importance of remote work for families has been passed over and debates about efficiency, elite surplus, and housing have been substituted in. In comparison, when considering remote work’s effect on families it can be justified by the key pillars and frameworks of both political parties. Republicans concerned about absentee parents and the degree of childrearing by the state? Support remote work. Democrats concerned about the opposing demands placed on women to be both high-income workers and picture-perfect Instagram moms? Support remote work. It seems a rare case of an obvious societal win to me.
(Disclosure: This was written at home.)
To be fair I should note that social isolation is not Freddie’s only concern, and that he also worries that remote workers are bearing an extra cost of having to, e.g., buy a more expensive house or rent a more expensive apartment just to have a home office, and this is a form of externalization wherein employees are forced to eat costs that should be covered by their companies. This, again, seems like a reasonable concern. But I think in practice this effect goes the other way. Since cost of living differs so much across the US, it is actually far cheaper to own an entire house out on, say, Cape Cod, than it is to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. A benefit in total cost much greater than, I imagine, the increase in price necessary to get a bit more space, like an extra bedroom for a home office. This could very well be true even factoring in the pay differential for remote vs. office (which people are happy to accept). However, I would agree that remote working is bad for cities, as long as by “bad” we mean “are now less attractive to live in.” But if the city gets enervated, suburbia and rural spaces are revivified, and vice versa, so it’s a wash in that regard.
Fully agree. If I may, I'd like to share a bit about my own situation, and why the whole remote-work discussion feels very bittersweet to me.
I'm a weld inspector. I work for a company that produces structural steel for bridges and skyscrapers. I'm very happy with my current position, and I've been promised my boss' job when he retires in a few years, so I feel like I'm all set career-wise. The problem is that, as my kids get older, I feel an increasing need to spend more time with them. Sometimes it feels like leaving for work in the morning is a parenting choice. And I know for certain that I will NEVER be able to do my job remotely.
Part of this might be a modernity / corporatization issue. If I had been alive two hundred years ago, I would have been a master blacksmith, supervising a few apprentices, and probably working out of a shop on the ground floor of my house. I would have been completely free to, as you say, change the laundry or put a toddler to bed; I could even just close the shop for the day and goof off with the family if I wanted to.
My point is, there are some jobs—vital, necessary jobs—that I can’t ever see transitioning to remote. And I’m saddened by that, because although your observations are quite correct, they are unfortunately not applicable to a good number of families who would love to have the opportunity to spend more time together.
Working remotely has probably saved my mental health to be brutally honest with you.
Looking back I was slave to commuting five days a week and returning so late that I probably wouldn’t see my kids each night.
Now, I get to see them in the morning and take them to school some days. I see them when they get home and ask them how their day has been. We then have dinner together. I’m less tired and less grumpy (usually) and have energy to play with them.
So yeah, absolutely life changing and my work has similarly benefited from having a better work life balance.