How to make sure the rise in remote work doesn’t mean the death of work-life balance.
By Charlie Warzel - May 26, 2020 Mr. Warzel is an Opinion writer at large.
If you are one of the privileged 40 percent of workers who can do their jobs remotely, you’ve spent the last few months working from home. Maybe you’re struggling. Or maybe you’ve achieved Diamond Medallion WFH status — which includes but is not limited to sending an email from the toilet using the phrase “let’s circle back.” Whether it’s going well or miserably, you are doing your job from where you live.
But you are not working from home. You are laboring in confinement, under duress.
To be very clear: Work from home troubles are mostly gilded problems — not in the same universe as the exploitation of workers happening in meat-processing plants or the stresses faced by front-line and other essential workers. But workers still struggle. You’re stealing a few minutes to send emails between home schooling sessions. You’re fighting a cold war with your kids. You’re not thriving, you’re surviving.
Which is why I’m anxious about seeing the Facebooks of the world turn their gaze on remote work. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, expects that half his staff will work remotely in the next five to 10 years. On the surface this sounds great. But basing work from home policies on case studies conducted during a pandemic might prove misguided, especially around ideas of “productivity.” The WFH Forever revolution promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office. In practice, it will capitalize on the total collapse of work-life balance.
In an interview with The Verge’s Casey Newton, Mr. Zuckerberg cited surveys suggesting that around 40 percent of employees were interested in working from home. And he was surprised to find that the staff seems to be performing well at home. “A lot of people are actually saying that they’re more productive now,” he said.
Increased productivity — but at what price? Back in April, Bloomberg reported on a U.S. employee survey administered by Eagle Hill Consulting, which found that just a month into the pandemic, “about 45% of workers said they were burned out” after working from home. “America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights,” the Bloomberg article warned. “Whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.” Indeed, those boundaries collapsed for me when I made the transition three years ago from commuting into a Manhattan office to working from home in Montana. My first months in, I spent so much time working from my couch that when I’d sit back down on it at night to unwind, I’d break into a cold sweat, my mind and body unable to understand why I was in my “office” mainlining Netflix. My bosses reaped the benefits, whether they knew it or not. Work on weekends? Why not?! I’m already at the office. No commute didn’t mean a leisurely morning walk or exercise; it meant waking up, grabbing my phone in bed and punching the clock. My productivity was through the roof, but I found myself burning out every few weeks, desperate for a vacation or anything that could help demarcate work from leisure. And that was back in the Before Time, when you could gather in public. A shift to remote work may allow employees to leave the expensive, crowded coastal cities where so many companies have clustered. It may usher in better lives for those with the privilege. But I simply don’t trust corporations to preside over the switch without forcing employees to sacrifice, in the name of productivity, what little work-life balance they have left. Facebook and Twitter employees may fantasize about the chance to move to a smaller city and add flexibility to their lives. For many, it might even happen. But tech companies are also masters of scale and excellent at exploiting inefficiencies. One big opportunity will be salary reductions. Mr. Zuckerberg has already hinted that employees would undergo cost-of-living decreases in pay to work remotely (“If you live in a location where the cost of living is dramatically lower, or the cost of labor is lower, then salaries do tend to be somewhat lower in those places,” Mr. Zuckerberg said last week). But just because pay decreases, doesn’t mean employer expectations will. Large remote staffs could usher in a new wave of employee surveillance tech. And big tech companies that have been offering catered meals and perks to keep employees tethered to the company campus may no longer have to. Perhaps the work-life wall (a mere pretense by now for many companies) can be demolished without apology. 11 p.m. conference call? Deal with it. You’re the one who wanted to live in Oklahoma.
Through trial and error, I learned many lessons about how to work from home without losing my mind: put on real clothes in the morning, try not to do work in the same rooms you sleep or relax in, break up your day, set boundaries. I began to use the privilege of working from home to prioritize balance, not productivity. I often work out or run a few errands in the middle of the day — and use that missed hour or so in the evening to catch up on work that requires more focus when things are quiet. And when work does slow down, I try not to spin my wheels: I go for a walk, I play with my dogs. If something pops up at night, it doesn’t feel as soul-crushing when you haven’t spent the day chained to the computer. Of course, my WFH flexibility is shaped by the fact that I don’t have kids. This makes me a good model of a younger tech industry worker — available almost all the time. For those raising children or caring for older or sick relatives, remote work could allow for a restructuring of a daily schedule that allows for more time with family when they’re around. That said, employers could use that flexibility to pile on work for the traditional off hours — forcing work late into the night after the kids go to bed. Working from home is sustainable only under the right conditions. To truly get it right, working remotely is an adaptation — getting rid of the inefficient and maddening parts of the office — that feels like a little act of protest. Offices are bullies. They force us to orient our days around commutes; commandeer our attention with (sometimes lovely!) unscheduled, drive by meetings; and enforce toxic dynamics like trying to look busy or staying until the boss leaves. All those weird quirks are ported over to the remote work world, but they can be quickly silenced by closing your laptop, even if just for a few moments. When the pandemic loosens its grip on the world, the world will look different. Many knowledge workers may leave the office and their now-desiccated desk plants behind for good. Mass remote work could be an opportunity to begin to right the many wrongs of work overreach and burnout. But not if it resembles the remote office lives we’ve constructed during quarantine. Right now we’re surviving. We can and should demand to aim higher than just “getting by.”