Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, debates about the future of work have been a fixture of the zeitgeist. In the early days, we read and wrote about who would be working remotely. By mid-pandemic, we read and wrote about how remote work would...well...work. Today we are all reading and writing about the most important question of all:
How much of this is going to be permanent?
No, this question is not new. It has been a part of the background to the discussion of remote work since the beginning. What IS new is that starting in late March and reaching a fever pitch by early June, we have observed two changes in the narrative structure of how remote work will continue or end as the pandemic fades in the United States.
Trying to figure out who benefits from each side of this narrative is an interesting thought exercise. I’m sure it’ll continue to be politicized to hell and disconnected from all semblance of reality, though.
Yes, in the world of reality it is not very clear to me at all where various interests align on this.
If remote work becomes the norm, what is the role of national boundaries?
Agreed, in terms of ‘sides’ I wonder what the narrative engine data would show about the socio-political narratives of class, redistribution, fairness, and inequality which seem to be deep in so much of the country’s angsty discussions right now. Overbearing corporations trying to maintain culture and build teams in person certainly plug into multiple pieces of that circuitry…
National boundaries delineate sovereign states. The treaty of Westphalia initiated widespread acceptance of non-interference. That and the corresponding obligation of mutual recognition are what make states sovereign. The international dimension of mutual recognition is central to the states acquisition of a monopoly of the means of violence within its territory. How remote work fits into this scheme remains to be seen but there are many readily accepted cases of “outside” interference. Forces in Iraq, Belgrade, Mali, Syria. Sanctions of various kinds to the same effect.
What’s the definition of violence in the virtual world? Does it include a taking of an enemy actor’s hashtags to appropriate their digital currency? What rules govern state actors right to take such actions? Does digital violence have to lead to physical world harm to be considered an act of war?
I don’t know if I inhaled this from somewhere or a combination of somewheres, but I think there is a chance that in-person work will devolve to the ‘unskilled/essential’ realm. Some jobs cannot be done via Zoom and I think there is at least a chance that these will become better paid owing to a ‘danger-pay’ component to cover the costs of commuting, childcare, looking ‘presentable’, and to compensate for more rigid hours.
Let’s assume and likely agree in wide paths that only certain types of work, certain roles, can be done ‘remotely.’ The ‘knowledge worker’ in what’s become old language. The patent attorney? Sure. The trial attorney? Less likely, all Zoom considered. The miner or manufacturer? Eh. The project manager or programmer? The writer? Hmm.
If we’re off on that foot together, let’s also assume that not every knowledge worker, not every patent attorney works the same way, requires the same inputs to be productive. Even ‘fully actualized.’
So, first step lots of folks can’t choose ‘remote work.’ Second step lots of folks are bad at ‘remote work.’ Sure, it’s here to stay but not for everyone. A privileged few and socially independent minority. Is that a good thing for the Pack?
In my exposure to cubelife the corporatist response has been “Buh,buh,buh the culture”, while angling to get butts back in seats without exposing themselves to bad press or outcomes. There may be something to the idea among some that insisting on maintaining your WFH status is an open invitation to have your job contracted.
Must admit that my early guess on a rushing exodus from commercial office space turned out not to be true. Yet.
A good question. I think there are very clear social negatives to the dominance of the here-to-stay narrative winning out.
Violence in the virtual world? You’ll know it when you experience/see it.
Steal hashtags? Yes, its war.
There are less and less rules in both virtual and physical worlds. (…”and when we act, we create our own reality.” Dick Cheney)
Digital violence lead to physical harm? Not necessarily. We are in war/social chaos and I’m physically fine.
If I commute an hour each way to sit at a desk and type all day, that’s a waste. On the other hand there are some things that can’t be done remotely, and even ‘knowledge workers’ still can benefit from the intangible but material effects of in person networking.
I love that society is having this discussion, it’s an opportunity to be intentional about where we spend our time. Personally I’d love if there were dedicated days to come into the office, and those be spent on teaming, planning, workshops, networking, lunch ‘n’ learns, and other training/collaborative work. Then the grindy days can be spent at home, with more flexibility and no commute to take the edge off.
Of course the calculus is different if you have young kids versus if you live alone. And some work can be done at home or over video/voice calls, but it can be hard to measure if the work will be of the same quality versus working next to each other. Those are some of the more gray cases, and those situations are pretty common!
So I certainly don’t have all the answers. I do pray that employees/employers will continue having these discussions and allow for more personalized work arrangements. That, combined with these arrangements being more common and any stigma with how you do your work receding, is the ideal outcome in my mind.
Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum