Remote Work Shifts Costs From Management Onto Employees
and they celebrate!
I’m on record as fearing a future where nobody ever sees each other - where there are no interactions between strangers. Where the only people we ever interact with are people we consciously choose to interact with. It looks like we’re getting there. We don’t see other people at restaurants because we get food ordered in. We don’t see people at the grocery store because we get our groceries delivered. We don’t see people on public transit because we get around with Uber. We don’t see people in hotels because we stay in Airbnbs. We don’t see people at GameStop because we download all our games. We don’t see people at video stores because they were destroyed by Netflix. Increasingly, we can tour housing for rental or buying without ever actually stepping inside, and services to remove the dealership visit from the car buying process are growing. We have dating apps to reduce the amount of real-world mingling we have to do and online courses to avoid meeting fellow students. Even when we go places physically, we minimize interaction; at the local Starbucks, hardly anyone seems to order at the counter, with almost everyone ordering on their phone, picking up their drink with their head down, then scurrying off. 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. In a decade or two, we’ve created myriad services to reduce our exposure to other human beings, which people apparently will pay a premium for.
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. We need to understand ourselves in a context with strangers, as part of a polis. This is especially true for people with progressive political sympathies; to build support for social safety net programs, voters need to have a sense of the common humanity of people they don’t already know and care about. All of this also says depressing things about the average person’s feelings toward their fellow man. And I really don’t know how single people hook up or fall in love these days in anything like a traditional and organic way. I recognize, though, that I’m really blowing against the wind here; the market has spoken. What I want to underline today is an odd fact about the post-Covid lockdown world: remote work essentially shifts financial burdens that once fell squarely on the shoulders of the employer onto employees, and yet those employees not only don’t complain, they celebrate. That’s odd!
There’s this crisis with office space downtown, right? So many people have been sent off to do remote work that many major metropolises are struggling with a sudden glut of office space that they can’t fill, with attendant spillover effects for restaurants and convenience stores nearby that suddenly don’t have customers. This is a big enough problem that, for example, Matt Yglesias worries for the future of Chicago. There has simultaneously been a deepening of America’s structural housing crisis, as a lot of these remote workers have decided that if they’re going to both live and work at home, they’re going to need more space. (You would think these two problems would help solve each other, and there’s some welcome noise on that front, but pessimism in this area is always a good bet.) What’s striking to me is how few of these remote workers seem to connect one thing to another: if you’re spending an extra $1000 a month on your rent or mortgage because you wanted extra space, space which was once assigned to you at your employer’s place of business, then you’re taking a $12,000 haircut in your total annual compensation. Space, electricity, internet, heat and AC, parking, furniture, office supplies, onsite tech support, ancillary stuff like free coffee - all removed from your total compensation package and the costs put on your shoulders.
Now my impression is that the vast majority of people who have gone remote are happy to take this bargain. But it’s a little weird, right? Think of all of those people who upgraded to bigger houses and apartments as a result of switching to remote work, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars more in housing costs. Imagine if the boss had come to them and said, in generic terms, “there’s an expense that we’ve happily paid for longer than you’ve been employed here, but now we’re going to shift that cost directly onto your shoulders, to the extent that your total effective compensation has taken a major hit.” People would revolt! Instead they often willingly take less salary to get this deal. And all of this is happening in an environment where employees are, supposedly, increasingly more likely to prioritize their own needs over loyalty to their employers.
I don’t know, it’s all just weird to me. Maybe commuting really is that bad. Personally, I don’t miss my old job, but I do sometimes miss going to an office every day, and I definitely miss having a bigger circle of people I interacted with on a daily basis. Or maybe I’m just feeling this way because I’ve been rewatching Mad Men. Either way, I think it would behoove remote workers, even enthusiastic remote workers, to think a little more critically about what they’re giving up, and what they’re now paying for themselves. If nothing else, you might want to try and negotiate to get some of your expenses paid.
I think this is a good example of a post where I'm writing descriptively and should probably have taken more care to make it clear that I wasn't writing normatively
I think this is one of those cases where some costs are offloaded onto me but other ones I no longer have to pay - commuting, and the overall rigid structure of office life. To some extent I think open plan offices made this happen. But I really think for the vast majority of people it's worth the tradeoff...you can structure your time in a way that makes sense instead of one that LOOKS like you're working to your bosses or whoever.
Commuting is that bad, and being in the office is a mixed bag - there's a certain panopticon feeling to modern offices that is really oppressive. I've worked from home for ten years and even when I'm at a client office I find it less productive - however I'm with you on the human connection aspect and make sure I have plenty of time with both old and new people outside of work, and spend a lot of time with my coworkers when I do travel to them. It's absurd that people think there's no tradeoff, and I think people are really getting worse at social interaction.