I read stories celebrating the fact that Covid-19 is finally making businesses recognize the benefits of telecommuting, confident that there will be this great revolution that will see people working from home in the future. To me it seems like it will be a terrible situation which will create greater class divides and income inequality.
I don’t think it takes a great deal of imagination to see how telecommuting will enable companies to more easily classify workers as independent contractors and not provide any health benefits. Because employees won’t be seeing and interacting with each other on a regular basis where they can compare notes about wages, work loads and other expectations, it will make it easier to underpay employees and prevent them from organizing to demand better pay.
Already employees are subsidizing the companies they work for by bearing the cost of electricity and internet connections. I know at least one person who is paying for her own mobile hotspot in order to do her job because the internet speed in her location is not fast enough.
Yes, it may provide greater work opportunities to people living in rural areas and may even improve the economies of some rural places as people move there, but again those places will need to have good technology infrastructure in place to support those workers. And not everyone will have the resources to move to places with a lower cost of living, nor will the potential pay for the work they are qualified to do justify the move.
Which is not to say the current work environment is any more beneficial. I just feel that except for people with higher status jobs, a move to telecommuting is potentially a worse situation unless accompanied by some strong worker protections, especially in regard to health insurance.
But the intent of this blog post isn’t really to get into a debate about socio-political-economic policy as much as it is to provide a context for potentially the biggest drawback of telecommuting — a degradation of creative interaction and teamwork.
Steve Jobs famously designed Pixar’s offices so all the restrooms and mailboxes were in a central location so that people working in disparate departments and projects would engage in casual “what are you working on?” conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have. His hope was that this would drive innovation and result in creative leaps.
Today on the CNN site there was an article titled “Minneapolis theater community uses stagecraft skills to support businesses of color in the aftermath of protests” One of the people interviewed made what is probably a very familiar comment to many of you:
“For anyone who has arts training, they are taught early on how to collaborate with people. And that collaboration comes with the ability to quickly organize and problem-solve,” said University Rebuild organizer Daisuke Kawachi, who pointed out the valuable stagecraft skills volunteers are now applying to their community.
And as with Pixar, physical proximity makes others more aware of resources than they might have normally been:
Kawachi estimated University Rebuild has supported more than 200 businesses. He said the number could be higher, because some requests have come on the spot while volunteers are in the field.
“We’ll go to a business and then their neighbor will say ‘come over.'”
Because we are steeped in the culture, a lot of us take a collaborative team environment for granted. As much as businesses have been saying that creativity is one of the top things they look for in employees, if telecommuting becomes widespread, collaboration and teamwork may become a greater competitive advantage as well.