As millions of workers remain under quarantine throughout the world, many are awaiting a return to the offices and workplaces they frequented in pre-pandemic times with a sense of anticipation. It sounds counterintuitive. Who among us prefers the sterile corridors and anodyne decor that typically characterize the modern workspace to the personalized comforts of home, let alone the burdens of commuting and punching the clock to the pleasures of typing from an armchair or taking lunch at our favorite neighborhood coffee shop?
Several months into pandemic-related work-from-home measures, however, these novelties seem to be losing their luster for many workers rapidly growing tired of endless Zoom calls, mourning the collapse of the normal office-home divide, and missing the company of the colleagues with whom they once socialized during the day. According to a study conducted by the global architecture and design firm Gensler, a mere 12 percent of US workers currently prefer the idea of working from home full time.
Among managers and executives, on the other hand, there seems to be a growing consensus around making COVID-related work-from-home measures the new normal, even after the public health pretext has long disappeared. In the tech world, especially, many companies are already looking forward to a post-pandemic future where remote work is the default model and the conventional workspace all but disappears.
With more than half of Facebook’s forty-five thousand employees reportedly wanting to “get back to the office as soon as possible,” and only 20 percent currently enthusiastic about the idea of working from home on a long-term basis, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told the Wall Street Journal he hopes to shift half the company’s employees to remote work over the next ten years. Microsoft’s chief executive Satya Nadella, meanwhile, is hoping to seize on the opportunity presented by the coronavirus to move toward what he ominously calls “remote everything.” “Every organization,” Nadella recently told a company developer conference, “will increasingly need the ability at a moment’s notice to remote everything from manufacturing to sales, to customer support.” Shopify, Canada’s most valuable publicly traded firm, declared last month that both it and its five thousand employees are now “digital by default.”
Even outside the tech world, much the same consensus appears to be emerging. The Bank of Montreal, for example, anticipates that as much as 80 percent of its staff of roughly thirty-six thousand employees will shift to some permanent blend of office and home work once the virus subsides. With the lockdown still only a few weeks old, a survey of company CFOs by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that almost 30 percent were already planning to reduce their business’s physical footprint, with an April study by Gartner suggesting that some three-quarters were planning to shift at least some employees to remote work on a permanent basis.
In white-collar sectors of the economy, in particular, the pandemic appears to be acting as a significant catalyst for a potentially sweeping transformation of the modern workplace, which CEOs and managers alike will inevitably package as both necessary and liberating. “It’s a blended approach of thinking about productivity and flexibility,” Bank of Montreal CEO Darryl White told Bloomberg News last month, calling the new remote model “Work 2.0” and concluding, “It’s about an evolution in the way that we work.”
The market incentives underlying such a shift are perfectly straightforward, though new technology and the normalization of remote work during coronavirus have created an unexpected opening for companies looking for a pretext to cut down on real-estate costs by closing physical locations. As Canada’s Globe and Mail reported this weekend, many businesses are also finding there’s little downside in terms of efficiency or productivity when workers remain cooped up at home:
One fear about shifting to a work-from-home culture is that it would lead to operational chaos: missed meetings, spotty WiFi, games of broken telephone (both figurative and literal). Instead, even companies with tens of thousands of employees are finding that the IT infrastructure is holding up and so are lines of authority. Workers are responding to their emails and joining Zoom calls at approximately the right time. Everyone is always reachable.
According to another study, this one from McKinsey, 60 percent of businesses surveyed reported that “new remote sales models [are] proving as much or more effective than traditional channels.”
With no apparent logistical disadvantage, shifting employees to remote work on a permanent basis will increasingly represent a tantalizing opportunity for corporations in terms of cost, productivity, and, ultimately, profit. Like all of the most insidious features of modern working life, the transformation will inevitably be sold to workers as a perk: bringing with it increased personal freedom and added work-life “flexibility” (at Facebook, for example, it is being turned into a potential reward for good performance and seniority).
But the nascent shift toward an economic model dominated by remote work carries with it an immense risk for ordinary workers themselves — many of them already victims of a culture where technology has enabled employers to corrode the porous line separating work and private life. Thanks to computers and smartphones, our boss or manager is now never more than a click, an email, or a phone call away. The office can therefore follow us around in the car, while shopping for groceries, while riding local transit, or when lying down to rest for the night — work-related messages rarely being more than an arm’s length away. Coupled with neoliberalism’s exhausting emphasis on striving and endless self-improvement, it’s an environment in which many of us already find it difficult to truly switch off.
Though efficient from a business standpoint, the shift toward a permanent economy of remote work can only consolidate and deepen the encroachment of bosses and market forces into our private lives — extending the already intrusive culture of modern work beyond our personal devices and into the intimate physical spaces of our bedrooms and living rooms as well. With much of what was once the public domain already cannibalized amid decades of neoliberal onslaught, such a shift would herald a new and even bleaker phase of capitalism in which the homes of ordinary workers themselves become de facto commodities captured by private actors and used to generate profit.
As Ben Burgis writes, the pandemic has already proven a boon to software companies devising ever more dystopian means to help employers spy on their workers — turning home computers into mini Big Brothers that monitor their habits and activities down to the last keystroke. Employees at companies like Amazon, of course, are already subject to constant surveillance and productivity tracking. Under a new regime of remote work, measures like these could fast become the new norm, with every person’s laptop transformed into a telescreen through which the panoptic gaze of their employer can peer at any time.
With the final traces of human warmth and casual social interaction stripped in the name of market efficiency, relations between employees could also be radically depersonalized. A worker consigned to a cubicle is already more atomized than one who shares space with others on a factory floor: one who never leaves their house or apartment is even less likely to spend time talking to coworkers or sharing a private joke at the expense of a manager — let alone developing the kinds of relationships that allow people to organize and alter the conditions of their work.
The idea of a remote economy also raises more pedestrian but no less pressing questions about who is expected to pay for the technology and infrastructure that makes working from home possible in the first place, and furthermore who exactly is liable once HR is no longer charged with overseeing an office space with a single physical address. As one Canadian trade union leader rightly asks:
Who pays for the computer, the high-speed Wifi and the ergonomic chair? Who sets work hours? Do employees get breaks? What happens if a person working from home falls — will they still collect worker’s compensation?
Absent the kind of strict regulation that tech and business lobbyists are certain to resist, there’s little to stop companies from loading responsibility for office supplies and workplace infrastructure onto ordinary workers themselves, while offloading responsibility to safeguard their health and safety in the process.
With every home an office and every office a home, the residual boundaries between work and private life will be gone for good. Still worse, the whole or even partial demise of the physical office space could become a catalyst for a deeper precarization of work wherein many workers are effectively remote contractors, their homes operating like quasi-franchises over which employers can exercise discretionary control with minimal restriction.
Socialists have long argued that bosses and markets exert far too much power and control over our time, our private lives, and our individual autonomy. Unless we resist the burgeoning shift to remote work, both are about to devour an even bigger share of all three.