Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Self-Isolating Future

How working from home could reshape society

AtAt 8:45 each weekday morning, I drop off my four-year-old at preschool, hug him goodbye, and drive back home. Most days, that is the last time I share a room with another human being until he and my wife return home at 5:15 p.m. Often, it’s the last time I leave the house.

That’s not to say my life is particularly lonely. I have interesting and pleasant interactions with co-workers on Slack, friends and family via text message, and strangers on Twitter. (Okay, not all of them are pleasant.) I conference into meetings using Google Meet and Zoom. And I do it all from a little college town in Delaware, where my wife and I can afford to live in a modest house for less than we used to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in graduate student housing in New York City.

Never going anywhere turns out to be especially convenient in a time of pandemic. While my virtual friends in big cities cower in terror from sneezers on the subway and scrub their hands with the fervor of Macbeth, I roam my house in luxurious freedom, a bottle of hand sanitizer accruing dust in a medicine cabinet. Sometimes I touch my face just for the hell of it.

In the face of a coronavirus outbreak that has so far eluded all attempts at containment, mine is a shut-in lifestyle that millions of people find themselves trying on for the first time. Tech companies are encouraging workers to stay home; schools and colleges are moving their classes online; conferences are being canceled; sporting events are being held in empty stadiums.

It feels, in some ways, like a dress rehearsal for a future that was already on its way — one in which more and more of us self-isolate voluntarily, interacting with the outside world only from behind screens.

Dreary as that might sound, the advantages would be enormous. Think of the effects on commute times, housing prices, gridlock, and greenhouse gas emissions if large swaths of society stopped driving into the office and began working from home. Think of how it would empower people whose disabilities make it hard for them to get around.

It feels, in some ways, like a dress rehearsal for a future that was already on its way.

But that’s a future not everyone can share in. And it’s worth asking before we reshape our society around it in ways that turn out to be irrevocable, whether it’s one we really want.

LLong before COVID-19, people were hailing remote work as the future — not as a public health precaution, but for its convenience. Some research suggests it can actually boost individual productivity in some sectors, as employees skip their commutes and avoid workplace distractions. In 2014, Fast Company wondered whether half the population might be working remotely by 2020.

The trend is real, but the transformation hasn’t been so rapid: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just under 30% of U.S. workers had the ability to work from home at least part of the time in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and about one in four actually did. A 2017 Gallup survey put the number higher, at 43%. Either way, the proportion who work remotely all the time is probably much lower.

The movement was slowed by a mid-decade backlash, headlined by former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s 2013 ban on employees working from home. Aetna, Best Buy, and IBM also moved to curtail the practice in subsequent years. They were acting on research that suggested a remote workforce is bad for collaboration.

In just the past few years, however, that equation has changed. Workplace communication software, such as Slack and Zoom, has moved both the water cooler and the conference room online. Enterprise platforms like Asana and Jira, Salesforce and Netsuite, G Suite and Office 365 look the same whether you’re in the office or in a different country. Corporate VPNs extend the company firewall to remote devices.

My co-workers interact mostly over Slack anyway, even when they’re sitting next to each other.

Those tools, combined with astronomical housing prices in the largest cities, have helped to bring remote work back into vogue. In May 2019, the San Francisco-based online payments company Stripe announced that it would hire 100 new engineers to form a fifth engineering hub — but not put them anywhere. Its new hub, the company explained, would be entirely remote.

These days, on the rare occasions when I visit my company’s headquarters, it strikes me how little conversation I’ve actually been missing. My co-workers interact mostly over Slack anyway, even when they’re sitting next to each other.

NNow, with coronavirus threatening offices and other gathering spaces around the country, telecommuting is about to go mainstream, as part of a broader campaign of social distancing. Workers are already staying home in swaths of China, Japan, Italy, and South Korea. They’re beginning to do the same in major U.S. cities, with smaller cities likely to follow as the virus extends its tentacles across the country.

It isn’t just work, of course. The elderly and ill are being advised to avoid travel and crowds. Colleges are asking students not to return to campus after spring break. California’s Santa Clara County, which includes the core of Silicon Valley, has banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

It’s conceivable that this will be just a blip, and everything will return to normal once the threat has passed. But that seems unlikely. Once employers and employees realize that they can function largely as normal without gathering in an office every day, odds are that both will want to try more of that.

That goes for other types of virtual gatherings, too. In his Stratechery newsletter, analyst Ben Thompson predicted that at least a couple of the big tech companies who are moving their annual spring events online this year — Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft — might never hold them in person again. People who start buying groceries and necessities online, and ordering their meals from Seamless and Doordash, may come to view that as the default.

The reason is this: For people whose jobs and incomes can support it, staying in is just simpler in so many ways. To return to my own example, since it’s the one I know best, I no longer have to live in an expensive city. I not only save upwards of an hour a day by not commuting, but my wife and I can share a cheap, old car, which we don’t even use much because we moved within walking distance of her work. If we need work done on the house, scheduling is a snap because I’m always here.

Telecommuting might emerge as the default for office workers as much by inertia as by active choice.

Even some of the apparent downsides are surmountable, at least in theory. I no longer walk two miles per day as part of my commute, but I can leave the house and go for a jog at any time, without worrying about returning to work sweaty and unkempt. (I mean, I usually don’t, but I could!) I can’t spontaneously grab lunch or coffee with a co-worker, but I can with my wife or a neighbor down the street who also works from home. I’ve started occasionally having “remote coffee” with co-workers who are also at home; we each brew a cup and as we video chat for 20 minutes or so.

IfIf anything, accustomed as we’ve become to a life mediated by screens, some of us may find the transition to voluntary isolation a bit too easy. Just as “Netflix and chill” can supplant going out on dates; just as ordering things on Amazon or Instacart can supplant a trip to Walmart or Safeway; just as FaceTime can become a stand-in for visiting the grandparents; telecommuting might emerge as the default for office workers as much by inertia as by active choice. As the headline on an essay by the Atlantic’s Ian Bogost put it, perhaps a bit presumptuously: “You already live in quarantine.”

White-collar workers can self-isolate only because it’s someone else’s job to deliver all the things they order on demand.

What’s presumptuous in this claim is the word “you.” Bogost’s headline may have been accurate for me, for him, or for the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, who files his op-eds about technology and privacy from his home in Montana. But Warzel was quick to point out (as Bogost acknowledged later in his piece) that the work-from-home lifestyle is in many ways a privileged one, made viable for one segment of the population by the real-world, physical labor of another segment.

White-collar workers can self-isolate only because it’s someone else’s job to deliver all the things they order on demand. They can Zoom and Slack and stream because someone else mined the precious metals in their laptop and laid the fiber-optic cable to their building. The coronavirus is laying bare those divides in stark new ways. My OneZero colleague Sarah Emerson reports that while Amazon is encouraging its employees to work from home to avoid infection, it’s asking its contract delivery drivers to stay home without pay if they’re feeling sick.

While the contract workers of the gig economy are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus — they generally lack sick leave or subsidized health care — they aren’t the only ones left out when we talk about the future of work being remote. The majority of Americans today are employed in sectors such as health care, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing that don’t lend themselves to virtualization (and generally pay less, too).

There are ways to do those jobs that reduce the likelihood of transmitting germs, but there’s no way to do them from your living room couch. And these precautions tend to feel rather dehumanizing. Food delivery companies are offering the option to leave orders at your door, so the deliverer and the recipient never interact. In South Korea, drive-thru coronavirus tests are being administered by health workers in hazmat suits. Schools in China that canceled classes are holding seminars and administering homework via app. Those are not solutions that seem likely to persist once the coronavirus threat has subsided.

What’s specifically at stake, then, may not be the future of work so much as the future of the office building — a place where people employed by the same company spend their days staring at screens in physical proximity to one another. The decline of the office building would in itself mark a major societal shift, one that would reshape business districts and transportation patterns.

But it’s also something more than that. It’s the idea that being out in the world among people, shaking hands and sharing airspace, may no longer be a necessary condition of living, but an inconvenience from which some can choose to opt out.

EEven as we recognize that it’s a blessing to have a job that can be made remote in the face of coronavirus, it’s worth asking: Might it also be, in some way, a curse?

Debates about whether working from home is good or bad for you typically take for granted that it’s an individual choice. For those quarantined with a virus, of course, it isn’t. But even after the quarantines end, the lines between choice, norm, expectation, and necessity are liable to blur.

The more people opt to work remotely, the fewer come to the office, and the less office space companies see a need to maintain. Already many tech companies with open office plans have fewer desks than workers; they rely on some portion staying home each day.

Once coronavirus has forced companies and workers to figure out how to function without an office, office space will start to look more like a luxury on the corporate balance sheet — something that’s nice to have, but which can be cut if needed. When companies realize how much business travel they can do without, they’ll be tempted to slash those budgets as well.

After coronavirus, “We’ll never probably be the same,” Twitter’s head of human resources told BuzzFeed News. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

In the context of a world where office space is the default, Stripe’s decision to hire a 100-person engineering team and make them all remote seems bold, forward-looking. But what about when that becomes the default? When hiring people doesn’t necessarily imply offering them a place to work? When every home has to convert one bedroom to an office, just in case its occupant’s next job doesn’t have one?

There are big advantages to workplaces that are at least partly distributed. Working from home becomes easier the more it’s normalized. Managers can hire the best worker regardless of where they live, which opens the door to more diverse teams and could help to revitalize smaller cities in a time of overwhelming economic concentration.

The downsides are more nebulous, but nonetheless worth considering. And they’re weightier than just the cliched dilemma of whether to do the laundry during work hours. When companies can hire from anywhere, their connections to local communities will fade. For instance, JPMorgan Chase has a regional hub in Wilmington, Delaware, and is a major employer in the area. If you live near Wilmington and have the right skills, you have a very good shot at a career there. But if Chase decided to prioritize remote hires who don’t require office space, suddenly you’d be competing against, potentially, every banking applicant in the world.

That’s great for Chase, perhaps. It seems less great for workers, for whom the job search might become more like the dreaded college search — high-pressure, hyper-competitive, and exhausting. It seems less great still for Wilmington, already a troubled city. Would Chase still sponsor the local exhibition center or the children’s museum? Would it participate in a second-chance hiring program for people with criminal backgrounds?

More people staying home might also widen societal fissures. No longer would many urban office workers rub shoulders with people of different backgrounds on the subway, or on their walk to downtown lunch spots. Would they still vote to fund transportation infrastructure or social services for those who need it? And what happens to all those retail, restaurant, and hospitality jobs when more people order in, skip conferences, and convene online?

Ideally, we would collectively think through these side effects, and make plans to mitigate them, before we plunge headlong into the vaunted “future of work.” But coronavirus threatens to short-circuit that process. The logic of the market suggests that once office space ceases to be a necessity, it won’t be long before it ceases even to be an option. We’ll be that much farther along the path to a reality that is more virtual than tactile — one in which social distancing is not an emergency measure, but a societal condition.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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