Work from home is fine … for now
More troubling, removing geography as a constraint to employment might level the playing field with overseas workers, leading to a new wave of job outsourcing like that which has affected manufacturing. A corporate culture that can seamlessly manage engineers working remotely could presumably incorporate engineers working in Romania or India. What’s more, the adoption of remote work could be a way to hedge against an intensifying political climate of nationalism and closed borders.
Within organisations there would likely be some employees who are made better off and others who are made worse off. People entering the workforce and starting new jobs have to learn not only new skills but also office decorum, culture and interpersonal norms. A big part of that involves not just formal training but also observing coworkers and seeing how they act and think. Often, the best mentors are more experienced workers with whom you don’t work directly with or for, but who can offer insight and guidance without either person worrying about creating liabilities or conflicts. But it’s precisely those potential mentors – mainly older workers with experience and perhaps less room or desire for professional advancement – who may be the most tempted to work from home. Without their physical presence in the office, who will younger workers learn from, both formally and informally, and how will large, far-flung organisations establish or maintain any consistent kind of culture?
There’s also the question of increased legal liability. As many workplace scandals show, well-paid financial traders and corporate executives put inappropriate comments into emails and text messages all the time, even when they’ve been trained and told not to. How much more prevalent will these types of problems be if many more workers have even more of their workplace communications, which normally might be face-to-face but are now recorded on Slack, Zoom and other collaboration tools in the less-formal home-office setting?
What we do know is that the initial effects of technology-enabled shifts are relatively easy to determine and predict. For example, in the case of Facebook, it started out as a place to see pictures of and keep up with friends and family. With a shift to work-from-home culture, it’s clear that the obvious advantages are increased flexibility and the potential for cost savings. It’s the secondary effects that can take years to tease out. In the case of Facebook, it was a whole host of issues, from data privacy to fake news to manipulative ads. Even if it’s not clear what those negative secondary effects will be from a broad shift to remote work, it’s inevitable that they’ll occur. What we need to do now is do our best to think them through and address the undesirable ones before they emerge.