A recent New York Times article opined that big office tower landlords are really nervous that tenants will never come back, or greatly reduce their rental footprint. Why? Because companies have discovered that many employees can work from home. You betcha.
The comments on this article were starry-eyed positive—yay, great, I love the freedom and flexibility! No boss looking over my shoulder! I can set my own schedule!
Not so fast! I ask my perennial question: when did a company ever decide to do something that was in your best interest, as opposed to theirs?
I think there are a few things missing here, and surprise, they can cost you (not the company).
Cost of space
If the employer isn’t providing space for you to work, guess who is? YOU. You’re not going to be able to work on your dining room table forever, so that means you need to find somewhere relatively quiet to work on a daily basis. That might be a challenge in many big-city apartments. This is a definite disadvantage if you can’t afford more space, have a partner who also works at home, or have kids (even when school reopens) who are home for any portion of the workday.
You might be able to deduct part of the cost on your taxes (see this article) but you’re on the hook upfront.
Cost of utilities
Do you turn the thermostat down at home when you’re at work? Turn off the lights? Flush the toilet? Your heating and air conditioning, water usage, and electricity are all going to go up when you work from home. If you’re lucky enough to have employer-provided food or coffee, that’s on you now. In fairness, you’ll save on commuting costs (and lose any employer provided subsidy for that).
Cost of equipment and tech support
Maybe your employer will provide a computer and cell phone right now, although those types of benefits have a way of disappearing over time. How about a printer? Mine went kaput a few weeks ago and it was nearly impossible to order a new one—all the affordable ones were cleaned out. A modem and maybe better internet service? Have you noticed a huge slowdown when more than one person in your home is on the internet at the same time?
I’ve always been extremely envious of people who, when their laptop starts acting up, just bring it into the IT department and exchange it for a new one. Or can get their IT person to come fix whatever is acting up on the desktop. Guess who does it when you work from home? Hope you’re good at it, because my guess is that’s going to be remote, too.
Work expands to fit the time available
I often tell potential freelancers that indeed they will be freer—but also, free to starve. Many people who work from home find that they are working more hours, not less. Yup, you might start at 10 am, but the time spent chatting with other co-workers (unless you never need a break) is gone, and what’s to prevent you from working all evening? In the stone age, most workers were off the hook when they went off the clock. I know that has changed, but I don’t see it as a positive trend that now your boss knows where to find you, and they’re also thinking your time is flexible, which means to them that you’re available 24/7. After all, now there are no off-hours.
As many newly self-employed people find out, controlling interruptions is a learned skill in itself. Now, your mom knows you’re at home. Every organization that needs volunteers, every classroom that needs assistance, every errand that no one else wants to do—well, you have flexible time now, don’t you?
Finally, big brother will probably find a way to watch you. After all, insurance companies have already promoted lower rates if you’ll let them install software on your car to monitor your driving. I’ve already seen articles on software being developed to allow your boss to monitor your time and productivity at home.
Harder for employees to organize
Divide and conquer. Employers know it will be very hard for employees to come together to unionize, and even if they do it through (the company’s) Zoom meetings, there’s a record of whom and when. One of the most important ways employees find out they’re being screwed is through casual conversation that allows them to find out who is earning what—much harder from home, and harder to establish that your work is comparable to someone else’s. Which makes it harder to ask for a raise or get promoted—out of sight, out of mind.
Good luck on getting Human Resources involved in any issue. Because they’ve never seen you. And they’re working from home, too.
Remember when companies told you that the new 401ks would offer you great tax benefits and allow you to invest however you wanted, rather than that stodgy old pension that guaranteed you lifetime retirement income? How’s that working out? Well, it saved corporations a ton of money, shifted all the risk of investing to you, and in many cases allowed the employer to quietly reduce any match over time, so their costs became even lower. Then, they shifted the costs of administering the plan to you, while increasingly restricting your investment choice since “most employees don’t understand investments anyway”. But of course, you’re to blame if you don’t have enough for retirement. Yeah, that freedom is great.
We’re learning a lot about that right now, aren’t we? Maybe the boss is a pain and your co-workers drive you crazy, but surely you have a few friendships there. You’re all alone at home. There’s no break, and very little real-life human contact. Even worse, people who are in a disruptive or abusive situation now have no outlet, no break to get away from it all to focus on something else. Norms break down (self-employed people always report how difficult it is to get “to work” on time), and the perspective you can get from comparing yourself to others disappears. Plus, it’s just plain lonely.
Easier to get rid of you
It’s hard to see how personal loyalties can hold any sway over management decisions. You’re just a disembodied voice on the line. In fact, one unit ought to be pretty interchangeable with another, so why not just replace you with somebody off-shore who speaks fairly good English?
“Freedom” always costs you something. And it’s pretty clear that some people are going to go willingly to the slaughter, as long as the feedlot is made to seem pretty tasty.