Enlarge /. Work in an actual office (artist rendering).
The future of work
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It's 2020: We finally live in the future! Or at least a future – one in which broadband internet connections and portable, reasonably powerful computer tools are ubiquitous and accessible, even if they are not yet universal. Millions of workers, including all of us here at Ars, use these tools to do traditional "office work" from non-traditional home offices.
Dozens of millions of jobs at all points in the income and qualification spectrum are of course not suitable for remote work. Doctors, dentists, and countless other healthcare workers around the world must always be in touch with patients, just like teachers in schools, construction workers on construction sites, scientists in laboratories, and waiters in restaurants, judges in court, and hospitality workers in Hotels. Still, much more of the hundreds of different types of work Americans do can be done outside of the company than is currently the case.
Around a quarter of us are already doing at least some remote work. According to the latest federal data available, approximately 24 percent of full-time employees in the United States have done "part or all of their" work at home. Even though some jobs are increasingly spread across the nation and around the world, others are reversing course and doubling on the company campus. When we look at the future of work here at Ars, we ask ourselves: employers and employees alike benefit from getting some people out of Cubeville. What are so many companies and managers afraid of?
A surprisingly old argument
The idea of remote work, as we currently imagine it, goes back about 50 years. The argument about whether employees can work remotely – whether they can actually be trusted – goes back almost as long.
The first documented use of the word "telework" came up in 1974 when The Economist wrote: "Since there is no logical reason why the cost of telecommunications should vary with distance, quite a few people will be teleworking daily in the late 1980s London offices on a Pacific island, if you want. "Similarly, futuristic writer Alvin Toffler (along with his wife Heidi Toffler, uncredited) perfectly described the concept in The Third Wave, published in 1980:
If we suddenly provide technologies that can be used to place an inexpensive "work place" in any house and that may be equipped with an "intelligent" typewriter, possibly together with a fax machine or a computer console and telephone conference devices, there will be opportunities for home work radically extended.
When the idea of telework came up in the 1970s, "pro" and "contra" camps formed, entrenched themselves, and then quickly buried themselves. Until January 1984, Time Magazine had "fans and enemies take a second look" at how "experimental projects" in telework proliferated – at that time still new, but possibly intended to become much less.
In the 1980s, the State of California commissioned a study of the potential costs and benefits of expanding telework among government employees. The final report (PDF), published in 1990, is an extremely familiar tune of the one still sung today.
Distance work "improves the quality of working life for teleworkers, including people with disabilities," the report said. "Teleworking pays off more … there are also social benefits."
The group that produced the report decided that telework "should be encouraged to expand within the state government and that any government agency should be able to use telework both as a means to improve its effectiveness and reduce traffic congestion and Air pollution ". However, the working group also warned that a telework program "needs to be properly implemented and its benefits regularly monitored" in order to be effective.
The California report was one of the earlier efforts to determine whether distance work could be effective or valuable, but not the last. In the 30 years since the results of the state working group were confirmed, dozens of studies have been carried out. Overall, they show that remote work, where feasible, has a clear pattern of benefits for both the workers and the companies that employ them.
"The benefits (of teleworking) are many," Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, told Ars. "From an employer's perspective, this is a good thing in a very tight labor market for several reasons."
The idea may go back to the 1970s, but the potential for large-scale teleworking really increased in the early years of the 21st century. While about 50 percent of adults in the United States had Internet access in 2000, that number had increased to over 75 percent by 2010 and is currently around 90 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Broadband usage in particular increased from practically 2000 in US households to more than 60 percent of US households in 2010. (Currently, an estimated 42.8 million U.S. residents have no broadband access at home.)
Likewise, the computer tools that can be used in all of these broadband home networks have not only become more powerful, but also cheaper and easier to purchase. A mid-range to high-range laptop cost between $ 1,800 and $ 2,000 in 1999, was a problem on a college campus or on public transportation, and was unlikely to have Wi-Fi capabilities. (Certainly not mine.) In 2019, you can certainly pay that much for a high-end laptop, but you can also buy a range of high-quality, ultra-thin, lightweight computers for less than half of it – to say nothing of how connected you are can stay with a smartphone that more than 80 percent of adults in the United States now own.
Enlarge /. Joy tries to head south toward Austin downtown around 4pm in Austin, Texas.
Get away from the street
In the most densely populated and congested US cities, average commuting can easily take an hour or more each way. Ten percent of US workers commute more than 60 minutes each way each day. While public transportation, cycling, or hiking are good options in several of these cities, housing costs and decades of infrastructure and policy decisions mean that more than 75 percent of American workers travel to work alone.
Commuters to California's high-tech hub, the Bay Area, are legendarily bad, which is due to a flood of technicians and support staff facing a severe real estate crisis. Many employees and contract workers of large technology companies like Google cannot find apartments nearby and live ever further away from the company premises that they have to reach every morning.
Drivers have coping mechanisms – see also: podcasts – but nobody really likes to drive to work. No matter where you live, other drivers are absolutely the worst, and if you are part of a traffic jam, nobody really improves Monday. Paying a car pendulum is also not particularly pleasant, as petrol costs increase over time and more and more cities are introducing a (sometimes very high) toll on main roads to reduce or at least compensate for congestion.
Even those of us who live in a few cities with strong, robust transport networks don't always enjoy the experience of using them. A subway shuttle that should take 20 minutes can take all morning if something goes wrong (as it often seems to happen).
By far less stressful, it's easy not to commute at all and regain between 30 and 90 minutes for something more productive at the end of your working day. And the less time you spend on the go, the less likely you are to be among the more than 36,000 people who die in car accidents and accidents every year.
But reducing commuter traffic is perhaps even more a collective good than an individual good, since every single car that is not on the move is at least a small step in order not to worsen the climate crisis. Transportation accounts for approximately 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Passengers in passenger cars may not represent all modes of transportation – the vast network of trucks, ships, and airplanes that are also used for shipping – but they represent enough that it is worth reducing the number of commuters on the road.
Dell Inc. is proud to promote remote work. In 2016, the company published a report (PDF) describing its telework policy as the engine for the company's sustainability efforts. "Dell work-from-home programs reduce approximately 1.15 tons of CO2e per employee per year," the report said, "with most of the decrease due to employee greenhouse gas emissions and a lower percentage due to Dell's greenhouse gas emissions is. " The company currently estimates that its telework programs prevent 35,000 tons of CO2e per year compared to the commuting of the entire workforce.