If a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 pandemic, reconsidering the antiquated societal norms our country has so dearly held on to is surely a contender. Incidentally, one of the most consequential norms to be reconsidered has little to do with the spread of diseases; namely, the nature of the work.
Pre-virus, expressions like, “Do we really need to be here for this?” were ubiquitous in corporate America. Such comments were flanked by a never ending stream of complaints about, among other things, commute time.
At some point during the history of man, the principle that the amount of time spent on a task equals the value of such a task has found itself deeply ingrained into the American work ethic. Such a concept need not be unnecessarily abstract; most of us in college are well acquainted with the feeling of accomplishment that invariably comes after spending five hours “studying,” while spending the majority of the time listening to music, checking our phones, etc. Despite the feeling of satisfaction, those were five hours not particularly well spent.
Pre-virus, the belief in this principle was the bedrock on which corporate America operated. When a new employee joins a firm, their contract stipulates the number of hours per week expected from the employee.
The initial logic behind such a principle seems clear; for much of this country’s history, workers had no option aside from working on-site in order to complete the tasks required of them. However, as time has progressed, the need for employees to work predetermined hours within the physical confines of an office has diminished substantially.
That said, humans tend to be a complacent bunch, so despite such an antiquated system being rendered unnecessary in many of today’s industries, nobody wants to be the one to take the first step in dismantling such a system.
As fate would have it, the first leap towards the dismantlement of such a system has come not in the form of a workers’ revolution, but rather a virus, whose containment necessitates large swaths of the corporate world complete their work remotely.
I welcome this change.
The benefits associated with permanent, mass transition from on-site employment to remote work would likely be sizable. Such a system would allow employees to complete tasks on their own time, removed from a cubicle surrounded by a sea of office politics.
Moreover, the benefits of such a system would not be asymmetric; many employers would see a decrease in operating expenses by no longer having a need to rent such large office spaces, among other things. Aside from the benefits seen by employees and employers alike, such a system would also reduce car usage, thereby reducing the ecological damage caused by daily commutes.
Naysayers argue that the move towards workplaces more dependent on work being completed remotely would ultimately be detrimental to employees. In order to argue this, many point to the widespread, albeit anecdotal, decline in overall quality of life amongst employees forced to work remotely during quarantine. This argument has merit; I’ve talked with friends under said circumstances who have grown disillusioned with working from home. However, under closer examination, aside from the same angst quarantine has caused the population at large, their disillusionment largely boils down to problems with technology and missing friends from work.
If working remotely were a norm, the infrastructure available to employees and social dynamics within an office would look very different, though.
The technology that makes video collaboration possible surely has its shortcomings, but in a time of exponential technological growth, the creation of video collaboration software that better simulates the real thing is more likely a matter of when, not if.
There is also something to be said with respect to the argument of friends being made at work. Many of us have met some of our closest friends via the workplace, however I view this as largely coincidental. In other words, the friendships formed at work and not elsewhere is due to the majority of one’s day physically being spent in the workplace.
Moreover, the fact that the industry in which one works is rarely the subject of conversation amongst these friendships further indicates that there is nothing special about a physical workplace that creates friendships.
That said, I cannot predict the future and therefore won’t pretend to have any insight as to the future of friendship making, but humans are a social bunch; I am quite certain friendships will be made elsewhere.
The transition to a more remote workplace won’t happen overnight, nor will it apply to every industry equally. However, the presence of these challenges ought not to necessitate a regress to the antiquated 40-hour, in-person work week; it looks as if we’ve turned a corner, so let’s not go back.
Steven is a senior studying political science. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will impact modern day workplaces? Send all comments to email@example.com.