Remote working might sound enticing, but a two-tier system is emerging, in which it is valued less by employers. This division is only set to grow, says Annalee Newitz
HERE in the US, stay-at-home orders evaporated long ago, and many companies are demanding that workers return to the office. Yet we are still being inundated with news about people who are lucky enough to continue working remotely. Books, articles and software packages promise to help us navigate a new era of “hybrid offices”. It sounds enticing. No more commutes and foul office smells! But the future of working from home may be a lot darker than anyone realises.
I am not worried about what is going to happen to remote working over the next year or two. Many white-collar workers and techies have been doing it for years now – I haven’t had a job that requires me to go into the office for nearly 15 years. In the noughties, I communicated with colleagues via group chat apps and email lists; in the teens, we used Campfire and Slack. Now we use Zoom and other video chat systems. The only thing that has changed since the pandemic is that my outlier experience has become the norm for certain groups of workers.
Twitter, Spotify, Reddit, Square and Slack have all announced that they will allow employees to work from home permanently. But for all their talk of boosting productivity and creating a better work-life balance, the move to hybrid work can come with a cost – literally. Facebook and Twitter will pay less for certain work-at-home staff, and Google could slash their salaries by up to 25 per cent.
Along with such pay cuts comes a new generation of home surveillance software, which tracks employees’ online activities, while sometimes using live video feeds to measure how long they sit at their desks. And you can forget about organising a union in a virtual workplace where every private message you send can be read by your boss.
So far, these companies haven’t received much pushback, because most employees think of remote working as a perk. In one survey, nearly half of workers said they would accept a pay cut if they never had to go into the office again. Tayo Bero has pointed out in The Guardian that this isn’t just because people hate to commute: “For Black women, staying at home has meant a reprieve from some of the microaggressions that they would typically face in an in-person work environment.”
Still, we are witnessing the emergence of a two-tiered system, where working from home is valued less by employers. I suspect that the class divisions here will only grow more stark as the years go by, especially when you consider that a great deal of remote working is done by people who are picking up micro-jobs from TaskRabbit, Fiverr and dozens of other sites where you can do 5-minute jobs for pennies.
These gigs can be horrifying: a lot of content moderation is done by home workers who have to evaluate reams of violent videos and hateful comments. Frequently, these micro-tasks take longer than the time allotted. If you spend 10 minutes doing a supposedly 5-minute task, you won’t get paid extra – and your ranking will sink, making it harder to get another micro-job.
How long before Twitter or Spotify start to carve up their cosy work-at-home jobs into micro-tasks for gig workers? And consider what else may soon be expected of home workers. In 20 years, employers may want staff to come with their own computer purpose-built for work, along with a virtual reality rig, 3D printer and perhaps even a drone set-up for delivering prototypes.
But, you might protest, that would never happen to a fancy front-end designer or architect. Their work will always be valuable, even if they get paid less and have to buy more equipment than their in-office colleagues. Will it, though?
There is a persistent bias against work done in the home. Domestic tasks such as cleaning and childcare have been unpaid for centuries. As Rachele Dini at the University of Roehampton, UK, noted recently on the BBC’s Arts & Ideas programme, it has been nearly impossible to gain public support for the idea that homemakers should be compensated for their work. Even when people do it for money, domestic work is consistently undervalued.
This is partly the result of prejudice: women and immigrants tend to do most domestic work. But it is also a function of what cognitive scientists call “distance bias”, in which managers place more value on work done by people in closer proximity to them. Remote workers are out of sight, out of mind. Even if they pop up on Zoom, their work will be consistently devalued as time goes on, just as housework has been.
I am not saying that we should embrace going into an office every day. But we should be wary when companies use our desire to work from home as a trick to get us to accept second-class status.
What I’m reading
“All-Electric” Narratives by Rachele Dini. All about homemakers who paid for expensive appliances to do unpaid labour!
What I’m watching
Abbott Elementary, a charming sitcom about teachers trying to get by at a US school with no funding.
What I’m working on
A story set in the early universe, when stars were just starting to form.
- This column appears monthly. Up next week: Beronda L. Montgomery
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